Wednesday, 13 July 2011

What is a criminal organisation: News International and the Vatican compared

The question I have been thinking about is this, When is an organisation a criminal organisation?

We don't have that much difficulty deciding whether some individual has committed a criminal act, though what act may sometimes be unclear. In English law, if I pay someone to murder you, then both I and my agent can be charged with murder. Juries are not always comfortable with this: they think that murder involves person-to-person contact. They would be happier convicting the person who procured the murder of X with "procuring the murder of X" not with murdering X.

But organisations present a different order of problem. My initial thinking goes like this:

A criminal organisation is one where there are centrally-defined objectives combined with a shared belief that "the end justifies the means" (even if those words are not used). The objectives may be various, but usually the accumulation of wealth or the maximisation of power and influence.

In a culture where it is believed that the end justifies the means it does not follow that officials of the organisation are always commiting criminal acts (as they would be if they belonged to a criminal gang), but only that they commit them when they will advance the central objectives in a significant way or - and this is perhaps more frequent- neutralise a threat. The perception that the acts are wrong is over-ridden or obscured by attraction to the clear institutional advantages of wrong doing. (Perhaps this connects to the idea of "cultures of impunity")

In the case of the modern (post-Lateran Treaty) Vatican, there is a long history of criminal wrong doing - some of it enabled by the Lateran treaty which granted state-like attributes to the Church and put it beyond the reach of Italian civil and criminal law.

For example, at the end of World War Two, Vatican officials operating in Rome knowingly assisted Nazi war criminals (including BIG criminals) to escape to Latin America with false identities. Part of the reasoning was the hope that they would beef up anti-communist forces in a part of the world which the Vatican regarded as a legitimate backyard for the exercise of its power and influence. In other words, the end justified the means.

In some cases, war criminals were helped simply because a particular Vatican official(for example, Bishop Hudal ) preferred the values of the defeated Nazis to those of the victorious Allies and sought to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat as fantasised in the Nazis own "Operation Werewolf". This is a rather different case to the previously described one. It is simply amoral partisanship.

(This is not all water under the bridge. By way of thought experiment, consider that the present Pope was a member of the Hitler Youth. Would it have been possible for him to rise through the ranks had he instead been a Young Communist?)

Again, on a continuing basis, the Vatican along with Catholic churches world-wide conspired for decades to prevent, wherever possible, cases of sexual and physical abuse of children by its officials (its priests and nuns) going to court in criminal prosecutions and civil law cases. The organisation felt that the publicity of court cases would undermine its credibility - hence its objectives - and so, for example, it pressured victims to let their silence be bought or else it simply pressured them or sought to discredit them. This involved criminal wrong-doing throughout the organisation, up to and including the Vatican. The larger objective of advancing the causes of the One True Church led officials to ignore questions of right and wrong.

Indeed, I get the sense from the narratives I have read that the culture of the orgnisation was so strong that in many cases it never even occurred to officials that they should maybe think in terms of right and wrong, who had been wronged and what was needed to redress that wrong.

Along these lines, you could develop a case that the Vatican is a criminal organisation and that its status as a state-like entity outside the law has facilitated and reinforced the inherent tendencies of an authoritarian objectives-driven organisation.

News International is a different story. It is about what you will do for money and why. We still don't know if it was the pressure to deliver results (newspaper circulation, profits) or a perverse professional pride in scooping everyone else or both which led it down into the darkness which is today the focus of the media spotlight. But at some point the "fit and proper" test requires that you have some notion of what makes an organisation criminal rather than simply an organisation which housed individual criminals. Part of it must be to do with cultures (institutional cultures) which put employees, officials, operatives into the frame of mind where they think the end justifies the means.

I realise that these few paragraphs are really a sketch for a whole book.


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Further thoughts:

(1) The CIA - at least in the 1950s and 1960s - fits into my account of what makes an organisation a criminal organisation. See Alex von Tunzelmann's Red Heat for copious examples.
(2) It has always been a problem for Utilitarian ("Greatest Happiness of the Greatest Number") thinking to show how it does not simply licence wrong-doing if the overall effect is to increase aggregate happiness. One solution is to suggest that Rules which in a single instance of their application will reduce utility nonetheless have a general tendency to raise overall utility.
(3) Rule Utilitarianism, as just outlined, suggests to me the following line of thinking: organisations tend to be criminal when there are not enough Rules interposed between the overarching objectives and individual conduct to protect the organisation from drifting into criminality. Rules remind officials that each case has to be played "by the book" and not "by the overriding objective".
Rules also act as bulkheads, helping the whole organisation to withstand rule - breaches in one of its parts.

And Postscript, 20 July: Speaking in the Irish Parliament on the Cloyne Report into clerical sex-abuse in Cork, Prime Minister Enda Kenny attacked the elitism, dysfunction, disconnection and narcissism of the Vatican. Thought I would add that just in case you thought "criminal organisation" was name-calling.

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