The Catholic Church sex abuse scandal offers an ever-growing list of lessons in how to handle or flub an organizational crisis, with last month’s lesson being: Following the advice of liability lawyers might save you in court but kill you in public.
The latest public relations disaster – culminating with a resignation by the chairman of the church’s sex abuse review panel – also illustrates how an organization can keep stepping on landmines while trying to confront a longstanding problem and restore its credibility.
This landmine came in the form of a detailed questionnaire sent to the nation’s 195 dioceses on behalf of the National Review Board, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) created last year to help the dioceses prevent abuse and respond to future abuse allegations. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York will use the answers to compile a report about matters such as the numbers of abusers and victims over the past several decades, how the offenders were disciplined or treated, and what the dioceses have spent to handle the abuse problem.
While most bishops readily filled out their questionnaires, several objected to some of the questions and indicated that they would not answer them. California bishops complained that some answers about specific priests would violate their state’s privacy laws and leave them more vulnerable to lawsuits.
This touched on one of the most sensitive issues that was raised when the USCCB created the board of 13 prominent Catholics along with the Office of Child and Youth Protection, which the board oversees: How could the board and the office exercise any power over the bishops who created them?
The board’s answer has been to go public, putting the heat on bishops to cooperate. Several board members have bluntly criticized the bishops’ handling of sex abuse allegations in the past, have publicly complained about a few bishops not cooperating with the board, and have said they will publicly cite those who don’t do enough to combat the abuse problem. (See “Watchdogs to Bishops,” March 2003.)
So this spring, news stories began appearing that said some bishops were, as a Washington Post headline put it, “resisting” the survey.
“The board believes that some bishops – I would characterize it as a minority – were not cooperating,” board member William Burleigh said, as the story mushroomed last month.
Burleigh said that staff from John Jay answered the bishops’ legal concerns, but “the frustrating part, for me at least, is that all of our efforts to explain this were not being listened to” by some of those who objected the most.
Into this smoldering disagreement stepped review board Chairman Frank Keating, the outspoken former Oklahoma governor (R) whose appointment last year by the USCCB president, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Illinois, set off strenuous objections from some bishops. Keating has riled bishops for years over such matters as his support for the death penalty and his suggestion that Catholics not donate to or attend churches in dioceses that don’t respond well to the abuse scandal.
In a Los Angeles Times interview published June 12, Keating stirred even more anger by saying some bishops had behaved like “La Cosa Nostra” in trying to “hide and suppress” information.
Burleigh says board members “disagreed with Frank’s characterization and we let him know.” Some also felt that his public aggressiveness had impeded the board’s work with those bishops.
Keating, now president of the D.C.-based American Council of Life Insurers, was already struggling with devoting enough time to the board. He resigned, but not quietly. “I make no apologies,” his resignation letter said. In a subsequent New York Times op-ed piece, he cited the demands of his job and “frustration over the efforts of a small minority of church leaders to obstruct the workings of the board. … When we asked valid questions, they gave us few or no answers. Where information and cooperation was called for, we received delay or an outright refusal to help.”
Even as Keating stepped down, board members strived to demonstrate their independence. Board member Robert S. Bennett, the powerful Washington lawyer, told The New York Times that the bishops “should stop acting like risk assessment officers of insurance companies.”
The bishops met in St. Louis late last month and worked out an agreement whereby no questions were changed, but the priests could be identified by codes, eliminating potentially identifiable information such as initials and birth dates.
Such information was going to be coded after it was received anyway, Burleigh said. “The way the survey was set up, it came as close to guaranteeing 100 percent confidentiality as you can get,” he said.
The fracas shows that the bishops got what they asked for. They knew that in order to regain credibility, they needed to appoint an independent panel that did not fear taking them on. That, of course, carries the risk that they will.
Contact: USCCB (202) 541-3000, www.usccb.org.