Categories: Crisis management / History of PR / Trust and reputations

21 March 2010


In defence of the Catholic Church’s reputation

The HolySee has apologised, rightly, for the Catholic’s Church’s cover up of the abuse of children in their care. But there are aspects of this case which should make us hesitate to single out the Catholic Church’s reputation for special attention.

Most of the accusations of sexual abuse go back to the 1970s. That was a period during which such practices were commonplace, if not common. It was only in the 1990s that the extent of the problem became a major concern for society.

What was uncovered was that in state-run care homes, Scout troops, St John’s Ambulance Brigade, public schools and religious bodies of different denominations across Europe there were similar scandals lurking under the surface. So the Pope in his letter of apology was right to say that:

“It is true, as many in your country [Ireland] have pointed out, that the problem of child abuse is peculiar neither to Ireland nor to the Church.”

There are some other punches we should pull. I, too, am enticed by the argument that enforced celibacy among Catholic priests encourages such appalling conduct. But then again, how do we explain the behaviour of married women and men who behave the same way? Are young boys more at risk from gay men than from those who say they’re straight? No. We all know it is not that simple.

The goings-on in the British state’s care homes were probably far worse than what went on in the Catholic Church’s domain. The scale of abuse in British public schools between older and younger boys and teachers and all their boys was rampant. Yet that is often the subject of giggles on TV chats shows among celebs who attended them. It seems that some forms of sexual abuse are more lightly thought of than others.

The Catholic Church, like many other religious bodies, does good work. Some of the most formidable minds I’ve ever encountered were the product of Catholic Schools. There is still much to be said in favour of the Church. Besides, for those who share its faith, its mission and purpose are way beyond the terrestrial. It would be a shame if its great (and perhaps inestimable) value was obscured by the real fact of the damage some of its people did and whose harm its culture was not well-adapted to deal with.

But we’re gathered here as PRs, whether in the sight of the Lord or not. Have the RCs handled this well? On recent evidence, I’d say they have. They’ve apologised and shown a determination to change the bits of their world which were wrong. They’ve also come out fighting: they’ve noted that their sins were the sins of the age. Actually, for the RC hierarchy, that takes a bit of courage, since their usual USP and pitch is to declare themselves timelessly aloof from the crisis of the times. But it’s also rather Vatican II: that is, it is in line with a determination to remind itself and the sceptical world that it is a human institution with a divine aspiration to be of use to real people, now.

I’d say the Church is on the way to fixing this crisis. It then faces the long haul of surviving in a secular, populist, demotic world in which almost all its messages – even compared with those of other churches – look very hard to sell. But, hell, the RCs never did have an easy pitch, and they’ve survived – and sometimes outlived – plenty of critics before now.

5 responses to “In defence of the Catholic Church’s reputation”

  1. Jo Jordan says:

    Hmm, yup, they have the real estate to pack a punch.

    1. I didn’t read the letter but we want to hear that sexual perversion by the officers of the church will not be tolerated under any circumstances.

    2. We want to hear that sexual perversion will immediately be reported to the local police. Reporting selectively as if the someone looted the church’s petty cash is akin to treating parishioners as sexual slaves.

    3. We want more openness in the running of the church.

    It’s not (1) that is the ground shaking change for the church. It’s (2) and(3). This isn’t a PR crisis. This is an authority crisis – what is the legitimate and illegitimate use of power.

    God against mammon. The church just lost the war for God.

  2. Heather Yaxley says:

    This is one of those situations which demonstrate that if public relations is related to reputation management, behaviour is far more important than words. Even if we accept that in the 1970s, child abuse (physical, mental and sexual) was accepted/tolerated by society (or at least by those with power to do something about it), the Catholic Church has had 20 years to confess and absolve its sins. It appears to have waited until the silent voices have finally been heard in a more enlightened society. We finally have some words of contrition, but what about the behavioural changes? I’m not convinced that the Catholic Church (or children’s homes and public schools) really understand that children deserve to be heard.

  3. Edward says:

    The catholic church like cigarette companies are undergoing a catastrophic collapse in numbers in Europe, hence the expansion in to developing countries; the sex scandals have only accelerated it. As the increase in living standards and education follow them, so will their influence decline there too. The Catholic church needs a radical rethink now, something that an eighty year old pope is unlikely to do.

  4. Thomas Moss says:

    I think what makes the Catholic Church stand out from the other institutions you mention is the cast iron grip it has held over its parishioners for centuries. You only need to drive through a predominantly Catholic community to see the power the church has always wielded. I know that in many parts of rural Quebec in Canada you’ll see mile after mile of humble dwellings punctuated occasionally by a huge lavish Catholic church. People have poured there spiritual and material faith into the church and the current debacle is destroying its brand.

    Please feel free to review my take on this situation at