As a recovering Catholic (and educated by the nuns of Mt. Mary Immaculate Academy, a convent boarding school), I’ve been closely following the systemic child sexual abuse scandals that have disgraced this church for many years.
And as somebody who has spent over three decades in the public relations field, I’ve also been following one inept church leader after another who conspired to protect predator priests in some kind of bizarrely inexcusable attempt to safeguard the reputation of their institution. This was commonly done by simply transferring known abusers from parish to parish where they could then find fresh new victims. Recently, I read this conclusion in a famous report:
“The most saddening finding is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders for the safety and welfare of the child victims. There was no attempt to investigate, to identify victims, or to protect any other children from similar conduct.”
The trouble is, these words were not written about the Roman Catholic church.
They were instead written recently about Penn State University‘s willing failure to respond to a known child abuser let loose on the campus. The words represent the first paragraph of the Freeh report, the result of a comprehensive independent investigation of the University’s handling of the Sandusky scandal. Penn State’s former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky has since been convicted on 45 counts of child sexual abuse of young boys under his charge.
When I read the Freeh report, I was struck by how universal its condemnation was of men who willingly sit passively by and deliberately choose to do nothing in the face of the most unspeakable depravity. For example, the Freeh report said:
“The most powerful people failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade. These men concealed the abuser’s activities from authorities, and they exhibited a striking lack of empathy for victims.”
Although written about senior Penn State officials (President Graham Spanier, Senior Vice President‐Finance and Business Gary Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy Curley and Head Football Coach Joe Paterno) these words perfectly capture the reality of senior Catholic officials who also failed to protect children being harmed by its own sexual predators, chose not to report the abusers to the police, and exhibited a “striking lack of empathy for victims”.
And speaking of a striking lack of empathy for victims, consider the stupefyingly offensive excuse of retired Archbishop of Milwaukee Rembert Weakland, who himself 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.”
Reactions like this from ostensibly intelligent, educated, well-respected men make me despair for their profoundly toxic cultures – whether academic, sports or religious – that embrace this “total and consistent disregard by most senior leaders for the safety and welfare of child victims.”
The Freeh report went on to say:
“It is reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to child abuse from the authorities and the public at large. The avoidance of the consequences of bad publicity is the most significant, but not the only, cause for this failure to protect child victims and report to authorities.”
Again, this was written about Penn State officials (Curley and Schultz, for example, stated as far back as 2001 that the “humane” thing to do was to not contact police about Sandusky’s suspected criminal behaviour).
But Freeh’s statements are also clearly applicable to the Vatican’s repeated decisions to cover up crimes so as to avoid the damaging publicity that criminal charges would surely provoke.
Both institutions also featured senior decision-makers who have chosen deliberate, systemic protection of the guilty instead of protecting their innocent victims.
In hindsight, the lesson for both is pretty obvious Public Relations 101.
As soon as you determine that your organization’s wisest course of action is to desperately hide the truth instead of taking swift and appropriate action, your reputation is already doomed.
For when the truth does come out (which, just as my mother always warned, it will), the reputation you have worked so hard to protect will be more irreparably savaged than you could have ever imagined – as soon as your cover-up attempts are revealed. You only have to look at the furor surrounding Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky case to see how every aspect of the doomed reputation containment strategy dreamed up by the Board of Trustees, their senior administration, and millions of dollars worth of high-powered crisis management consultants turned out to be, of course, a catastrophic failure.
Ironically, in an eerie coincidence, Sandusky’s criminal conviction in June came on the very same day another landmark child sex abuse case was decided, also in Pennsylvania. A jury in Philadelphia found Monsignor William Lynn guilty of one count of endangering the welfare of a child, making him the first senior U.S. Roman Catholic Church official to ever be convicted for covering up child sex abuse.
One wonders when other identical criminal charges against all other church officials – up to and including Pope Benedict himself – who actively participated in the massive cover-up of sexual predators will be issued. My guess: don’t hold your breath.
Instead, a frightening example of what’s been called the ‘patriarchal apartheid’ of the Catholic church is the recent excommunication of a nun working as a nurse at a Catholic hospital in Arizona last year because she approved an emergency abortion last year to save the life of a critically ill patient.
Ironically, although it has taken years, sometimes decades, to bring any sex-abusing predator priests to justice, Sister Margaret McBride was excommunicated by the Catholic church in a matter of mere months.
One also wonders how many of those known predator priests have been excommunicated like the disobedient Sister Margaret was? My guess: approximately zero.
But Sister Margaret may not be alone.
Last year, the Vatican launched an “apostolic visitation,” or investigation, of every one of America’s 60,000 religious sisters, accused with having what Vatican spokesman Cardinal Franc Rodé calls “a feminist spirit” and “a secular mentality”.
At a time when the church’s male leadership can be blamed for the worst examples of incompetence throughout the modern history of professional public relations practice, even the modest roles accorded to female clerics have somehow come under attack from old men wearing funny hats.
Meanwhile, in PR circles, Penn State is already being called a “stigmatized brand”.
The school’s very name is now synonymous with the ugliest of human evil and – equally damaging – the institution’s proactive and inexcusable attempts to protect that evil.
The outcry of spoiled brat Penn State fans over recent NCAA sanctions against their school’s football program is yet another example of the failure of so many to comprehend just who the real victims in this tragedy actually are.
In fact, it seems disturbingly like the Vatican’s sputtering defense against attacks on the Holy Mother Church as if they believe the church were itself the victim.
Penn State now boasts a stained and slimy reputation that will likely need at least a decade to dry out.
Whose cover-up is more despicable?
© 2102 Carolyn Thomas – The Ethical Nag – www.ethicalnag.org
NEWS UPDATE: October 10, 2012 – Unrepentant Sandusky Sentenced to 30-60 Years in Penn State Sex Abuse Case
- Penn State’s PR Train Wreck
- The Endangered Species Called Catholic Nuns
- Why the Pope Needs Media Training
- The Vatican’s Abuse Response: “A PR Failure, Carnage, Nightmare and Train Wreck”