Corruption Is Never Harmless, in the Church or State

Corruption is the most serious moral scandal of our time. Why? Because corruption is a double-edged sword, a moral evil that may turn one chump’s decision to bribe, extort or otherwise abuse his power for personal gain into destruction of the very systems that order our society and make this country great.

The abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is a classic case. The shocking thing is not the existence of priests who rape children. Thousands of years of historical records suggest that, sadly, there will always be men like this. The greater crime continues to be the church’s stubborn refusal to own the problem and to take whatever remedial action is necessary to comfort and compensate victims, to identify and punish offenders and get them away from kids. The problem is the cover-up. As the US newspaper National Catholic Reporter said recently about the continuing crisis: “This [is] not primarily a story of wayward priests but of an uncannily consistent pattern by individual bishops. In nearly every instance, bishops faced with accusations of child abuse denied them, even as they shuffled priests to new parishes, even as they covered up their own actions.”

The latest allegations of branch-stacking in the Victorian ALP have a similar feel, right down to the flourish of hypocrisy that accompanies corruption in the very institutions you’d expect would revile it most. A former staffer for federal and state Labor ministers has given an insider’s account – replete with shadowy fund-raising events and non-fee-paying members recruited en masse – of how factional bosses determine who will gain preselection in safe Labor seats.

The whistleblower’s motives may not be pure (he only came forward after payment for his branch-stacking was suspended) but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the party’s persistent refusal to undertake the systemic change its own experts said was necessary to fix the problem. As an editorial in The Age put it: “The cancerous effects on a party that breaks its own rules and marginalises members were spelt out in 2002 by Bob Hawke and Neville Wran but the branch stacking continued apace. Despite two damning independent reports last year on the Brimbank Council scandal in Victoria, the ALP’s own internal review found little of concern.”

What should we do? First, admit that corruption is like mosquitoes near a swamp – inevitable. Human nature is flawed and, left untutored or unattended, some people will ride roughshod over the rules and customs that keep the rest of us in check. They will do so to enhance their own power, wealth or influence and with scant regard to how their actions affect others or the organisations they claim to serve.

To stop them hurting others and destroying the fabric of civil society, we must build institutions that hope for the best but can weather the worst. Institutions armed with systems to minimise, detect and expose malfeasance by checking power and compelling transparency and accountability. Such systems must be regularly reviewed and updated, so just as the rogues learn them, the rules that govern play change.

One final observation. Corruption is a culture. It thrives on insularity. I know someone who defends political corruption on grounds that the efficiencies are necessary and the ends justify the means. She seems to believe it, too, perhaps because I was the only person – or the first for some time – to reply to such claims with widened eyes.

Publication history

Corruption Is Never Harmless, in the Church or State  Sydney Morning Herald