Benedict Xvi: Will He Ever Lead?

By John Phillips
Word on Employment Law
September 27, 2010

When it was announced this week that the chairman of the Vatican Bank was under investigation for money laundering, the Vatican said it was “perplexed and astonished.” The Vatican also expressed “maximum confidence” in the chairman. Sound familiar? The Vatican was astonished when the child sex abuse scandal first broke. The Vatican expressed confidence that Catholic priests would never engage in such outrageous conduct.

The bank scandal may divert attention away from the child abuse scandal but not for long. There are too many new allegations, too many adults who finally reveal a childhood destroyed. Unfortunately, I can think of no event in recent history that demonstrates so clearly what happens when people at the top of an organization fail to lead during a crisis.

I have previously used this tragedy in an effort to draw employment and leadership lessons (here, here, here, here, here, and here). I have looked at Pope Benedict XVI as a CEO — indeed, the CEO of CEOs. At a time when corporate CEOs are vilified, it seemed to me that the Pope had a chance to set an example for all leaders on dealing with a crisis.

My most recent post (the last link above) suggested that the Pope was beginning to lead. Alas, notwithstanding another statement released by the Vatican this week about the great success of Benedict’s recent visit to Europe, this trip underscores the depth of his failure in dealing with what’s usually called the greatest crisis in the Catholic Church’s history.

As he started his recent European trip, he decried aggressive secularism in the Church, and when he ended the trip, he decried the marginalization of Christianity. Although he has increased his references to the Church’s sex scandal, apologized for it, and met with a few victims of priestly sexual abuse, he has hardly dealt with the crisis in any kind of meaningful way. There is even still the unaddressed allegation that, before he became Pope, he participated in the cover-up of the abuse scandal. With all due respect, it would seem that secularism and marginalization couldn’t possibly be his main concerns?

The sex abuse crisis first broke as an America-only problem. Since then, longstanding abuse in country after country has been uncovered. The latest is Belgium. It’s difficult to believe that there won’t be others. By now, one can’t help wondering if it ever occurred in the Vatican.

To those who will view this post as an attack on their faith, I can only say it is more akin to a dirge. I have always given the Roman Church credit for keeping Christianity alive. It has never been perfect (the Crusades come to mind), but no organization can come close to the Catholic Church in defending Christianity over the centuries, keeping it alive, and causing it to grow. I still believe that.

However, I can think of no other church, organization, institution, corporation, or union that could have survived the child sex abuse scandal. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church’s continuing existence has much more to do with its incredible world-wide power than Benedict’s leadership. Incredible leadership could have occurred if Benedict and the Vatican hierarchy had fired priests and bishops for their perversely cruel behavior and the longstanding cover-up of that behavior. Such leadership would have established the touchstone for any employer’s obligation to be fair, just, and honest.

Everywhere Benedict travels, he’s met by a relatively small, but very vocal, crowd of detractors, protesting that the man who is called Holy Father and His Holiness should have already cleansed the church of all its monsters and begun healing the deep wounds that continue suffering in the body of Christ on earth. The pope’s protesters increasingly carry signs that say things that would have never been said only a few years ago. The most startling sign that I saw on the recent European visit showed a picture of Benedict and these words: “Boss of world’s largest sex abuse gang.”

Benedict still has time to lead as the Vicar of Christ by putting aside his aides’ apparent assurances that everything is alright and tackling this lingering crisis with fearless gumption, upright humility, and uncompromising resolve. He seems like a very nice man, but he needs to lead; and he can still show the world, as perhaps no one ever has, the profound meaning of leadership.

What’s to be learned? If you lead your company or organization, be willing to make tough, wrenching decisions. Don’t provide cover for long-time friends who’ve violated the trust placed in them. Don’t keep bad employees. If something terrible has happened, clean house. If it happened on your watch in whole or in part, step aside. When you say you’re going to do something, do it. Let the example you set match the words you speak.


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