What a Watergate “Oversight” Can Teach us About the Institutional Cover-Up of Sex Abuse

You may know of Ockham’s Razor, a principle developed by William of Ockham in the 14th century. He espoused simplicity of thought, that is, the simpler theory is more likely to be true. I take it as, “Ask the next, obvious, and simple question, and you will get to the truth.”

The same goes for the Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis. My experience has shown me that in order to get to the root of the problem of the crisis, the best question is the simplest and the most obvious. Why? Because it opens up the most complex web of secrets.

For the sake of argument and example, let’s look at politics for a moment. This past Sunday, CBS News This Morning revisited Watergate and the case of White House Aide Alexander Butterfield. During the Watergate hearings, Butterfield was asked the question that would change the entire course of the investigation.

Q: “Are you aware of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the White House?
Butterfield: “I was aware of listening devices. Yes, sir”

That statement was so powerful—the admission that there were recording devices in the White House and taped records of the president’s secret conversations—that CBS called it “the biggest bombshell of the biggest political scandal in American history”

But no one asked the next obvious question: Do you have any documents in your personal possession?

So guess what?

Now in 2015 Butterfield is revealing his cache—a set of Top Secret Nixon documents that is 40 years too late for prosecutors and the public.

The Butterfield case isn’t unique. Often in complex litigation with large institutional defendants—like sex abuse and cover-up civil lawsuits involving the Catholic Church, Mormon Church, or the Boy Scouts—a tired tactic is deployed by the defendants. Lawyers and lobbyists are quick to say, “Your Honor, my clients cannot defend themselves. With the passage of time, memories fade, evidence is lost, and witnesses move away or are no longer available.”

But few people think to ask the next questions: Do you have any documents in your possession that outline the cover-up? And are they sealed? Why?

In 2002, Marty Baron at the Boston Globe was one of those who did ask the next question.

“He asked a simple question that kind of embarrassed everyone who had been there. That one question really got this project rolling,” said Sacha Pfeiffer, a “Spotlight” team reporter, played by Rachel McAdams. “Then he continually pushed us not to write just about priests who abused children but to write about church officials who covered up for priests who abused children”.

The lessons of Butterfield and Baron are a present reminder for all prosecutors, civil litigators and those dedicated to child protection.

Even if memories fade, people move, and evidence is lost, the documents are there. We have seen it in almost every clergy abuse civil lawsuit. And they tell the story.

You just need to ask and demand them.