The Roman Catholic Church has violated the first rule of addressing a crisis – again.
That old and true rule: when you find yourself in a hole – quit digging.
I say this with love for my Church, but with a profound sadness about the inability of its leadership to understand how badly – and repeatedly – the now world wide sexual abuse scandal has hurt. Not to mention how inappropriate has been the response of Church leaders to a crisis that seems to grow more serious by the hour.
First, a long line of American Catholic Bishops failed to address the issues of abuse by priests dating back, in some cases, for decades. When the lawsuits began to unravel the cover ups and the media attention increased, the church took precisely the wrong stand. It circled the Catholic wagons, stonewalled, avoided responsibility and blamed the media. Eventually some Church leaders saw the light and realized their first duty was to the victims and not the institution, but in the interval much lasting damage was done.
Now the whole, awful pattern seems to be playing out again in Ireland and Germany and beyond. The Pope’s handling of the mess, and his handlers handling of the mess, prompted a well-known parish priest in Idaho, who is also a canon lawyer, to go public with a call for Pope Benedict to resign. Father Tom Faucher in Boise suggested in an Op-Ed in the Idaho Statesman that some of the problem is generational. Benedict is 82. But, there is nothing generational about failing to aggressively, sensitively and completely address this cancer on the Church. We’re talking about the safety and well being of children, after all. Even a bunch of old men must know the importance of doing that.
The real first rule of crisis communication – whether its a clergy abuse scandal or a Tylenol recall – is to simply, humbly and honest do the right thing. There is no substitute.
As USA Today noted in a recent editorial: time and again in the recent past the Church has faced a choice to protect children or protect the Church. The choice has been to protect the institution. Doing the right thing begins with admitting the obvious. This is a crisis of leadership, a failure of fundamental decency, an abdication of candor and responsibility. None of it will be fixed by blaming the New York Times or equating criticism of the Pope with the horrors of the Holocaust.
There must be a collection of Cardinals holed up deep in the inner sanctums of the Vatican who see this is just another PR problem. If only we shift the blame, they must be thinking, and spin the issue to make it about anti-Catholic sentiment all this will fade away. Nope.
The pithy, often very wise, cradle Catholic Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times, said what I suspect many Catholics feel: this year the Church gave up its credibility for Lent. Sounds about right.
We know how this is going to end and it will not end well. Every great crisis of responsibility and accountability has an arc, a trajectory. The crisis of confidence and leadership will continue to get worse. Responsibility will be assigned. It is only a question of how long it takes and how much more damage is done while we wait.
In the meantime, it will be said time and again that the Catholic Church has survived scandal and worse for 3,000 years. But, these times are different. This is the age of Facebook and Twitter and the 24 hour news cycle. Judgments are faster and last longer and the impacts are world wide. The only way to spin this crisis is to confront it and accept responsibility. The sooner the better.
Someone in a high position – the highest position – must say, as that patron saint of lawyers Sir Thomas More did upon the scaffold, that one can be the servant of an institution, but first one must be the servant of God.
As Maureen Dowd notes in her column today, Catholics live and believe on faith. “How can we maintain that faith, she asks, “when our leaders are unworthy of it?”
Catholics around the world wait for their leaders to do the right thing.