A Case for Truth
by Kirk O.
Focus: A public relations professional is asked to counsel the
local Roman Catholic Archdiocese on how to respond to the sex abuse
John Allen, partner at a major public relations firm, put down the phone
and pondered how his skills, honed in the business world, might apply
to the situation just described to him. On the phone was the chancellor
(the COO) of the local Roman Catholic Archdiocese, Monsignor Burke. Burke
told Allen that Archbishop O'Brien, leader of the local Catholic archdiocese,
hoped that Allen would help the archdiocese deal with demands for information
and disclosure about cases involving sexual abuse by priests.
Though he was not a Catholic, Allen had gotten to know the Archbishop
when they both served on a mayor's advisory council together. Allen admired
Archbishop O'Brien's energy and insight and assumed he was an effective
leader for the local Catholic Church.
Archbishop O'Brien was struggling to respond to the abuse of minors
by approximately 15 priests in the archdiocese over the past 30 years.
The cases, each tragic in itself, presented the archdiocese with extremely
difficult decisions. Among the most difficult were the communications
The crisis was not of Archbishop O'Brien's creation. The 15 priests
were ordained and committed their horrific acts under the administrations
of past archbishops. Of these archbishops, only O'Brien's most recent
predecessor, retired Archbishop Solano, was still alive. Solano, now 85,
lived quietly in a parish rectory in a nearby suburb. O'Brien succeeded
Solano as archbishop in 1998. All the cases of priest sex abuse uncovered
to date involved actions before 1998, though two of the priests were still
in active ministry up until mid-2002. O'Brien removed both while detailed
investigations were conducted of allegations involving their behavior
before 1998. Those investigations, complicated by the long period since
the alleged acts, were still ongoing.
Monsignor Burke, taking Allen into his confidence, outlined several
of the communications dilemmas the archdiocese now faced:
- The press was demanding that the archdiocese release all internal
personnel records on the 15 priests involved in past cases of sexual
abuse. To date, O'Brien had revealed there were 15 but had not named
any other than the two who were removed from active ministry in 2002.
Media accounts had named three others. Burke told Allen that eight were
deceased. Of the remaining seven, three had many years earlier resigned
from the ministry under pressure, two had retired in good standing but
still lived in the area, and the final two were those who had been removed
in 2002 by Archbishop O'Brien.
- A local judge was hearing a substantial liability suit by victims
against the archdiocese for negligence in transferring accused priests
from parish to parish rather than removing them from ministry. The judge
too wanted the archdiocese to release the personnel records to the plaintiffs.
Believing the personnel records held many uncorroborated charges, the
archdiocese had resisted releasing them, but was increasingly criticized
in the media for this decision. The judge was considering whether to
compel the release of the files; the archdiocese then might have to
decide whether to appeal such an order.
- Archbishop O'Brien, seeking closure to this ugly chapter in the history
of the local church, wanted to make a definitive statement that "all
known sexual abuse allegations against priests have been referred to
the Select Commission for investigation." O'Brien had established
the Select Commission in 2002 to deal expeditiously with all past and
future allegations of sexual abuse against priests and other Catholic
Church staff. The Archbishop's one hesitation was that he did know of
one additional allegation against a venerable former auxiliary (assistant)
bishop, now retired and living in a residence for the elderly in the
city. The allegation, which dated back 50 years, was considered extremely
questionable when it surfaced 20 years ago in an anonymous letter to
the then archbishop. Now the allegation could not be investigated due
to the death of the alleged victim and all the members of his family.
The auxiliary bishop had had a truly distinguished 50-year career of
service to the minority community in the archdiocese and frequently
was honored for his accomplishments. O'Brien thought the allegation
so unlikely, given the impossibility of investigation and the potential
damage to both the auxiliary bishop's reputation and to the good relations
he had created with the minority community, that he had used his prerogative
not to refer this case to the Select Commission for consideration.
- Monsignor Burke shared with Allen that he and the archbishop had
no idea whether all cases of sexual abuse had actually surfaced. In
fact, Burke suggested they had heard rumors of other cases but could
not verify them down due to the death of the priest involved, the unknown
whereabouts of some victims and the reluctance of some victims to talk.
Burke was uncertain how the archbishop should respond if asked "Do
you believe there are other cases yet to be discovered?"
- Lay groups in the archdiocese were asking for disclosure of allegations
coming before the Select Commission. The commission, composed of priests
and lay persons, met in secret and kept its deliberations secret. It
had been criticized in some quarters as being "stacked" with
lay friends of the archbishop. The activist lay groups argued only a
public process could assure all that the Church was taking new cases
seriously and that perpetrators would not be reassigned to new ministries
where they might abuse others.
- The media were pressing for an interview with Archbishop O'Brien on
what he knew and when he knew it regarding the two priests still in
active ministry until 2002.
- The media were also pressing for an interview with retired Archbishop
Solano. To date, the archdiocese had turned down any such requests,
partly because of Solano's advancing age and partly because O'Brien
believed Solano, like other bishops, knew little about the recidivism
rates for sexual molesters and probably reinstated priests in good faith.
However, O'Brien also knew that Solano had held certain "old school"
beliefs that priest's failings were private matters between themselves
and their archbishop, and that one of the archbishop's main tasks was
to protect the Church from public scandal. Monsignor Burke also shared
with Allen that some priests thought Solano believed the priesthood
was a sacred brotherhood in which every member protected every other
- The local chapter of Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests
(SNAP) was pressing for a public meeting with Archbishop O'Brien and
wanted to ask him a number of questions about cases, both current and
past, now being investigated. While the archbishop would normally be
willing to meet with almost anyone, he was troubled by the group's ready
access to the local and national media. He was afraid they might unfairly
characterize the archbishop's views when they did talk to the press.
Now the group wanted to meet again and bring with them David Clohessy,
the national director of SNAP and himself a victim of priest sexual
- Since early 2002 when the latest series of priest sex abuse cases
emerged, church attendance and donations to parishes and other charities
in the archdiocese had fallen by 20-40 percent. Archbishop O'Brien wanted
badly to find a way of "clearing the air" and reassuring the
faithful that they could again "place their trust" in their
archbishop and in the vast majority of priests who had never faced an
allegation. He had suggested making such statements as:
"The nightmare of sexual abuse by priests is now behind us."
"Our parishioners can be confident that the problem of sexual abuse
has been effectively dealt with."
"We know so much more today about sexual offenders that this cannot
O'Brien hoped Allen could advise him regarding the wisdom and honesty
of making such statements.
- Finally, Archbishop O'Brien was worried about how he would handle
the media going forward. In a few months, the National Bishops' Office
would release a report on the compliance by all U.S. bishops with guidelines
adopted in June 2002 by the annual bishops' meeting. While Archbishop
O'Brien knew that his record would be generally good, he feared bishops
and archbishops in nearby dioceses would not get good ratings. Should
he respond to requests for interviews to talk about his record and that
of the other bishops? Should he express his opinion that those bishops
were dragging their feet badly?
Allen leaned back further in his chair and increasingly saw parallels
between what Archbishop O'Brien faced and situations Allen had handled
for corporate CEO's in the past. And Allen wondered if the advice he should
give to a religious leader would be any different than what he would give
to a CEO.
Kirk O. Hanson is executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied
Ethics. This case was prepared for discussion at the September 15, 2003,
meeting of the Arthur W. Page Society. The case is presented to facilitate
discussion of management and communications issues, not to illustrate
the effective or ineffective handling of an administrative situation.
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