Sex, Lies and Coverups: Vatican’s PR disaster

April 5, 2010

A version of this was published by DNA on Apr 6th at . a PDF version is at

Vatican’s PR Disaster: Sex, Lies and Coverups

Rajeev Srinivasan

The raging controversy over child abuse in the Catholic church is spiraling out of control. What started a few years ago in Boston has now spread to Ireland, Germany and Brazil. Without making any value judgment about guilt or innocence – though there is a lot to say about betraying trust – it is obvious that damage control and containment were poor.

The apparent facts are as follows: many people are alleging that they were sexually and physically abused as children by Catholic priests. Furthermore, they allege a cover-up, whereby predatory padres, instead of being disciplined or dismissed, were spirited off to distant parishes where many continued dubious activities unmolested.

Some damaging allegations are now even reaching the top of the hierarchy, Pope Benedict, formerly Archbishop Ratzinger. It is being whispered that the then-archbishop was aware of the problem, and that he colluded in the cover-ups. The church could have handled itself much better, whether or not there is truth in the accusation: perception is reality, after all.

There are case studies of how large companies handled public-relations disasters, and these are relevant. For, the Catholic church, in an alternative retelling, is the oldest, largest, richest, and most successful multi-national company ever. Its offering, religious belief, is in high demand; the church is a ruthless and savvy competitor.

There is a remarkable advantage to religious faith: It is the only product where, if successful, that is, the customer gets what he wants, he is pathetically grateful; on the other hand, if the customer does not get what he wants, he blames his own lack of faith, not the church. Most companies would kill for such a ‘teflon’ product. Unfortunately, only Microsoft has come even close.

A little history is in order: The Catholic church was born at the Council of Nicea circa 345 CE; it immediately proceeded to create the dominant design by destroying other alternatives on offer. It declared as heretics, for instance, the Gnostics, the Cathars, the Nestorians, et al, and burned them at the stake. The result was first-mover advantage and monopoly profit. It also gained Intellectual Property protection by declaring its Book to be inviolate, the literal word of God.

When Martin Luther created a competitor, Protestantism, the Catholic church lost market share. However, it retaliated with its Counter-Reformation, and the result has been an uneasy duopoly with fluctuating market-share, and, in Pope John Paul’s pithy words, the Protestants “preying upon [his] flock like wolves”.

The next major upheaval was the Enlightenment in Europe, which dulled the appeal of the core product. People balked at vague promises about Heaven: they wanted instant gratification, and so competing faith products appeared, for instance Communism.

Pope John Paul was a savvy CEO, and he engineered a hostile takeover of Communism, via a joint venture with the Americans. He knew the value of PR, so he created more saints than all his predecessors combined – such free publicity! When he found his core market under attack from the followers of Mohammed and of Secular Humanism, he decided to explore new markets, as he declared in Delhi: “plant the cross in Asia in the third millennium”.

Alas, Pope Benedict is no marketer, but a rigid, doctrinaire theologian. A savvy manager would have shown contrition, muttered mea culpas, and sought forgiveness; this plays well because people like to see the mighty humbled. Consider some examples: Johnson & Johnson after the Tylenol scare, Union Carbide after Bhopal, and Toyota in its problems with faulty brakes.

When bottles of the pain-reliever were found laced with cyanide in 1982 in Chicago, it was obvious it was not a production issue, and that some criminal had injected the poison into bottles on retail shelves. But J&J took full responsibility, immediately apologized, and recalled every unit at considerable cost. Result: J&J gained a reputation as a caring and ethical pharmaceutical company.

After the chemical leak in 1984, Union Carbide pointed fingers at everybody but itself; when it offered compensation, it made insulting racist assumptions. There was an international criminal warrant on the CEO’s head, and the company never quite recovered from the fiasco.

In Toyota’s recent disaster, it first pretended that there was no problem; it then underplayed its response. Its Chairman was nowhere in sight to take the blame or institute corrective action. Toyota’s hard-won reputation for honesty, dependability and straight-shooting compared to fast-talking American competitors has been damaged.

Learning from all this, the Vatican should not have attempted to brazen things out, suggesting that the reports of abuse were “gossip”. It should have made dramatic concessions, admitting fault, instead of getting defensive. A few scapegoats should have been sacrificed, and seen leaving, weeping in contrition. Some actual reforms should be put in place. A Papal resignation would be ideal, thus exalting the office and the individual. Sadly, marketers were out-shouted by dogmatists; the whole thing is a fine mess now.


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