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Spotlight Report

  Ellen Goodman  

Powerful secrets cast dark shadows


For weeks now, I have been keeping secrets. A list of private and public secrets. A file folder full of church and state secrets.

The bulk of them come from the scandal that is rocking my city. They are stories that tell in detail how the Catholic archdiocese concealed the names and numbers of priests who were pedophiles. They tell how the men in charge moved predators from one unknowing parish to another, one school to another, one state to another. They tell how the church kept its secret and exposed its children.

The rest of the stories have a Washington dateline. They come from an administration that sometimes behaves as if the president were running a federal Skull and Bones society. They tell how the White House secretly created a "shadow government" after Sept. 11. They tell how the government handpicked 70 to 150 high-ranking officials, rotating them into underground bunkers to run the country just in case. The current leaders of a democracy anointed the leadership of a post-catastrophic world -- without mentioning it.

Of course, none of these stories are really secrets anymore. They have become revelations or exposes. But then, as Ben Franklin once said, "Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead."

In Boston, hundreds of priests and victims shared the "open secret" -- a fitting oxymoron -- of pedophilia. In Washington, hundreds of family members and office mates knew their husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and bosses were missing in action. The notion that no one would ever shine a light in the shadows, or that sexual abuse could be hidden forever in the shame of victims and guilt of priests, is the sort of delusion that grows best in the darkness of a closed room.

Nevertheless, these tales -- as different as priests and bureaucrats, as different as sexual abuse and government administration -- have raised questions about power and secrecy. They've raised questions about leaders who justify secrecy to themselves on the grounds that they are protecting the people they serve -- when they may be serving themselves.

The pedophilia scandal is the more chilling proof of the corrosive effect of secrecy. The church has never claimed to be a democracy, and the rules are different for public and private institutions. Yet there's no doubt any longer that this secret "damage control," this priest protection society, justified to protect the sacred relationship between priest and parishioner, has torn the church apart.

As for the shadow government, no one was directly hurt by this secret society. The image of bureaucrats in bunkers is the stuff of parody, not panic. The idea that this anti-Washington White House would leave us in the hands of administrative centurions is more Monty Python than Dr. Strangelove.

But who in this democracy should choose the rulers of a post-catastrophe America? Where were the discussion and the debate about the shape and duties of such a role? Where were the legislators, the judges? Who elected the shadows? And how do we hold a secret accountable?

Mark Rozell, a political scientist at Catholic University and author of "Executive Privilege," says about both church and state leaders: "History has shown, time and again, that people in public life claiming to protect the public good by secrets are protecting themselves." Their agenda, their power.

I am not offering up a wholesale screed against secrecy. The word itself is morally neutral. In our own lives, secrecy is linked to privacy. Inside government, leaders need a measure of secrecy for, paradoxically, candor, honesty.

As for the Secret Service and for military secrets of the D-Day variety? I cannot imagine opposing them. I was less alarmed than many that the rumors of a nuclear threat to New York City were kept secret until Washington sorted out the crackpot from the serious. But imagine if, in the aftermath of horror, people learned that the government knew and didn't tell.

Secrecy wielded by authority is a powerful weapon against dissent. A secret is by definition unaccountable.

In our society the bias is, as it should be, toward openness. Secrecy is, as it should be, required to defend itself. Indeed, the best moral test of a secret, as ethicist Sissela Bok once described it, is whether the reasons could be justified in the full light of disclosure and "how a public of reasonable persons would respond to such arguments."

What we, the reasonable public, know this time is that the secrecy allowing sexual abuse and shadow governments leaves us less trustful, less faithful. This is the open secret.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is

This story ran on page D7 of the Boston Globe on 3/10/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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