Catholic Church Could Learn from the Times

By Rev. James Martin
Hartford Courant [Hartford CT]
June 11, 2003

As a Catholic priest, it is difficult for me not to feel sorry for The New York Times as it continues to confront the case of Jayson Blair, the reporter whose fraud has been well documented. On the other hand, I know one priest who, after a solid year of reading about the scandals in his church, guiltily confessed to a bit of schadenfreude (gloating at another's misfortune). Either way, the parallels to the Catholic Church's recent scandals are unavoidable.

In both cases, a revered and trusted institution, knit into the fabric of the country, reels from a shocking case of professional abuse. Despite a long and distinguished history, the organization's impressive set of internal controls fails utterly, allowing a string of abuses that strikes at the very heart of its mission.

In the beginning, the malefactor is regarded as both clever and articulate, apparently well-suited to his vocation. As his career progresses, however, reliable witnesses begin to suspect wrongdoing. At one point, a superior writes a strong letter to senior management arguing that the man should no longer work for the institution. The protests, however, go largely unheeded. Besides, why not give the man the benefit of the doubt?

Eventually, the employee is caught in the act and, after some scolding, seems chastened, even "cured." Confident in his repentance, management allows him to keep working. Yet his unethical behavior continues. Finally, when his misdeeds are fully revealed, he is relieved of his position. His managers and colleagues (to say nothing of the public) are stunned to discover that the wrongdoing is far more extensive than they could have imagined.

In response, the organization quickly institutes tough new standards. In the wake of apologies, calls are made for the resignation of senior management, whom some condemn for allowing such behavior. "Accountability" becomes an important piece of the scandal. In time, more employees fall under suspicion. And, finally, some senior-level mangers are forced to resign.

And many wonder: How could this have happened?

In the above tale, one can easily substitute the names of the notorious priests John Geoghan or Paul Shanley for Jayson Blair. Of course, the scandals at The Times and in the Catholic Church are very different. The church faced numerous accusations of sexual abuse against minors - certainly far greater crimes than plagiarism or making up quotes.

And the case of Jayson Blair seems to have been isolated. The church's scandals, on the other hand, reached from diocese to diocese, from bishop to bishop.

Still, it is instructive to note that despite the noblest of histories, the tightest of controls, the most talented of employees and the best of intentions, any institution is capable of being used by a manipulative person for his or her own ends. No human organization lies beyond the reach of corruptible human nature. Moreover, the immorality of some does not mean that the institution is fundamentally flawed, that all its employees are corrupt or that it cannot continue in its mission of public service. It might be useful for the news media to reflect on this the next time they cast a critical eye on the Catholic Church.

It also might be helpful for the church to pay careful attention to The Times, which swiftly provided as full an explanation of its malfeasance as one might reasonably expect from an internal management review. Many dioceses in this country did not, and the church still pays the price for their tragic slowness.

The case of Jayson Blair is a sad page in the history of The New York Times. But the organization showed that it understood the need to come clean immediately - and publicly - about its wrongdoings. Top management also showed a willingness to accept responsibility for the institution's failures, when Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd stepped down late this week.

Galling as it might be for some church leaders to hear, they may have more to learn from The Times than simply the news.

The Rev. James Martin is a Jesuit priest and associate editor of America, a national Catholic magazine. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.


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