When is a secret no longer a secret? You might say, when everyone knows about it. But recent headlines suggest that is not the right answer. The damning details of a Vatican investigation into the career of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick make a convincing case that everyone from seminarians to St. Peter’s — even sainted Pope John Paul II — knew of allegations that the charming priest shared beds with teenage boys. Yet the secret persisted for decades as McCarrick climbed the church hierarchy to become archbishop of D.C.
Meanwhile, former members of the Boy Scouts of America lodging sexual abuse claims against the organization now number more than 92,000. If all of them were gathered in one place, the massive Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, Calif., could not seat them all. BSA files, revealed through various lawsuits, make clear that the organization has known of its molestation problems from its early days.
It seems secrets can persist in uneasy equipoise with widespread knowledge of their existence. Athletes pass along quiet warnings about this coach or that trainer. Actors share what they know among themselves concerning this or that casting director. If and when the secret finally comes out, people wonder: How did they not know? Answer: Everyone knew!
The end of secrecy is not a matter of knowledge. It’s a question of power. An illustrative story from the Boy Scout files tells of a long-ago secret in a Pennsylvania town, where a pair of child-molesting Scout leaders had their ties to the organization hidden by local judges who served on the organization’s board. In McCarrick’s case, the pope didn’t want to believe the allegations. He was the pope, the pope has power, end of story. The serial molester who preyed on elite female gymnasts, Larry Nassar, had the power to approve girls for competition and leveraged that power to keep his secret.
It’s no accident that the secrets of once-sacrosanct institutions — not just the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts, but also Fox News and Hollywood, Penn State football and Ohio State wrestling, famous choirs and ivied prep schools — are surfacing in the digital age. Technology has wrested power from institutions and literally put it in the palms of individual hands (in open societies, at least). The power shift has been so sudden and profound over the past generation that it’s hard to take it all in: the ease with which local incidents can become known worldwide; the power to share and search previously inaccessible files; the ability of victims to find one another and create supportive movements through social media. Crimes that might have been hushed up as aberrations in earlier times can now be woven into patterns of institutional failure. Organizations have lost the power to keep secrets.
This power shift had undone far more than just the cultures of coverup around sexual abuse. A U.S. Army intelligence officer, Chelsea Manning, gave a trove of military secrets to WikiLeaks — a digital feat that could never have been accomplished with paper files. A CIA contractor, Edward Snowden, downloaded an estimated 1.7 million secret documents from U.S. intelligence services and allies and shared them with reporters. “John Doe,” an anonymous whistleblower, leaked more than 11 million documents from a Panamanian law firm that specialized in hiding money for the ultrawealthy.
Louis Brandeis, who later became a Supreme Court justice, might have approved of these developments. In 1913, in an essay titled “What Publicity Can Do,” he wrote: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” But the tools of digital power are also being wielded by conspiracy theorists and propagandists. The battered institutions of the media no longer set the agenda nor define the terms of the national conversation. That power has shifted to individual consumers of content, who choose their own “facts” and form their own factions.
Just the other day, someone mentioned to me that a beloved movie star abuses children. It’s on the internet, my friend reported. Everyone knows! But in this case, the secret that “everyone” knows isn’t true.
The word “revolutionary” is tossed around to describe every fad diet and every tweak of a minor widget. However, it is increasingly apparent that a genuine revolution is underway, one as profound as the invention of the printed word. Johannes Gutenberg’s 15th-century innovation was a sort of internet 1.0, a way to share information cheaply and widely and quickly across space and time, and it shook the institutions of church and government as they had never been shaken before.
Innovations of our own time appear destined to rattle the world’s institutions down to the ground. The earthquake will continue to weaken institutional power over secrets that need to be exposed. At the same time, it will strengthen those who seek to spread disinformation and form communities of discontent. The sword cuts both ways, swiftly and sharply.