Yesterday Fr James Martin had an anguished piece at America magazine asking how the McCarrick affair could have happened. Why was it covered up? Why wasn’t it reported?

He gives some good answers: the young (men) were ashamed of what happened. They did report it but were ignored. They were afraid their careers would be ended. They were gay, and in the priesthood all of that is covered up.

No doubt Fr Martin’s explanations are part of the analysis, but I think there is a deeper problem in the way the church works which is even more profound and even more rarely discussed.

To explain what I mean I’d like to relate the situation in an Evangelical Protestant college of which I have had some experience. The faculty and staff members of this college were given very low salaries. However, everything was provided for them. They had a house on campus. They and their family had all food provided in the dining hall. There was a hospital on campus for health care. They were promised retirement care to the end of life. Their low salary was simply pocket money. They didn’t need anything else. Besides they were told, they were “serving the Lord”. They were missionaries living by faith.

For many people this sounds idyllic. The academic world is very competitive and if you were in the fine arts or academia such an arrangement would seem like meal ticket for life.

However, the price you paid was that you were expected to be completely loyal to the college. Furthermore, if you started to feel uncomfortable or wanted out you realized that through their provision of everything you had actually become dependent. The low salary meant you had no savings. Your academic degree from the institution turned out to be worthless on the outside world because the college was proudly non accredited.

If you reached middle age and wanted to move on you suddenly realized you had put all your eggs in one basket. Your low salary meant you had not savings. Because you were depending on the college for your retirement provision there had never been payment into an independent pension plan. Besides, now you were in middle age and it was getting too late to re train for a new career and you had been in the sheltered world of that little college campus. So how were you going to make it outside?

What I am describing might be called the indentured servitude of religious sects. It happens because the initial offer seems so attractive, but when it goes sour it goes very sour.

It is very difficult for me to say this, but the Catholic religious orders and the Catholic priesthood very often operate with this same dynamic. A military style of leadership is there from the earliest formation: if you are a priest or religious the deal is the same as that Protestant college – You give us everything. We look after you.

On the surface it sounds great.

But there is a profound, underlying problem. It breeds dependency and that dependency nurtures immaturity and stunted growth as a person. The individual working within this dynamic is terrified of rocking the boat. They will not speak up and blow the whistle. They have seen what happens to those who do. They are scapegoated, persecuted and excluded.

In the college I am referring to, if you rocked the boat you were branded as “rebellious” or “a trouble maker”. The same thing happens among the Catholic clergy.

When the culture of dependency develops among the troops it then feeds itself. The dependent troops increasingly become worker bees–drones–cogs in the great machine. Their creativity is stunted, their vision is blinkered, their ideas of suppressed because the machine does not want imagination, creativity, initiative or independence.  The machine wants dependability, hard work and above all–loyalty…because the only thing worse than the enemy on the outside of the little fortress is the enemy within.

Then who emerges as the leaders? Not people with drive, imagination, vision and creativity, but individuals who are groomed for leadership from among those who are already the insiders. The leaders who are abusive, domineering and manipulative choose other men who are abusive, domineering and manipulative and no wonder they watch each others’ backs, circle the wagons and keep control. That’s how they’re wired.

Furthermore, in religious groups those people in leadership almost always are accountable to no one. They appoint their Board of Directors. They appoint their employees, and there is no system of check and balances.

Bishops and other church leaders? To whom are they accountable? No one, and they operate within a closed, self supporting circle. No wonder they cover up for each other.

While observing all this I should add that I do not believe most of the abuse and the dysfunctional dynamic is intentional. The powerful men don’t see themselves as abusers. They see themselves as protectors and providers and the total loyalty they demand is only the just response from those in their employ.

So why did so many people keep mum about Uncle Ted? For the same reason the folks in that college –although they were intelligent, well educated, capable adults–kept quiet. The ones who had the get up and go had already got up and gone. The ones with the guts to tell the truth to power had already either been quashed or took off.

Those who remained were too timid to rock the boat in any way. Those who wanted to speak up knew it would all be in vain. Nothing would change. No one would listen. The power structures were well defended.

Furthermore, it must be said, that those who were oppressed colluded with the system. For security, family reasons or whatever other motives good or ill, they agreed to be oppressed. They hunkered down. They played the game. They were silent. They weighed up the cost and reckoned that speaking up was not worth the price they would have to pay.

Some time ago I was in a similar situation and discussed it with a friend who had also found himself tied into an abusive situation in his place of employment. He laughed and said, “You know what? You’ve got only three choices: 1. Tell them exactly what’s wrong. Shout it from the rooftops and demand change and prepare to be crucified 2. Smile, resign and walk away. 3. Accept your lot. Put up and shut up.

I always like to end up painting a big picture. What does this behavior say to all of us?

What it says to me is, “Look around. Isn’t this actually the situation for the vast majority of people in the vast majority of situations? We put up with the abusive, manipulative spouse or child or in law because we’re too timid to take the bull by the horns, take responsibility and do something about it. We put up with the lousy job, the idiot boss, the bullying co workers because we can’t take the step to be independent and either confront the problem or walk.

I’m not blaming anybody here, but to magnify the problem, isn’t this what usually happens on a societal level too?

The people living next to Auschwitz ignored the ash falling from the sky?

The injustice, the cruelty, the crime happens on our doorstep and who has the courage to do something about it?

The prophets, the poets and the martyrs I guess.