Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report: The Starbucks Problem


Ten years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a number of Starbucks in Asia.  In a country,  where so much seemed foreign, it was always a relief to visit Starbucks.  It was a short trip home.

I have visited Starbucks in a number of cities and states throughout the US, as well as the ones I visited in Asia, and I was amazed at how uniform they were.  They served the same food and drink in identical cups, served by people wearing identical uniforms.  Even the layout of the shop, with the tables and chairs, were roughly the same wherever I went.

How is it, one might ask, that all of these Starbucks restaurants just happen to be nearly identical?  How is it that all of the individual managers of these stores, independently of each other, manage to serve the same food and drink, lay out their stores in the same way, and dress their employees in the same uniform?

They answer to that question is simple.  It doesn’t just happen, and they aren’t working independently from each other.

The Starbucks coffee shops are not independent, but chains within a very large, international organization.  The decisions about food and drink, uniforms, and store layout are not made by the manager of the individual store.  Instead, the manager of the individual store merely implements decisions made by managers above him.  Indeed, I know that Starbucks sends secret shoppers around to each of their stores to order drinks and ensure that the store is making each drink according to specifications.  There is no room for individual choice.

What does this have to do with the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report?

Well, much of the narrative around the Catholic sex abuse scandal has been focused on the individual crimes of the priests.  When they do focus on the bishops, they once again focus on the individual sins of the bishops.  Catholic apologists carefully focus on the idea that the sexual abuse scandal can be reduced to individual bishops sinning as a result of their personal choices and of their own volition.

The Pennsylvania grand jury report strikes at the very heart of this narrative.

The Pennsylvania grand jury report details findings from a two year investigation into sexual abuse and cover up in six dioceses withing Pennsylvania.  The grand jury reviewed a seventy year period, going back to the 1940’s.  One thing that is striking in this report is the uniformity of the bishops’ actions.  Over a seventy year period, the grand jury finds that throughout the state of Pennsylvania, bishops took actions to hide the sexual crimes of priests.

Now, the standard Catholic narrative of the sexual abuse scandal asks us to believe that each of these individual bishops chose to act as they did independently, of their own accord.  In a sense, they are asking us to visit Starbucks stores around Pennsylvania and to believe that they are virtually identical purely by accident.

This is bad enough within Pennsylvania.  But now 14 other states are forming their own Grand Juries to look at sexual abuse within their states, and perhaps more significantly, the US Justice Department is looking into sexual abuse throughout the country.  If those reports show the same patterns (they will), the narrative demands us to believe that all of these bishops individually came up with nearly identical plans to cover up sexual abuse.

Are we really to believe that all of the Starbucks in the country just happened to be organized the same way by accident?

A US Justice Department may well be the death knell for this narrative, but really, it should have died years ago.  We now have the accounts of sexual abuse in countries as far flung as Chile, Ireland, and Australia, and they all invariably show bishops engaging in the same patterns.  This is not an accident.  It is no more rational to believe that bishops all over the world for decades just happened to decide to cover up instances when their priests abused children than it is to believe that Starbucks coffee shops in Santiago, Dublin, and Melbourne are nearly identical purely by accident.

This is a tremendous problem for the Catholic Church, because it suggests that the problems within the Church do not simply boil down to individuals making bad choices.

For example, I stopped at Starbucks today and saw the baristas wearing green aprons.  Imagine for a second that I hated the green aprons and wanted them to wear pink aprons, and to this end I decide to become a manager of a Starbucks so that I can make everyone wear a pink apron.  But would that really happen?  I would have to buy the aprons myself; I couldn’t order them from the company.  Moreover, when the regional manager visits the store, they will reprimand and document the fact that my employees are not observing the dress code.  I could face disciplinary action.  In other words, I cannot change the aprons at my local Starbucks by becoming manager and exercising my personal choice.  I would have to rise high enough in the ranks to the point where I could change the dress code policy for baristas at all of the stores.

In the same way, a Catholic bishop who protects a priest who rapes a 7 year old girl in the hospital after her tonsillectomy (as detailed in the Pennsylvania grand jury report) is not merely exercising his personal choice.  He is enacting policies determined by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and by the Vatican itself.  (The book Vows of Silence details how bishops in the 1990’s appealed to Pope John Paul II to allow them to expedite defrocking priests who abused children.  Pope John Paul II denied their request.)

It is not enough to simply bring in a group of bishops who think that men who rape 7 year old girls in the hospital after surgery, any more than we could change the aprons at our local Starbucks by getting a manager who hates green.  The organizational structures (more on that in a later post) and policies must be destroyed and rebuilt from the ground up.




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