“Culture of complicity” is a phrase used to describe the collusive relationship between leaders of Japan’s nuclear industry and its government, including energy regulators. Not only does Japan have a history of covering up violations at its nuclear power plants. But at least one inspector was exposed and blackballed in 2000 for reporting a cracked steam dryer at the Daiichi plant, the very place where four nuclear reactors failed in April. Oversight lacks transparency. One example is that the Japanese public did not learn about the damaged steam dryer until 2002, two years after it was first reported. Fines for industry violations have been minimal, not substantial enough to prompt the power companies to stop their risky behavior or make immediate repairs. Collusion is a constant temptation as leaders move seamlessly from the nuclear industry to government advisory or regulatory positions and vice versa.
Japan’s “culture of complicity” sounds frighteningly familiar—not merely a Japanese problem. Nor are the underlying motives of power and money that sustain this culture limited to any nationality or group. Take two recent examples.
A culture of complicity enabled the U.S. financial meltdown of 2007. As long as property values were rising, banks, investment houses, ratings agencies, real estate companies and insurers all wanted in on the mortgage game. To generate business, brokers and bankers colluded on relaxed standards and attracted unqualified borrowers. At one point some insiders realized that the mortgage pools being sold received consistently high ratings, though they were increasingly filled with junk—that is, with mortgages held by persons almost certain to default once the balloon rate set in. Those who saw this meltdown-in-the-making did not warn the proper authorities, however (though a few whistleblowers sounded warnings). Instead, these entrepreneurs bet against the banks that held bad mortgage bundles and made a killing for themselves when home prices dropped. That set off the crisis and banks stopped lending. Then the federal government consulted none other than the heads and former heads of the big banks responsible for the damage. Now, almost four years into the recession, the big banks are raking in profits, but housing and job-creation are stalled. Complicity pays off.
Power, not money, was the motive behind the church’s culture of complicity that enabled the clergy abuse scandal. In choosing to protect the hierarchy rather than Catholic children, church leaders clung to the ecclesial power structure, which was reinforced for decades by civil authorities who refused to “meddle” in church affairs. The crisis was made public not by whistleblowers or by repentant clergy, but by secular reporters. Even after an office and review board process were established, diocesan oversight lacked transparency,as evident in Philadelphia’s recent clergy abuse crisis. Penalties against abusive priests have been heavy, but penalties against the church’s powerful shepherds have been virtually nonexistent. Most remain as powerbrokers in the church.
In these three cases, the benefits top leaders enjoy in lifestyle, power and prestige far outweigh any penalties they might face. In fact, few ever pay a personal penalty for their risk-taking, regardless of the damage done. No C.E.O. declares personal bankruptcy. No bishop loses his home or retirement. Instead, the government (taxpayers) subsidize the long clean-up of a nuclear meltdown and a financial meltdown. Government props up power companies and banks, not to mention those who have lost homes or livelihoods. Likewise, faithful Catholics pay diocesan legal defense bills and care for the abused members of their families and parishes.
A culture of complicity demoralizes the public. It has also proved fiercely difficult to reform. Even so, voters must insist that governments regulate nuclear energy and the finance industry, allocating funds for monitors and regulators even in an era of austerity. Voters must also demand transparency. Every dollar spent to prevent a nuclear meltdown saves lives, jobs and whole communities. Every dollar spent to prevent the next financial crisis saves families from foreclosure and bankruptcy and the world from economic havoc. Prevention is always the best medicine.
Catholics, though, have little choice in how their offerings are spent and little say in who is ordained a priest or bishop. Yet Catholics can insist, as individuals and through organized action, that the church take every allegation seriously and do all it can to prevent abuse from taking place. At the very least, Catholics should report any allegation or witness of sexual abuse to law enforcement first. That preventive step will save at least some children and their families from the trauma of abuse and its cover up by authorities. A culture of complicity keeps powerful institutional leaders from effectively monitoring themselves. It ought not prevent the public, however, from protecting itself.