31 Aug 2018

Holding the Catholic Church accountable might actually save it

Ron Heifetz, one of the world's leading authorities on leadership, explains the defensive mechanisms triggered by scandal in the Catholic Church and how society and the faithful can help save the church by holding it to task. 

Zuzanna Ziomecka
Zuzanna Ziomecka Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland
Holding the Catholic Church accountable might actually save it - NewsMavens
Berlin church mass, PixaBay

Zuzanna Ziomecka: Does authority have a social purpose or is it just a type of power?

Ronald Heifetz: Authority provides a key service to people -- a sense of steadiness in the midst of insecurity. People need this from the moment they are born and start looking to their parents to provide it. Meanwhile, parents can be really frightened. They can be discussing the economic or political situation, or the loss of a job, but when they go outside of their bedroom to be with their little kids, they have to contain all that anxiety so that they don’t overwhelm the child. The child can’t hold the parent, the parent has to hold the child. That holding environment provided by elders is the archetype of authority relationships. It’s what makes authority relationships so important and the renewal and repair of distrust in authority is so vital. This is also why it’s so important to prepare people to be trustworthy in positions of authority.

ZZ: Why would an authority violate the trust of people who give it power?

When you are in a position of authority there are a lot of temptations to violate the trust of the people who rely on you. I gave a talk a once to an organization called “The Voice Of the Faithful”, started in Boston by members of the Catholic Church who were violated by priests but wanted to remain faithful to the church. At the same time, they wanted the church to reform itself, be accountable, and to take strong action to prevent this from happening again.

ZZ: Which it still has not done.

The church has reacted like a lot of bureaucratic organizations. In a defensive way to minimize damage to its reputation at the cost of really repairing the breach in trust.

This organization has been in place for a long long time. 

ZZ: So how do you rebuild trust when the institution has not made reforms? 

That’s a very important question, but first I want to explain how important authority is. This importance becomes clear when we assess the damage that takes place when authorities abuse trust. The scars that are left behind last a lifetime.


According to Walter Robinson [editor-at-large of the Spotlight section from the Boston Globe], as many as 10% of priests engage in sexual abuse in the Boston area. In studies of other communities, the numbers are in a similar range, [plus or] minus 3 or 4%.

ZZ: That’s shockingly high.

Which is why the Church has had an overwhelmingly defensive response. People in authority are under enormous pressure to maintain equilibrium and defend their organization. The pressure comes from within -- from the 90% of people who have not been abused. Look at the statistics. If 10% of priests abuse, then maybe 25% of children have been abused. But 75% have not. And they love their minister or rabbi or priest.  Which is why the Church is under enormous pressure from all those people and members of their own organization to minimize the disturbance. Because when you hold a person accountable, you generate a schism in that community. 

ZZ: True, when there’s a problem with authority, communities break into two warring factions.

The real challenge for our institutions is to have authority figures who will hold both factions together in a community. [Creating] a collective effort of repair and reconciliation and healing and the development of accountability mechanisms that will help to ensure, though never guarantee, that this is not going to happen again. If it begins to, we are going to correct it fast. The development of that healing, repair and development of new institutional mechanisms for accountability and correction is a leadership challenge. But its also a leadership challenge that is all about renewing the leadership capacity of authority and the people’s capacity to trust again. 

ZZ: But that can’t be done unless Church authority at least acknowledges the loss or pain in the community. What did you recommend to the people from the Voice Of the Faithful, who are putting pressure on the church for this to happen?

That reform is possible and takes persistent organizing pressure. It takes saying to the church: “We love this church but this not acceptable”.

It takes people in your profession to continue to do investigative reporting. It takes mechanisms to hold people accountable when the system won’t hold itself accountable. 

Political and legal systems often don’t provide the necessary accountability, so it needs to be a result of activism. It comes down to citizens and members of the church to hold members of the community accountable. Its also important for people to put pressure on the political and legal system to do its job of dispensing justice.

ZZ: Held [accountable] by its faithful?

By the society at large, by the legal system, by the judicial system and by the faithful. People need to hold the church accountable in a way that says, you have such a critically important function to serve in our community. Nothing is more sacred then you holding that trust. We’ve seen the emergence of a movement doing just this. It is made up of members of the Catholic community and of people outside of it who care about justice and it is [forcing] the church to be accountable, as well as the Pope, and members of the political organization of the church. They all feel the pressure to make change. But we have to see this change in evolutionary terms.

ZZ: How do you mean?

It takes time to accomplish the change of a culture. People don’t learn fast when the lessons require losses.

When they have to give up the image that they had of someone they trusted because that person, behind the scenes or at night, was violating that trust. This is an extraordinarily painful loss for those who have trusted their elder and who have not been abused, and have therefore understood that trust to be completely reliable. 

Imagine what it must be like to suddenly discover, that the person you have counted on for years, who may have married you, baptized your children, been there when you lost a loved one, who you were able to confess to, who served such an important function in [supporting] you in your life, has betrayed that trust to members of your own community. What a shock, what a huge hole in a person’s life and an extremely significant loss. And this not just within the church hierarchy, and not just to maintaining power and control by a bureaucratic institution. That would be a really superficial analysis.

The 80 or 90% of the people, who feel that they have been held thru a lifetime in the trust of the church now have to face this loss.

ZZ: Which is where the denial comes from 

Yes. The same is true of a woman who has loved her husband for twenty or thirty years and suddenly is confronted by her teenage daughter who asks --  Mommy, why did you let daddy do that to me when I was 6 or 7 years old? And the mother has to engage this shocking loss of the world that she thought she understood and the man she thought she knew and from whom she recieved love. She has to face the reality that she actually did know. That she saw out of the corner of her eyes that something was not right.

And the daughter is now thirteen or fourteen and has been carrying these scars for years, because they are deep and inflicted over a long period of time, not just once. Think of what that could mean, [for the mother] to be caught in this contradictory loyalty. She has a deep bind of love to her daughter. Who else does she love more in life? No one. She is willing to give up her life for this child. But now she is torn in two. And she also gets blamed. The daughter says to her why did you let this happen to me?

ZZ: A terrible failing.

We look to our authorities for direction, orientation and protection. And now [this] mother has failed to deliver protection and there is outrage [directed] at her. The daughter is now strong and articulate and finally angry enough to stand up to her mother and force her to face into this difficult reality. She demands answers and expresses anger and disappointment. Just feel into the significance of that loss for mother. Not only does she have to refashion her loyalty to her husband or her brother, but she also has to accept her own failing. 

You ask why the church has engaged in a defensive operation, to find the answer you have to look [beyond] the authorities in the church to the parishioners, the constituency and all the people who look[ed] to those church elders and [gave] them [with a] trust [that] seemed to be well placed.

That’s why its an evolutionary process. 

There is a lot of learning required for that woman to refashion her own identity, to repair her breach with her daughter, to receive that anger with grace and apologize and then to hold her husband accountable. [W]hatever she does is going to require an great amount of work on her part. She is going to have to develop abilities and skills and she’s going to need support. She’s going to need other people around her, other women, men, structures, a community to help her go through that  process. 

That’s what that organization The Voice Of The Faithful do for each other. They help each other go through that process. And that’s why this change is going to take time.

ZZ: Which character represents the church in this allegory?

Both the father and the mother. The Church is the abuser and the church is [also] the one who stood by and denied that anything was happening. 

ZZ: And who is the community that the church needs for support and how can we [be sure] that the angry daughter’s voice is being heard? Because there are few signs that any process has begun. Evolution is frustrating because it happens too slowly for the human eye to see. Perhaps you show me where to look.

I don’t agree. I think it is visible. But its not as fast as we would want or as fast as it should ideally be happening. Priests are pulled out of their churches more quickly at the first hint of abuse.

Corrective measures are happening a lot more quickly. Now, is it fast enough?  I’m not saying it is enough. All I’m saying is that there is progress.

ZZ: The progress you point to seems to all come from outside of the church. The community, the newspapers, the legal system.

No, it’s also happening inside the church. Within some church communities but even in the Vatican there is progress. The Pope is speaking to these issues. He has to articulate and talk about issues that 25 years ago he didn’t have to address. Perhaps he has gone through his own process of growth brought about by contact with people who have been abused and by getting to know and understand their stories. I imagine he would have been moved by these stories. And now he speaks to these issues. That’s progress.

ZZ: So are you saying that change within public service institutions needs to be supported and evoked by the society in which it functions?

Yes, but also in terms of individual citizens. Without the active engagement of citizens in the civic life of their community and in the health of their democracy, church, business or their organizations, society becomes more vulnerable to the dysfunctional inclinations of large organizations to engage in [self] protective behavior, even if it’s destructive. 

ZZ: When businesses don’t serve their clients, the clients stop buying...

And the Catholic church is also losing market share, even Protestant churches are losing it. And they know it. In an age of options, other religious [organizations] are filling an increasing demand for an alternative.

The church, like any organization, is sensitive to the erosion of its marketshare.

It will rely more on saving pagan babies, doing missionary activity amongst poor people who are more desperate, or relying on its more traditional countries where it has more authority and dominance, where there is no plurality of religious organizations serving the people.

ZZ: You’ve just described Poland.

I’ve done a lot of work in Latin and Central America or the Philippines where the situation is similar. There, and everywhere, the individual citizen can send a signal to the church, simply by leaving the church or by saying to the priest: “I can no longer accept the authority of the church when this authority has been rendered untrustworthy on too many occasions for too many people. Not across the board, but sufficiently untrustworthy a significant number of times, failing to clean its own house. I can no longer accept this authority.” A small signal compounded by a lot of people begins to have an impact.

ZZ: An interesting proposition but one that requires courage. There are many communities here where the church has a lot of political authority, so the act of accusing the church of any wrongdoing is an act betrayal to that community.

But it’s not just an accusation; it’s an act of loving repair. You’re trying to help the church do what it most deeply wants to be doing. The church wants to bring the sanctity of life to everyone’s life. The church wants to be bringing the sacred into the everyday. It wants to bring justice to the world. It’s deeply committed to social justice, it does not want to be one of the agents of injustice. 

ZZ: So, it’s not necessarily a heartless corporation?

Corporations aren’t even as heartless as people imagine them to be. And certainly the church isn’t as heartless as some people would imagine it to be when they see its defensive bureaucratic behavior of denial and excuses. Those behaviors are so disturbing that they make you doubt the fundamental values of the institution. But if we look to our own lives, we see that it’s hard for most of us to live up to our own fundamental values. We too engage in various forms of denial and defensive behavior. 

ZZ: But we look to the church to lead us and support us in living according to the highest values. If we can’t expect it to lead by example in this, then it has ceased to fulfill its basic purpose.

When the mother in our allegory is confronted by her 14-year old daughter -- her first responses, as inadequate as they might be, are also deeply human. It’s not enough to simply say to her husband: “we should put you in jail”. Ultimately, the job is to repair the damage that people do to themselves, not just to punish and prevent. In this case, I mean the damage the church has done to itself.

This changes the frame -- the activism of a citizen pushing for change in the Church is holding it accountable to its own ideals, not to his or her own personal [ones]. 

If the change comes from a place of compassion and is driven by people within the organization or congregations who care about its future, then that purpose stands a chance of becoming renewed and coming back to the service of its faithful.


Ronald Heifetz is the King Hussein Bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership and founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. This interview took place in December 2016 when Professor Heifetz was in Warsaw to conduct workshops and lecture at the Leadership Academy for Poland.


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