Smoke Signals

Next week, as the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church begin voting for a new pope, they will do so as leaders of a scandal-plagued institution.

Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien is only the latest member of the church to confess to sexual misconduct, and in January of this year the release of an immense trove of church documents revealed that Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles effectively shielded pedophile priests from public scrutiny or law enforcement. For this reason, many Catholics feel that Mahony should not be permitted to attend or vote in the upcoming conclave.

While many management lessons can be learned from the mistakes of the Catholic Church, the case of Mahony offers a particularly vivid illustration of what happens when you neglect what Peter Drucker called the “duty to anticipate impact.”

Portrait of Pope Leo X with cardinals de Medici and de Rossi by Raphael
Portrait of Pope Leo X with cardinals de Medici and de Rossi by Raphael

It is the job of the organization to look ahead and to think through which of its impacts are likely to become social problems,” Drucker wrote in The Age of Discontinuity. If an organization fails to take the lead, the problem grows and, in Drucker’s words, “boomerangs.”

“Conversely,” he added, “whenever the leaders of an institution anticipate an impact and think through what needs to be done to prevent it or to make it acceptable, they are given a respectful hearing by the public and the politicians.”

In an open letter of apology, Mahony himself admitted that he’d failed to anticipate impacts of all sorts. “Even as we began to confront the problem, I remained naïve myself about the full and lasting impact these horrible acts would have on the lives of those who were abused by men who were supposed to be their spiritual guides,” Mahony wrote, apologizing “for the years when ignorance, bad decisions and moral failings resulted in the unintended consequences of more being done to protect the Church—and even the clergy perpetrators—than was done to protect our children.”

Drucker had some empathy for institutions embroiled in scandal. “The popular thing is to assert that the problems are obvious,” he wrote in Toward the Next Economics. “They are not.” But for that reason it was all the more imperative for an organization to be out in front of problems. “The ‘public relations’ attitude is totally inappropriate and, in fact, self-defeating,” Drucker warned, and it “penalizes business far more seriously than willingness to be unpopular could possibly have done.”

That public-relations attitude came out in full force in a letter that Mahony wrote in 2000 (part of a batch of released documents) questioning whether the church ought to make widespread public announcements. “We could open up yet another firestorm—and it takes us years to recover from those,” he worried. “There is no alternative to public announcements at all the Masses in 15 parishes??? Wow—that really scares the daylights out of me!!”

What do you think explains the failure of the Catholic Church and officials like Roger Mahony to address the abuse allegations sooner—naïveté, panic, indifference or something else?