Everyone agrees that covering-up wrongdoing is a mistake. However bad the crime, the cover-up always makes it look worse. If you discover your political party, college, church or whatever has a problem, the smart thing is to grit your teeth, go public and clean house.
Yet time and again, when an institution gets into trouble, the response is to cover-up anyway. To hide the truth. To deny the incident, silence the victim, pretend it never happened.
The Catholic Church is one of the best-known examples. Faced with priests who abused kids under their authority, the priest's superiors told the victims and their families to keep quiet. Moved the priests to other dioceses. Convinced Catholics in law enforcement to help keep things quiet.
Catholics aren't unique. I've read about sex cover-ups in Protestant churches, mosques and Hasidic Jewish communities. Penn State turned a blind eye to sex abuse in its football program. Countless other colleges have swept rape cases under the rug.
And it's not just sex. Police are infamous for the "blue wall of silence," keeping quiet about other cops' corruption, brutal behavior or errors of judgment. I've read that doctors are just as reluctant to report their colleagues' professional lapses.
It's easy to condemn cover-ups from the outside, of course, but to the people involved (except the victims, of course) I imagine they look like the best possible option. If the cover-up is never exposed, it's a win (except, again, for the victims). And even if it comes out eventually, it might be years later. Some of the Catholic abuse cases stayed buried long enough for the abusers and their protectors to die without ever facing justice. So that's a win too, right?
Even if the cover-up doesn't last, the people involved can always hope it will. If they don't cover up, there's no hope. They have to deal with it here and now, instead of kicking it down the road until it's someone else's problem.
And after all, what's the alternative to covering up? Let one unfortunate incident tarnish the institution with scandal? Destroy its reputation, erase the trust and faith people have placed in it? Scare away donors and supporters? Destroy the career of a decent colleague who has just one small personal mistake that he absolutely swears will never happen again? To say nothing of what your superiors would say if they found out you could have kept the whole thing quiet but went public instead.
All things considered, it's understandable people opt, time and again, for a cover-up. Understandable, but not excusable. The real problem with the cover-up isn't that it makes the institution look worse when it's exposed, it's that hiding the truth betrays the victims. It requires ignoring them, silencing them, sometimes blaming them, but never helping them.
It requires someone close their eyes to all the future victims, telling himself that maybe possibly probably there won't be any, and if there are, well, there was no way he could know that for sure so it's totally unreasonable to say he's in any way responsible for them.
It requires someone dig a grave and bury whatever human decency and compassion they have as deep as possible.
It's true that acknowledging you have bad apples in your organization ? particularly toxic, venomous, abusive apples ? is often a public relations disaster. But as the blogger Fred Clark of Slacktivist
put it, when you start thinking of rape or abuse as a public relations issue, that?s the real disaster.