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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

A step-by-step plan for Pope Benedict XVI

Originally Posted on Washington Post’s On Leadership Blog

Q: Pope Benedict XVI’s efforts to deal with the Church’s sex scandal raises this question: Can a leader hold managers to account on an issue where his own past performance is in question?

Pope Benedict XVI is facing the greatest crisis of his long career. It’s not just his leadership of the Vatican that is on the line, but the reputation of the entire Roman Catholic Church. If the Pope fails to face the reality that problems of pedophilia by priests have brought on the church, many Catholics may lose faith that their church leaders practice the same high moral standards that they preach. This situation is ironic for a Pope whose hallmark has been enforcing moral and sexual standards for one billion of the faithful. Does he have any choice but to require his priests to do the same?

Why is it so hard for the Vatican and especially this Pope to face reality? Is it denial? A cover-up? A double standard? Or simply a desire to protect its own leaders?

First of all, doing so means acknowledging that the church in not dealing as harshly with sexual deviants as civil law and basic morality would require. To suggest that these problems are limited to very few priests or a distant problem corrected long ago only accentuates public denial of the depth of these problems and widespread knowledge of them throughout the church hierarchy.

While addressing a crisis of this magnitude is painful, it must start with the Pope admitting mistakes the Vatican has made, including his own. Next, the Pope needs to deal as aggressively with past defenders as would be expected in a court of law. Then, he needs to install a compliance system that will prevent future occurrences and ensure the early identification of offenders. Finally, Pope Benedict XVI needs to make the Vatican itself much more transparent in order to prevent covering up problems in the future.

These steps, which are similar to what would be expected in government, public corporations, or other religious denominations, are required to protect children who believe in their church. Their protection is far more important than preventing wayward priests from being held to high moral standards.