Humility Update: Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Waving

Pope Benedict XVI dazzled New York and Washington this week, both with the majesty of his office and with his personal humility. The latter confounded expectations.

I have not been a particular fan of the man who is now Pope. When he was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was considered by many to be the then-Pope’s enforcer. In November, 2002, some six months after the Boston Globe broke the story of systemic problems of child sexual abuse in the US Church, Cardinal Ratzinger said, according to the New York Times:

“’In the United States, there is constant news on this topic, but less than 1 percent of priests are guilty of acts of this type,’ he said in November 2002 during a visit to Spain. ’Therefore, one comes to the conclusion that it is intentional, manipulated – that there is a desire to discredit the church.’”

A Church-sponsored review board (see below) later concluded that the number was closer to 4 percent. Any organization where 4 percent, or even 1 percent, of its employees commit such a felony would rightly be in a heap of trouble. And the fact that some may have wanted to discredit the Church doesn’t mean that it is in the clear. Most organizations have critics, and even enemies. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t also have legitimate problems.

Cardinal LawThe insensitivity of Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2002 remarks reminded many of Cardinal Bernard Law, who headed the Boston Archdiocese when the abuse scandal first hit. Cardinal Law refused to apologize for six months; he refused even to meet with the victims or their representatives. He resigned in disgrace at year-end.

In July, 2003, a report by the Massachusetts attorney general concluded that at least 237 priests in the Boston Archdiocese had been accused of abusing children; 48 of the priests served during Cardinal Law’s tenure. The report concluded:

“There was no evidence that the Archdiocese at any time took a comprehensive analysis of possible systematic causes of the abuse.”

In 2004, a report by The National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Bishops, concluded that

“There were credible allegations that several thousand priests, comprising four percent of priests in ministry over the last half-century, committed acts of sexual abuse of minors.”

In all, it cited evidence that 10,667 children had been abused by 4,392 priests. But it found further that:

“Perhaps even more troubling than the criminal and sinful acts of priests who engaged in abuse of minors was the failure of some bishops to respond to the abuse in an effective manner, consistent with their positions as leaders of the flock with a duty to protect the most vulnerable among us from possible predators.”

The report found that the Vatican shared some of the blame:

“It appears that the seriousness of this issue and the magnitude of the problem were not appreciated fully in Rome. Many attribute the Vatican’s inaction prior to the current crisis to a general reluctance to interfere with bishops. Others attribute it to a view in Rome that the sexual abuse of minors by members of the Catholic clergy was uniquely an American problem.”

It was against this backdrop that Pope Benedict was viewed by some, including me, with skepticism. Any claim to moral authority had to be viewed against the Vatican’s, and his personal, initial response.

All that changed with his visit last week.

Overcoming the Perception of Indifference

One of the principles of crisis management is that the perception of indifference is the single most powerful determinant of reputational harm. Organizations and their leaders are forgiven every day when bad things happen; even when very, very bad things happen. But they won’t be forgiven if they don’t seem to care that something bad happened. In the early days of the scandal, the Church didn’t seem to care.

Although later than it could have been, Pope Benedict’s comments and his actions demonstrated that he does care.

His US trip began with an interview on board his plane in which the Pope chose to answer a previously-submitted question on the scandal. He said he was “deeply ashamed” about the behavior of priests and the Church’s response. This admission dominated the front pages of newspapers when he arrived. In his outdoor mass in Washington he said:

“No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse. It is important that those who have suffered be given loving and pastoral attention.”

He also agreed to meet privately with some of the abuse victims from Boston. In this unannounced meeting the Pope spoke individually with victims, and treated them with the dignity they were denied when Cardinal Law refused to meet with them. The Boston Globe described the meeting, as recounted by one of the victims:

“And then, one by one, the victims rose to speak with the pope, as he clasped their hands. ‘I actually kept my head down; I couldn’t believe it until I saw his little red shoes,’ Olan Horne of Lowell said. ‘I looked up, and I had the eyes of somebody’s grandfather looking at me. He was a very sincere, humble man.’”

The Globe called the visit a “defining moment” in the Pope’s visit to the US.

The New York Times quoted Catholic journalist and author David Gibson as saying:

“’It wasn’t even visual. Just the very fact of it was as powerful as his words,’ he said. ‘They didn’t want it to be the story line. But it has been the story line. The irony is that this story line — the sexual abuse scandal — has done more than anything else could have to help us see the Pope Benedict that the Vatican wanted us to see.”

Humility as a Necessary Leadership Attribute

This blog has noted that effective crisis management requires a dollop of humility. Humility tempers other attributes, and makes a leader even stronger. Humility helps a leader to recognize that maybe – just maybe – he or she might be wrong; that there may be other valid perspectives; that he or she doesn’t have to be the smartest person in every room, at every meeting.

Humility also helps leaders to connect with others up, down, and across the chain of command; to build organizations and cultures that more likely thrive; to understand the perspectives of other stakeholders. Humility recognizes that there’s a big difference between responsibility and blame; that taking responsibility regardless of where the blame may lay down the organization is the first step in getting people to focus on a solution rather than simply point fingers.

Pope Benedict has demonstrated just this quality.

And it was noticed. Time magazine recounted the reaction of a radio reporter covering the Pope’s visit to Ground Zero in New York:

“As photographers and cameramen put away their equipment, a local radio reporter was giving an instant report from his cell phone: ‘There’s a humility about this man,’ he said, ‘that is quite something.’ he said.

In 2005 The New York Times described the changes in Cardinal Ratzinger as he dealt with the duties of handling the abuse issue for the Vatican.

“For the past four years, the man who is now Pope Benedict XVI had more responsibility than any other cardinal for deciding whether and how to discipline Roman Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse.

On Friday mornings, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sat in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith poring over dossiers detailing allegations of abuse sent in by bishops from around the world, according to two top officials in his office. He found the cases so disturbing that he called the work ‘our Friday penance.’

The scandal changed the church in the United States, and it may have changed the new pope as well.”

Cardinal O’MalleyOne of the key forces in the healing that has taken place in Boston and beyond (and the person most credited with persuading the Pope to meet with the Boston victims) is Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who succeeded Cardinal Law as head of the Boston Archdiocese.

The Boston Globe noted that Cardinal O’Malley had a track record of cleaning up the abuse messes left by prior bishops:

“The [meeting between the Pope and the Boston victims] has become a defining moment of O’Malley’s career, which has been permanently entwined with the abuse crisis. O’Malley had headed two dioceses – Fall River and Palm Beach, Fla., – wracked by abuse scandals when he was tapped in 2003 to take over the crisis-torn Archdiocese of Boston, still reeling from the revelations of widespread abuse and coverup that led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law.

Now, not only did O’Malley arrange this week’s historic meeting between victims and the pope, but he included victims who had left the Catholic Church and had been critical of its leaders. And O’Malley made sure the pope knew exactly what had happened in Boston – he handed the pontiff a handmade book listing the names of nearly 1,500 alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse from the Archdiocese of Boston, and as the pope slowly turned the pages, the cardinal mentioned that some of the victims died from suicide or drug abuse.

When the pope saw the book of names, ‘there was an audible intake of breath,’ said the Rev. John J. Connolly, who is a special assistant to the cardinal for abuse issues.

Cardinal O’Malley’s role is completely consistent with his actions as Boston Archbishop. To me Cardinal O’Malley became the hero of the abuse scandal on his first day in office, July 30, 2003, when he delivered a homily that addressed the abuse issue head on:

“The whole Catholic community is ashamed and anguished because of the pain and the damage inflicted on so many young people, and because of our inability or unwillingness to deal with the crime of sexual abuse of minors. To those victims and their families, we beg forgiveness.”

He clearly cared. Better yet, he took steps to make that caring manifest. He persevered and was instrumental in persuading Pope Benedict that the Pope should do so as well.

Unfinished Business

Not everyone is satisfied that the Pope’s recent actions go far enough. The New York Times quoted two activists in particular who wish more would be done:

“Anne Burke, an Illinois Supreme Court justice and a member of a National Review Board appointed by the bishops to help the church recover from the scandal, is among three board members who met in 2004 with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict a year later.

‘We named names, told him how cardinals and certain bishops were so uncooperative,’ she said. ‘When we left the meeting, he said, Thank you very much, I appreciate all the information. And he took copious notes.’

She says she is moved to see Benedict now responding to the victims, but not surprised that he had not punished bishops. ‘This is an Enron crisis in the Catholic Church,’ she said. ‘The only difference is that the shareholders in Enron were able to get rid of their board of directors.’

David Clohessy, an abuse victim and an organizer of the largest nationwide support group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said on Friday, ‘If the pope would clearly, publicly and severely discipline even a handful of complicit bishops, bishops who knew or suspected abuse and ignored it or concealed it, that’s the easiest and most effective step.

Mr. Clohessy acknowledged that victims might sound bitter and thankless just when the pope himself is finally taking their side. He began to cry, as he said: ‘We’re not interested in punishment for punishment’s sake. We’re interested in consequences because that deters more recklessness, secrecy and deceit.’”

But the tide has clearly turned. The Church as an institution takes its direction from its leaders, and the senior-most leader has spoken. Although it came late and there may be more to do, it is a start.

PopeTaking crises seriously is one of the burdens of leadership. And humility is one of the attributes that allows the leader to take crises seriously; to think and feel as a stakeholder would, and to act accordingly.

The Church and all who care about it are better because this pope has led with humility.

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Posted on: April 21, 2008
Posted by: Fred

One thought on “Humility Update: Pope Benedict XVI”

  1. Michael D says:

    This is really insightful with a good background on the predicament the Catholic Church is/was in. Although I remember some of this, I was out of the country for a big portion of the year and missed some of the news coverage. Thanks for pointing out the right thing to do. I think some leaders forget from time to time.

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