Can Pope Francis steer the Catholic Church out of crisis?

Pope Francis, crisis manager in chief, just closed an unprecedented four-day summit at the Vatican attended by the heads of all national bishops’ conferences from more than 130 countries to tackle the issue of Child Abuse. This has been described by many observers as “the most pressing crisis facing the modern Church”. But can he successfully manage the crisis?

48 hours passed since the closing of the conference and news of the jailing of Cardinal George Pell on charges of sexual offences against children reverberated throughout the Catholic world.

Because of his exclusive point of view, I reached out to Yago de la Cierva (bio here), professor of Crisis Communications at Facoltà di Scienze della Comunicazione sociale at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and Lecturer in Corporate Communications (Organizational Behaviour) at IESE in Madrid MBA to briefly discuss the challenges facing Pope Francis.

Since 2001 you have been teaching “Crisis Management” at the Pontificial University of the Holy Cross. A topic that is hardly taught at regular universities. How did this come about?

The “Crisis management for the Church” course was the result of good listening. In 2000, the Communication School consulted a group of bishops about their most pressing communication needs, and dealing with crises was one of them. Therefore, the School decided to divide the course “Dealing with Media & Crisis communication” in two different subjects, and multiply the number of hours by three. I was at the time in Rome doing a sabbatical, and I was offered the subject, which I accepted. Since then, this matter (called “preventive communication and crisis management”) has become one of the most popular courses of the syllabus.

In 2008 you published a book called “Crisis communications in the Church”. Why did you feel the need to address this topic at that specific time?

The 2008 book was the result of teaching and research since 2001. The real shock happened in the first classes. As it is common in business schools, I use the case study method, which allows you to stress the decision-making element in any crises. I remember when I used a case of sexual abuse of minors at the time. No student (most of them priests) wanted to comment on that, so I asked the most outspoken one, “why nobody wants to talk?”

His answer still resonates in me: “We don’t want even to think that we would have to deal with something like that”… Less than a year later, the Boston Globe uncovered the systematic cover-up by the Archdiocese of Boston, followed by many other examples in the US and in Austria, Ireland, Australia, Germany, etc.

Since then, I do not need to justify this course any more. In 2014 I published a second version, called “The Church, a glass house” (soon to be published in English) and a collection of cases useful to discuss in class. But the principles are the same.

Why do you think crisis management is so important today for non profit organizations?

Crisis management is increasing its usefulness for non profit organizations for three reasons. First, the raising importance of reputation: in today’s institutions, the intangible assets are much more valuable than the tangible ones.

This is especially true when your funding comes from donations. Second, the impact of social media in human relations – people demands accountability and transparency through those channels – and in the acceleration of any crisis cycle.

And third, because of some dramatic cases like Oxfam in Haiti, which broke the aura of NGOs as synonymous of “good people”. Since then, indexes like the Edelman Trust Barometer see NGOs’ reputation going down.

In the preface to your book you write “Crisis communications from major corporate crisis (…) have been analyzed in detail and much has been learnt. But there are no text analyzing historical crisis involving individuals or Church institutions to draw key learnings from”. Which key learnings would you draw from the 20 year long unresolved child sex abuse crisis which has struck the Catholic Church?

Let me point out that since 2008, some excellent books have been published. I’ll mention two among many: “Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal”, by Greg Erlandson and Matthew Bunson; and “Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church”, by Russell Shaw, although they refer only to the sexual abuse and to the circumstances of the Church in the United States. I also recommend “Towards Healing and Renewal”, by Charles Scicluna, Hans Zollner & David J. Ayotte. 

My book covers all kind of crises a Church institution should be prepared to confront, and with a broader mindset. This year, for instance, I had 25 students from 19 countries, so problems and solutions should be also global. Because I was thinking in people who need to study those issues, my approach is more systematic, as any handbook.

In the opening page of your book you place a quote from Pope John Paul II “Modern Church is making an effort to become a glass house, transparent and credible, and this is a good thing”. Twenty years down the road it seems the Catholic Church has not been able to accomplish the task. At what cost in terms of credibility and reputation?

I have to say, the transformation of the Catholic Church in this specific issue (sexual abuse of minors committed by Catholic priests and religious) since 2003 is just amazing. New universal norms tackling both abuse and cover up, independent investigations on cases from the past funded by the Church, listening efforts towards the victims, training on prevention and creating safe environment for minors…

The decision to stop this tragedy is evident, considering that many States are doing much less helping families (most the offenders are family members) and cleaning other professions such as doctors, school teachers, sports trainers, physiotherapists, etc., responsible of more cases than priests of any religion.

Look at the meeting happening in Rome last week: I haven’t seen anything like that done by Volkswagen after the diesel scandal, or United Nations after the repeated cases of abuses committed by the blue helmets.

The real problem here is twofold. First of all, the Church is quite different from a multinational company, in which the CEO says something, and everybody obeys. No, the real authority in the Catholic Church is handled by local bishops. That’s why Pope Francis did the right thing in calling to Rome the presidents of all bishops conferences, to get them onboard on the cultural change required to put into practice the very strict universal norms on this issue already in place.

So, the Church is improving, but not at the same pace in every country. There are places with an impressive record of protecting minors, listening to victims, collaborating with the authorities in fighting this crime, and removing abusers from priesthood, while other Christian communities are still far from that. I’m confident that last week’s meeting will make a huge impact everywhere.

The second is… the lack of importance the Church places on communication. With very few honorary exceptions, Communicators in the Church are a second or third-level job. The causes are a mix of everything, but the effects are completely old-school: the Church is trying to fix the problem without communicating properly. Of course it does not work! 

It looks to me that the Church has still not discover that there is no effective action in this without effective communication. Otherwise, people not only won’t listen, but their reaction will be one of rage and rejection.

I have to say, one of the best interventions in the Rome meeting was about transparency and media. A very respected Mexican TV journalist gave a truly impactful speech: it is worth reading! Still, it would take a lot more than a speech to change that mentality of many bishops. 

Crisis provides an opportunity for change. In your book you write: “However, any change to the status quo finds opposition within the organization”. Would you say opposition from within has been one contributing factor the Vatican’s inability to address this crisis?

I don’t think the problem is that people inside the Vatican oppose this reform, started by John Paul in 2002, reinforced by Pope Benedict and now stressed by Pope Francis.

The difficulty, in my view, is that Church authorities don’t really listen to public opinion, and its communication team (which is very competent, by the way) is considered an auxiliary department, with no word on policy. This is the real drama.


It looks like they are fixing an “internal problem”, and they reject external pressure because they want to do it at their usual speed. And remember: Rome is called the Eternal City for a reason.

So why has the Vatican not been listening to external reports? 

Maybe the Catholic Church has been dismissing what the journalists say for many years, because the media is usually in conflict with the Church in many issues: family protection, sexuality, abortion, migration, religious freedom, etc.

After so many battles, it is so easy for a bishop not to give any credit to any media… not even in this issue, where the media clearly defend public interest. Also, there are many examples of sensationalism and bad journalism while covering cases of sexual abuse of minors, which intensifies the non-listening process.

Crisis management is about leadership and assumption of responsibility. Pope Francis is under serious pressure to provide that leadership and generate workable solutions to the crisis. What would you say are the three most pressing challenges he faces? 

Yes, there is a lot of pressure over the Church. I think this is not bad in itself. Even the Pope agreed in the fact that, without that pressure, the Church would not have changed its corrupted ways in many places and for many years.

What I saw last week in Rome was a Pope fully determined to change the Church in the only way the Church changes, which is leading all bishops to understand the problem and its solutions. Slower but consistenly.

But words don’t change anything. Everybody expects concrete examples of a radical change of direction. Three principles apply here: that “there is no place in the priesthood or in religious life for someone who could harm the young”, using John Paul II words; “that from now on, those behaviours [cover-ups by bishops] will not be tolerated any more”; and “we will investigate the truth and will communicate our findings, whatever it might be”, both by Pope Francis.

The present challenge is exactly to put those three commitments into practice. And this can’t be done without open, honest and fluent communications. So my first request would be: please put an authoritative and bold communicator in the team dealing with those issues at the Vatican, so there is real listening before speaking.

Prof. Yago del Cierva, professor of Crisis Communications at Facoltà di Scienze della Comunicazione sociale at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and Lecturer in Corporate Communications (Organizational Behaviour) at IESE in Madrid MBA

Yago de la Cierva is the author of “La comunicazione di crisi nella Chiesa” (2008) “Scenari di crisi nella Chiesa – Esercizi per la prevenzione, la pianificazione e il training di comunicatori ecclesiali” (2014), “La Chiesa casa di Vetro – Proposte ed esperienze di comunicazione durante le crisi e le controversie mediatiche, also available in Spanish” also available in Spanish (2014). His latest book is “Leading Companies through storms and crises” (Pearson, 2018).

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