Lessons from Toyota for the Pope

As a recovering catholic myself, I thought Michael Valpy’s column in The Globe and Mail this month should be required reading for the old guy in Rome who is running the world’s most out-of-touch religion. For his illuminating piece on ‘The Troubled Church: Catholics At Crossroads’, Valpy interviewed Gene Grabowski, a leading U.S. expert on consumer product recalls, in a  feature called Sex Abuse: Defences Unacceptable, Solutions Elusive.

This seemingly unlikely linkage – product recall plus catholicism – makes sense. Grabowski is a superstar in the world of public relations (he was named PR Week’s 2007 ‘Crisis Manager of the Year’ for his work on U.S. national recalls of pet food, spinach and 45,000 Chinese toy imports).

And issues management and crisis communication are part of an increasingly important focus in the field of public relations – whether you are in the business of marketing cars or marketing something called faith. 

Grabowski told Valpy that the Roman catholic church risks making the same crisis management mistakes as Toyota did in dealing with faulty accelerators on several million cars. He says the church is in danger of forgetting exactly what Toyota forgot – that an institution’s greatest strength is axiomatically its greatest weakness. For example:

“What made Toyota great is that once it decided to go on a strategic path, it stayed with it no matter what. So what happens when they have a crisis and they have to respond to it quickly? They move like an 88-year-old man because they’re sticking to the path.” 

The church, from its lofty perch of elitism and entitlement, is making the same mistakes as Toyota in its handling of rampant sexual abuse by generations of its predator priests and, worse, a systemic cover-up to protect this criminal membership.  Grabowski explains:

“The church is even more extreme than Toyota. The catholic church takes centuries. So when they’re confronted with what they face now, they’re reaction is, ‘Well, it served us well over the centuries. This is a private matter, we can solve it, we have our own solutions.’

“But it’s not likely now, especially when the church has been challenged by the news media, which is probably the church’s only external stakeholder right now that can effect quick change.”

Like Toyota, whose engineers are still blaming driver error for increasingly catastrophic unintended acceleration events, the Pope seems to have both hands covering his ears while singing “La-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you!”  In fact, he recently brushed off growing criticisms of the systemic institutional cover-up of his church’s abuse scandal as “petty gossip”.  As the Associated Press reported this month:

“Victims of clerical abuse have long demanded that Benedict take more personal responsibility for clerical abuse, charging that the Vatican mandated a culture of cover-up and secrecy that allowed priests to rape and molest children for decades unchecked.

“Those demands have intensified in recent weeks as the Vatican and Benedict himself have been accused of negligence in handling some cases in Europe and the United States.”

The Pope’s response to these accusations?  He recently told a group of his Vatican insiders:

“I must say, we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word ‘repent’, which seemed too tough. But now under attack from the world, which has been telling us about our sins … we realize that it’s necessary to repent, in other words, recognize what is wrong in our lives.  Open ourselves to forgiveness … and let ourselves be transformed. The pain of repentance, which is a purification and transformation, is a grace because it is renewal and the work of divine mercy.”  (Pope Alludes To Scandal, But Bemoans ‘Attacks’)

My PR translation of this bafflegab:


While it is arguably unfair to tar all priests with the same abuse brush – a 2004 study conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice reported that from 1950-2002, only four out of every 100 priests were accused of leading double lives as both clerics and sexual predators – it appears that the abuse is almost the secondary crime here.

Consider this stupefyingly offensive cover up excuse by retired Archbishop of Milwaukee Rembert Weakland, who was the direct supervisor of 58 priests accused of sexual assaults on minors under his watch:

“We all considered sexual abuse of minors as a moral evil, but had no understanding of its criminal nature.”

John Swales was only 10 years old back in 1969 when he and later his two younger brothers as well were first assaulted by Father Barry Glendinning at a summer camp for low-income kids in Ontario. He told Maclean’s magazine in its December 7, 2009 issue:

“The real failing here is the institutional response to these deviants. Every culture, every occupation, has these issues of sexual abuse. But few have the ability to conceal sexual abuse of children like the catholic church does.”




All are natural reflex actions of a toddler caught red-handed with his fingers in the cookie jar.  You’d expect far better from the old man in charge of the world’s 1.13 billion embarrassed catholics.


See also:


And finally: GREAT NEWS, Beatles fans!  April 12, 2010:

Pope Finally Forgives Beatles For Past Excesses

6 thoughts on “Lessons from Toyota for the Pope

  1. Absolutely love this article. Who is the PR advisor to the Vatican anyway? Forgiving the Beatles was the last straw. Are these people at all conscious of how embarrassingly pathetic their bloated archaic thinking is? Even though I am a lapsed Catholic, I am tired of cringing whenever the Pope is in the news these days. I’m forwarding this on to all my friends.

  2. Oh boy this is so true and so maddening. Can’t we just liquidate the assets of the church while we fire the lot of them and let them all find out what it’s like to actually work for a living and also what happens in the real world to criminal predators. If the Pope were really serious about this shocking abuse of power and privilege (he is not) he would order a round-up of every priest who has been moved or protected or ignored while abusing young children and file criminal charges for every single one. This will never happen.

  3. Let’s face it, Toyota and everybody else on earth moves at warp speed compared to Rome’s glacially slow reaction time to this global scandal and the Vatican’s defense of their planned organizational cover-up attempts.

  4. I very strongly disagree with this article. It is a lot of nonsense to suggest that the Church and the Pope are out of touch. The Church, in fact, has done much good over the centuries and over the years. It is too easy to focus on a few who fail. Shame on you, Michael Valpy. You have no clue what you are talking about.

    • Although anybody who sincerely believes that “the Church and the Pope are NOT out of touch” is unlikely to be convinced by reality, please re-read this article, Paul, for clear examples of what “out of touch” actually looks like. It’s not just Michael Volpy’s Globe and Mail article that points this out. And doing good in the past has absolutely nothing to do with ignoring the evil perpetrated through the church’s deliberate cover up and protection of generations of predator priests.

  5. Though this might be a bit late in the day, I now know what “the last straw” is: Does Paul not know what good the Catholic church has done “over the centuries and over the years” to anyone who didn’t toe the line? Or does the word “Inquisition” -not just Spanish, mind you – ring a bell? And that’s just the tip of a huge iceberg, as anyone who knows about modern-day Opus Dei might tell you. Find out!

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