Only Adequate Reforms Quiet Reputational Storms

Lessons from the Catholic Church’s Continuing Crisis

10/19/18 – – The frontpage headline in the October 19, 2018, New York Times was not good news for the Catholic Church: “Church Faces Federal Inquiry Into Sex Abuse.”

Media coverage of the horrific acts by U.S. priests that first came to light in a big way in 2002, led by The Boston Globe, had been receding in recent years. But the lead in the Times article made it clear that the church’s crisis is far from over: “The Justice Department has opened an investigation into the Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania accused of covering up sex abuse for decades, a significant escalation in scrutiny of the church.”

Why, after more than 15 years, is this crisis still building momentum? Many of the reasons are discussed in The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm.

In Chapter 4 (“How Crises Typically Play Out – 10 Predictable Tendencies”), I point out that, “The severity and duration of a crisis are determined in large part by the level of organizational betrayal.” There is no more glaring example of betraying core purposes and promises than the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal. For most institutions found to be in blatant violation of what they stand for, survival is at risk. Not to be flip, but as I say in the book, “If not for centuries of good work and reputational equity (and perhaps some divine intervention),the church might not have weathered this storm.”

In addition to the very serious challenges inherent in betrayal, I believe the Church is experiencing the predictable outcome of inadequate reforms.

Chapter 12 (“The Five Rs of Crisis Response”) outlines the basic elements of effective crisis response: regret, reforms, restitution, reaffirmation and recovery. There is plenty of evidence that without actions and reforms that are perceived by outside audiences to be meaningful and adequate, a crisis often remains an open wound. Simply put, the level of reform a company or organization implements must match the seriousness of the crisis to which it’s responding.

The results of a grand jury investigation released by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office in August charged that church leaders throughout the state had covered up wrongdoing on a shocking scale. Given this lack of honesty and transparency, how could the public trust that all is well with today’s church? Clearly, the Justice Department had the same doubts.

A statement by the Diocese of Greensburg regarding the federal government’s intervention suggests that the church understands the task ahead: “Survivors, parishioners and the public want to see proof that every diocese has taken sweeping, decisive and impactful action to make children safer.” To even come close to healing this wound, such action may have to include the indictment of church leaders who instead of protecting parishioners, protected the bad guys. 

Thankfully, few corporate crises drag on for 15 years or match these levels of betrayal and shame. But the lessons are relevant to all organizations. Above all, stay true to your core purpose. And if faced with the challenge of recovering from crisis, be honest and open about your mistakes, hold people accountable, and adopt reforms adequate enough to make things right.

Don’t stake your survival on divine intervention.       

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