Institutional crimes


These two headlines led the front page of last Saturday’s New York Times. Readers had followed the two stories for years, repulsed but fascinated by stories of vulgar crimes by trusted representatives of respected institutions — the Catholic Church and Penn State University. Both institutions failed their constituents to protect the institutions from embarrassments.

The ugly truth both cases prove is that too often, institutions exist to protect themselves, not their clients. Whether it is a hospital that shelters malpractice by a negligent doctor, a prison that protects a correctional officer’s misbehavior, a school that hides a teacher’s indiscretion or a military organization that suppresses misconduct by its members, the consumers of that institution are forgotten — the patients, the prisoners, the students, the soldiers.

There will always be people who do wrong and bad things. We punish them and hold them accountable — or the social contract cannot work. But we expect our public institutions to be responsible to find, disclose and end misconduct by their administrators. If they don’t, why have the institutions, which are created and supported in order to do that which — in cases like Cardinal Lyn or Coach Sandusky — their administrators fail to do? It is a perverse cycle of rationalization to say that we protect our institutions so they can do their public business — when they are shown to be failing to do that.

But time and again institutions hide the misconduct of their administrators and justify that by arguing that it is more important to protect the agency than its agents. There is no agency but for its agents, and there is no rationale for agencies other than what their agents do or fail to do. Yet whistleblowers are usually scorned, miscreants are sheltered, and as a result misconduct is multiplied. When a Lyn or a Sandusky is caught — after the failures of the institutions that sheltered and enabled them — the institutions also should be punished. It is the cover-up that escalates an individual act of misconduct into a public outrage.

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