CRISIS AND THE CROSS: James Burnett looks at how the CatholicChurch might salvage its tainted reputation

Though he left the fold for very different reasons, John Geoghan may well wind up sharing space with Martin Luther on the roster of the most famous former clergymen in Roman Catholic history.

Though he left the fold for very different reasons, John Geoghan may well wind up sharing space with Martin Luther on the roster of the most famous former clergymen in Roman Catholic history.

On October 31, 1517, several years before his excommunication, Luther, an Augustinian monk, sparked what would become the Protestant Reformation by tacking his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.

The crisis Geoghan helped fuel does not yet have a name, but its origins are easy enough to pin down.

It began back in January, when The Boston Globe revealed that rather than turn the accused child molester over to the authorities, his superiors, hoping to avoid a scandal, shuffled the now ex-priest between parishes for three decades.

In the wake of the Geoghan expose, stories about other abusive priests - and their bosses' attempts at cover-ups - have appeared in media outlets nationwide, forcing dioceses to defend themselves against charges of corruption.

Laymen, seizing upon the controversy, have used it to agitate for long-sought policy changes. The situation has grown so dire that Pope John Paul II, after weeks of leaving the US church to handle the problem itself, recently summoned American Cardinals to an emergency meeting in Rome.

According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News/Beliefnet poll, the situation has become so heated that 71% of Catholics believe their church is facing a full-blown crisis requiring immediate attention. And just as it was in Luther's time, the higher-ups should have seen this coming.

A crisis waiting to happen

The Catholic Church's singular structure and culture have created a PR debacle decades in the making. But the priesthood is not the only profession to bring itself grief by attempting to keep its members' misdeeds secret.

Nor is it the only organization that stands to learn from the way this most pernicious breed of crisis is dealt with over the long term.

There are no good excuses for the way the Church placed children at risk by exposing them to the sexual predators within its ranks. There are, however, a few explanations for why the situation got so out of hand.

Catholic theology teaches that all wrongs can be forgiven. Coupled with what psychologists once believed about pedophilia - that it was a curable disorder - the Church's own doctrine of reconciliation led it to treat a priest accused of child molestation the way it would any other sinner: as someone who could be saved. Later, when the authorities began to promote incarceration rather than the rehabilitation of sex offenders, the practice wasn't applied equally to priests. The reason, wrote Adam Liptak in The New York Times, is that "the criminal justice system has been wary of taking on the church as an institution."

Seventeen years ago, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops received an internal report outlining the legal and PR risks posed by its handling of abuse cases. Its response, it would appear, was to concentrate on the former in the hopes that it would also eliminate the latter. Because of the religious freedom protections afforded to the church by the First Amendment, accused clergymen were channeled through the civil courts - where sealed cash settlements are an often-popular means for resolving disputes. Since 1985, the church has paid out an estimated $1 billion to resolve the molestation charges brought against its priests.

All that money would not have kept the church's problem out of the public view if enough clergymen had come forward with details about their colleagues' misdeeds. But priests - like employees in other fields - have proven reluctant whistle-blowers. "The church is not alone in that,

says Larry Smith, president of the Institute of Crisis Management. "Attorneys and doctors look out for their own, and the police have their Blue Wall of Silence."

The Reverend Charles Curran, a professor of human values at Southern Methodist University, says that when it comes to his fellow priests, a general "unwillingness to acknowledge the problem

has been combined with a mindset rooted in outdated doctrine. "Before Vatican Two,

he says, referring to the policy council that took place from 1962-1965, "the spirit which characterized the church was one of triumphalism, which ultimately sees the institution as wholly divine and without spot."


adds Curran, "church leaders have believed that they must protect its reputation at all costs."

The church's approach to crisis communications has only fanned the negative publicity. Corporations that find themselves mired in controversy typically follow a standard playbook: "The CEO would have now resigned, reforms would have been announced, and a blue ribbon commission appointed,

says Helene Solomon, president of Bishoff Solomon Communications. "They'd also have tried to get the good stories out there - with the church, it would be about priests who are helping victims - but you don't see those coming out. I find it interesting that this has been happening at the same time as Andersen, which has taken quick and decisive actions to put a face on its rank and file."

In place of a C-suite, American Catholics have their conference of bishops, a body ill-equipped to execute the strategy Solomon describes. "It's a structural problem,

explains Curran. "Rome and the Vatican have downplayed the role of national conferences of bishops, and that has made it difficult to set standards for all the dioceses. Any individual bishop can do what he wants."

Rather than a single spokesperson, the US church has heard from a number of local leaders; instead of a single plan for dealing with existing abuse files - and preventing future crimes - parishioners have been presented with positions ranging from foot-dragging to full-disclosure. But more vexing still - at least by the standards of the 24-hour news cycle - the people in the pews have often had to wait several days before being told anything at all.

Slow response

"The church is responding the way a lot of other organizations have - by taking a long time to get their messages out and convince their audience that they understand their concerns,

observes Loretta Ucelli, Edelman's global chair for issues and crisis management.

"With most institutions that come under fire, you're talking about a clear and present danger that can be dealt with right away,

adds M. Cathleen Kaveny, a law professor and Catholic theologian at Notre Dame. "If you've got cyanide-laced Tylenol, you get it off the shelves and then put new caps on the bottles. But the deliberative process needed to overcome a spiritual crisis doesn't occur on media time."

Sooner or later, reporters will move on to the next big scandal. Once that occurs, the hierarchy's most crucial crisis work will still lay ahead.

"The question I find so curious,

says Solomon, "is how do they win back the credibility of everyday Catholics?"

The numbers suggest that the church had better come up with a strong answer. The conference of bishops' $150 million budget is funded by the dioceses, which in turn rely on the donations from parishioners, some of whom may be angry enough to keep their wallets closed when the collection plate passes their way. According to a March 27 Gallup poll, 30% of Catholics have wrestled with whether or not to continue giving money to the church.

Then there's the dilemma of the already dwindling priesthood. The average US clergyman is 60 years old, and as the sexual abuse crisis shakes out, a few may be facing early retirement. For example, earlier this month, the Archdiocese of New York defrocked six pedophiles it had previously protected. Finding replacements may not be easy: From the 1960s to the mid-'90s, the number of candidates entering the seminary fell 40% - a trend not likely to reverse as men of the cloth have been telling reporters they've felt ashamed about wearing their collars in public.

There is another way the church can utilize its followers' eagerness to be involved in its affairs. Qorvis Communications partner Judy Smith suggests that bishops could invite constituents to provide their input and vent their criticisms at meetings. The next step would be to convene independent review panels, which can convey to parishioners that their suspicions about a priest's behavior will be evaluated objectively. "In news organizations, they have an ombudsman. In law enforcement, when people have complaints, quite frankly, they can't go to the officers, so they have committees set up,

Smith says.

Thanks to Virtus, an initiative created by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, the church should soon know whether self-policing can prove just as effective when it comes to reducing sexual abuse. In February, the self-insurance consortium rolled out pilot programs in Austin, TX, Kansas City, MO, and Manchester, NH.

"Virtus focuses not so much on why a perpetrator does this as it does on what you need to do in order to spot it,

says the program's director, Jack McCallum. "We're not just training the power structure - which is what typically happens in a secular organization - but all the way down to the volunteer level. I don't think there will be anything like it in terms of tackling a problem, even in the corporate world."

Of course, it could be a while before Virtus - or policies like it - are incorporated by dioceses nationwide. Progressives such as Curran argue that, even then, the church's problem will not be solved. The only real solution, they say, is to drop the rule that bans priests from marrying.

It could take years to convince the Vatican to enact that change - if it is ever enacted at all.

What's the church to do in the meantime? The bible and the most basic PR textbook seem to point to the same strategy. When the Lewinsky imbroglio left Bill Clinton floundering in the polls, he staged a prayer service to ask for forgiveness. Some observers feel that the church - which doesn't even have to outsource the ecclesiastical counsel - should do the same.

The Reverend Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, has called for such a penance service to be held at the next national gathering of the conference of bishops, which is scheduled to take place this June.

"That will be the first opportunity to collectively address the issue as a group,

agrees crisis expert Richard Torrenzano. "I would hope that coming out of that meeting, there would be a plan for how they intend to deal with this problem going forward.

"By letting people know what they intend to do,

he says, "the bishops could do a great deal towards putting all of this behind them."


During the summer of 1997, a court in Texas ordered the Diocese of Dallas to pay out nearly $120 million for harboring a priest who had molested a series of altar boys. Less than a week after the record-breaking verdict, Lisa LeMaster, the president of The LeMaster Group, received a phone call: The bishop's office wanted her to step in as its spokesperson and help shape a strategy for redeeming its reputation.

"It was the most difficult crisis I've ever worked on,

says LeMaster, who, as a non-Catholic woman, was a doubly unlikely candidate for the role of the church's official messenger.

"When you work for the church, you're confronting more than just the events.

There's a lot of history, tradition, and matters of faith. There are also a lot of misperceptions. I can't tell you how many times I was asked, 'Why don't they just call Rome and get the money?' People didn't understand. It doesn't work like that."

The trick to dealing with unique challenges? "I had to compare it to a business situation.

she says. "There's no way to spin something like this. You have to show action, that you are putting new guidelines in place to try to make sure this doesn't happen again."

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in