By Milliped [CC BY 3.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons

August 14, 2018; New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post

In trying to protect its reputation and stature, the Catholic Church has failed its mission and those it serves, as a new report on continuing and systemic child sexual abuse in the Church reveals.

The details are horrifying. In a 1,400-page report released earlier this week, a Pennsylvania grand jury detailed a pervasive pattern of child sexual abuse and institutional coverup that permeated the Catholic Church across six dioceses for decades. Page by page, the harm done by over 300 perpetrators to more than 1,000 victims is spelled out in shattering detail. Beyond the criminal implications of the report’s details, it is also a lesson in crisis management that an organization can use when faced with staff and leadership doing serious wrong.

Accusations of sexual misconduct by priests have long plagued the church. According to Laurie Goodstein and Sharon Otterman at the New York Times, “The sexual abuse scandal has shaken the Catholic Church for more than 15 years, ever since explosive allegations emerged out of Boston in 2002. But even after paying billions of dollars in settlements and adding new prevention programs, the church has been dogged by a scandal that is now reaching its highest ranks.” In fact, earlier this year, the entire bishopric of Chile offered to resign at once after a 2,300-page report revealed the depth of the problem there. Amid a crisis, the Church’s leadership needed a strategy that balanced the needs of victims and the prevention of ongoing harm against the Church’s image and stature. The strategy they chose, from the grand jury’s perspective, was a path that should never be followed.

The Church kept children at risk while it focused on avoiding organizational risks and protecting its stature. Rather than deal openly and forcefully to stop the harm and fix their organizational weaknesses, the report described the strategy as “a playbook for concealing the truth”:

First, make sure to use euphemisms rather than real words…Never say “rape”; say “inappropriate contact” or “boundary issues.”

Second, don’t conduct genuine investigations with properly trained personnel. Instead, assign fellow clergy members to ask inadequate questions and then make credibility determinations about the colleagues with whom they live and work.

Third, for an appearance of integrity, send priests for “evaluation” at church-run psychiatric treatment centers. Allow these experts to “diagnose” whether the priest was a pedophile, based largely on the priest’s “self-reports,” and regardless of whether the priest had engaged in sexual contact with a child.

Fourth, when a priest does have to be removed, don’t say why. Tell his parishioners that he is on “sick leave,” or suffering from “nervous exhaustion.” Or say nothing at all.

Fifth, even if a priest is raping children, keep providing him housing and living expenses, although he may be using these resources to facilitate more sexual assaults.

Sixth, if a predator’s conduct becomes known to the community, don’t remove him from the priesthood to ensure that no more children will be victimized. Instead, transfer him to a new location where no one will know he is a child abuser.

Finally, and above all, don’t tell the police. Child sexual abuse, even short of actual penetration, is and has for all relevant times been a crime. But don’t treat it that way; handle it like a personnel matter, “in house.”

Some leaders saw their actions very differently and disagreed with the report’s conclusions. At a news conference following the report’s release, Bishop David A. Zubin of Pittsburgh rejected the idea the church had concealed abuse. “There was no cover-up going on. I think that it’s important to be able to state that. We have over the course of the last 30 years, for sure, been transparent about everything that has in fact been transpiring.”

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the current archbishop of Washington, DC, was cited as one of the Church officials who had covered up a priest’s abusive behaviors. He also saw his actions differently. According to Matt Pearce at the Los Angeles Times, “he acknowledged the church’s failings but defended himself by saying that societal standards for handling sexual assault cases had ‘evolved’ over time.” He wrote,

[I] sought to implement child-protection policies that kept pace with or were ahead of that evolution. While I expect that this report will be critical of some of my actions…I acted with diligence, with concern for the survivors and to prevent future acts of abuse.

At a moment when accusations of sexual abuse are daily headlines, organizations of all types and sizes find themselves facing the same challenges the Church has faced. Whether or not the grand jury is correct in its conclusions, the ability of any organization to keep difficult situations private and out of the public arena is very limited. Going public may be risky, but being caught having failed to deal with misbehavior when it does come to light is even riskier.

Just this week, the University of Maryland has faced harsh criticism for its delayed response to the organizational failures that resulted in the tragic death of an athlete. Barry Svrluga, writing for the Washington Post, noted that the university’s delayed public response was a serious organizational problem.

The purpose of Tuesday’s news conference, which came four days after ESPN published a searing report about the culture of the football program, was ostensibly for university officials to lay out—again, 63 days after McNair’s death—pieces of what it has learned, and to take responsibility for having in place a methodology that allowed a player who should have lived to die…A global leader in anything wouldn’t have waited that long…A preeminent university would then have spent every moment asking the most basic questions with urgency. Sixty-three days after Jordan McNair died, the University of Maryland is still pondering it all—its football coach, its training staff, its direction—and the entire school is diminished because of it.

How quickly and publicly do you respond? Do you gather facts internally, out of the public spotlight, or do you step aside and let law enforcement or other outside authorities take over? Organizations need to set policies to govern these moments long before they find themselves in crisis. When accusations fly, leaders must know how they are expected to respond. Under the gun is not the time to make sound policy decisions.—Martin Levine