Lessons of the Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandal

I’m sure that everyone is by now aware of the sex abuse scandal plaguing the Catholic church. What was once talked about in hushed tones, if at all, is now openly and hotly debated in the media and the pews.

The image and reputation of the Vatican and the Catholic church lies in tatters as evidence has come to light that there was a systematic and methodical process in place to protect the Church and priests instead of protecting the innocent and helpless victims of the heinous crimes being perpetrated.

Many are even pointing out that Ratzinger’s nomination was motivated by the legal trial in the US. Of course, now in his position as the Pope, he claimed immunity from appearing as a witness.

The effect of this has been nothing short of devastating for the Church, especially in the Pope’s home country of Germany.

As Hitchens points out, the Vatican’s claim of statehood hangs on the flimsiest thread, having been originally created out of thin air by the Italian fascist dictator Mussolini to cement his ties with the Catholic church and gain its support.

Hitchens, by the way, participated in a spirited debate as part of the Intelligence Squared forum on the question of whether the Catholic church is a force for good:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

While Hitchens is up to his usual standard of eloquence, I found Fry’s articulate arguments to be completely devastating. And they clearly had the intended effect as the vast majority of the undecided switched to his side as did a great many of those that had initially agreed that the Catholic Church is a force for good.

For those with a pitch black sense of humor, here is Louis CK learning about the Catholic church – WARNING! Video contains harsh language and suggestive imagery. But the solitary tear running down CK’s cheek makes it worthwhile.

Baha’i Catholic blog is surprisingly quiet but then again, there hasn’t been an update since late last year.

What we have here is an institution that has lost its way and rather than existing to serve a higher purpose, it merely exists to prolong its own existence and further its own pomp and grandeur.

This is a danger that can befall any organization. Those which purport to be divinely guide and free from error are especially susceptible because those within the institution believe that theirs is a heavenly task which must be protected at all costs and those outside often dare not question or criticize it.

It is all too easy to overlook the fact that the Church has been protected by the law. For many decades when victims went to the police and to the public prosecutor, no action was taken simply because the perpetrator was the Church and it was considered sacrosanct.

The Baha’i Faith has its own, albeit small, share of these sort of public scandals. In the 1990’s Dr. Hossain Danesh, a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada (and a long time secretary of the body – from 1985 to 1989) lost the right to practice psychiatry as a result of charges of sexual abuse brought forward by a handful of his former patients.

Far from being sanctioned and sent away in shameful seclusion he was soon given a plum job at the new Baha’i Landegg university in Switzerland. He then proceeded to run that institution into the ground. The university closed its doors in 2005.

Recently Danesh’s “old boy” network connections at the NSA got him a heavily promoted gig in Canada. With the full backing of the national Baha’i institution, he conducted a $50/person seminar on “Healthy Marriage and Family Life”. Here is a promotional flyer for one of the many planned seminars:

They key element in this is to ask whether Danesh would be able to slink back to Canada and receive such a warm welcome had he not been a long-standing member of the NSA. Would the NSA have gone out of its way to promote the workshop of a regular Baha’i who had a checkered past?

The other question is why other Baha’is who are infinitely more qualified in this field and have a stainless reputation are not being given the same platform? The only distinction is the personal connections that Danesh made through his many years of membership on the NSA. This is what leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Rather than being loyal to virtues and principles, the NSA has betrayed itself as being loyal to personal connections.

There was another scandal a few years ago involving a young Baha’i in the developing world who alleged that she was being sexually abused by her father. It turned out that her father was a member of the country’s NSA (and its chairperson). Instead of considering her physical and mental health as the highest priority, the institutions instead focused on how to mitigate any fallout this might have on the Baha’i administration and the image and reputation of the same.

Obviously we cannot expect such institutions to police themselves. There is no reason whatsoever why similar allegations which involve the Catholic church or the Baha’i administration must be submitted to them for internal deliberation. Refreshingly enough, from what I’ve read of guidance from Baha’i institutions, they are in agreement with this and encourage victims to approach the proper authorities and seek legal recourse through appropriate channels. The best panacea for such tragic crimes remains transparency and public scrutiny.

On the Persecution of Iranian Baha’is

A few months ago the Baha’is of Washington DC organized an event in support of the Baha’is of Iran. The evening featured Ms. Shohreh Aghdashloo, Dr. Azar Nafisi, Dr. Dwight Bashir, Layli Miller-Muro, as well as theatrical and musical performances.

Here is a short video of the Emmy award winning and Oscar Nominated actress, Shohreh Aghdashloo, speaking via video from Los Angeles to the gathering in DC:

Ms. Aghdashloo is featured in the upcoming film, Mona’s Dream, about the life and martyrdom of Mona Mahmudnizhad. She will be playing the role of Mona’s mother. The film is set to (hopefully) go into production this year.

Here is a quick recap of the evening:

More recently, the Universal House of Justice released a short statement asking Baha’i communities around the world to observe a special day of prayer on May 14th in honor of the unjustly persecuted Iranian Baha’is:

It grieves our hearts to contemplate the passing of yet another year in which the seven former members of the Yaran remain imprisoned on baseless charges for which the authorities have no evidence whatsoever. The approach of the second anniversary of their incarceration calls to mind the multifarious forms of oppression being visited upon the members of the Baha’i community in Iran of all ages and walks of life, including interrogations, summary arrests and imprisonment, deprivation of the means to a livelihood, wanton destruction of property, and the denial of education to Baha’i students. The heroic steadfastness of the friends in Iran in the face of such relentless persecution inspires their fellow believers around the globe to redouble their efforts to serve humanity and contribute to its material and spiritual progress. It has also led to the gradual, but undeniable, awakening of the conscience of fair- minded Iranians, who have been moved to express their concern at the violation of the human rights of their Baha’i compatriots.

We call upon the Baha’is of the world to organize special meetings of prayer around 14 May for the indomitable followers of Baha’u’llah in Iran, indeed, for all the people in that blessed land who are similarly subject to oppression, that the Hand of Divine Providence may grant them relief from their long ordeal. To this end we too offer our fervent supplications at the Sacred Threshold.

NSA Elections in North America – 2010

The recent NSA elections in North America was in keeping with the well-known bias towards incumbency. All previous members were re-elected to their positions with no new members entering either NSA.

Jacqueline Left Hand Bull, Chair (standing at the podium), David F. Young (Vice-Chair), Juana C. Conrad (Deputy Secretary-General), Kenneth E. Bowers (Secretary-General), Erica Toussaint, Muin Afnani, Valerie Dana (Deputy Secretary-General), Robert C. Henderson, William L.H. Roberts (Treasurer).

Last year two members of the US NSA retired, allowing for two new members to enter the institution. I’m looking for historical data for the US NSA to verify how far this trend has been in effect but today it seems that the only way for a new member to enter the NSA is for an existing member to retire. Otherwise, forget about a chance to vote in any one new. This bias towards incumbency is not difficult to explain since it is baked into the very process of Baha’i elections and is not characteristic of just the US community.

You can clearly see this pattern in Canada as well. This year, the members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada are: Deloria Bighorn, Judy Filson, Karen McKye (Secretary), Gordon Naylor, Borna Noureddin, Enayat Rawhani (Treasurer), Todd Smith ( Vice-Chair), Susanne Tamas and ?‰lizabeth Wright (Chair).

All 9 members were re-elected. In fact, the average consecutive years in office for the current Canadian NSA is 9 years. Think about that. This means that a member has been in office for an average of 9 years! Of course, since we had two retirements recently, there are also members who have only been on the institution for a short time. The relatively new member, Wright, is this year’s chairperson.

But there are also those who have been serving for much longer than the average. For example, Judy Filson and Enayat Rawhani tie for the longest duration of concurrent membership at 15 years.

There are many reasons why having zero or minimal change in membership is detrimental to the functioning of the institution and therefore the community at large. I’ll just briefly touch on a few negative consequences.

When you have the same people year after year elected to the NSA everyone gets to know everyone else very well. Being merely human, what happens is that cliques are formed and made more and more rigid after each year. Everyone’s views on different issues becomes well known to the point that even before you consult, you know exactly who will take what position and who will support whom.

As well, when the same people work with each other for a long time a natural air of casualness and collegiality develops. This informality removes the barrier that is there in a formal relationship where individuals are merely acquaintances. The consequence is that people are more and more likely to take things personally and for challenging issues to deteriorate into personality conflicts.

Finally, as a consequence of having zero or very few new members, the institution forgoes the benefit of a fresh new perspective and new mindsets. Since almost most, if not all, incumbents are re-elected, membership changes at a glacial pace. That is we have one, or at the most, two new members who join the majority who are incumbents. This majority as a consequence of multiple years of consecutive membership are already seeped in the culture that I outlined above. Quickly the new member(s) fall in line and join a clique and adopt the same paradigm as that held by the majority.

This means that it is basically impossible to change the direction, tenor and culture of the institution as it becomes more and more hardened. Actually this reminds me of the fable of the 5 monkeys:

You begin with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hangs a banana on a string and a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, an automatic spray will soak all of the other monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result, and all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon the monkeys will try to prevent any of them from approaching the banana.

Next, unbeknownst to the monkeys, the valve to the cold water is shut off. And then, one monkey is taken out of the cage and replaced with a new one. The new monkey of course sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be beaten.

Next, another of the original five monkeys is removed and replace with a new one monkey. The newcomer goes to the stair and is attacked. The previous newcomer even takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, a third monkey is replaced, then a fourth, then finally the fifth and last.

Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of their peer. After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana.

And that is how organizational cultures are born.

On the off chance that an NSA does actually break out and try something new, they are quickly swatted down from a higher institution which has itself also fallen prey to the very same organizational illness. The clearest and most recent example is the fiasco surrounding the 2007 annual report from the US NSA.