Tuesday, May 14, 2002

The Reality of Resignations

A lot of people continue to comment that Cardinal Law should resign. The common refrain is that if the Cardinal was the CEO of a corporation he would have done it weeks ago. Many feel that resignation is necessary for the healing to begin. I've made my views known in an earlier post as to whether Cardinal Law should resign. And I agree with many that a resignation could be part of the healing process.

But let's understand that his resignation isn't the only way to address his responsibility in this scandal, be it personally or in his corporate capacity as the archbishop. I understand the all too American view of leadership, with its top-down emphasis and that puts everything in the chief dog's lap. We see it all the time in corporate America. In fact, many have said that if the Cardinal were a CEO he would have resigned already. I don't know about that. Generally, most companies fire CEOs when times are bad regardless of whether the CEO was in fact at fault. There have been plenty of CEOs ultimately canned who inherit organizations too foregone for a turnaround to be possible. Again, it's often done to address perceptions, which is a heck of a lot of what drives the markets these days, and most companies are focused intently on that price-per-share bottom line. More specifically to this situation, the argument assumes culpability. No CEO would resign merely because his organization has bad apples in it. There are plenty of organizations that have cases of sexual harassment each year. I don't see a mass exodus of CEOs occurring. There are few places in this country where police commissioners can boast of a zero crime rate. I don't see calls for the resignation of all police commissioners as having failed to protect their communities.

What is at issue is whether the person failed in some duty he owed. In the case of the bishop and the CEO, this would mean looking at two things: (1) whether the individual knowingly exposed people to an unreasonable, foreseeable risk; (2) whether the individual was negligent in his oversight of the organization and that negligence resulted in people being exposed to an unreasonable, foreseeable risk. From what we know of the facts in Cardinal Law's case, it would seem to me that the case against him would be along the lines of #2, and #1 against some of his underlings. By the way, I leave open the question of whether assigning to a parish a man who has a single incident of sexual misconduct decades in his past amounts to exposing the Catholics of that parish to an "unreasonable, foreseeable" risk. I think people can disagree on how much room there needs to be for discernment of specific cases instead of a some bright-line test. I've seen too many examples of well-intended (but bad) rules resulting in undesirable consequences. An extreme example of the unintended effect of rules: allowing suits against doctors who fail to run every possible test for birth defects, which if had been discovered would have led the parents to choose to abort the child. Result: doctors refusing to do any pre-natal screening.

But all of that really is separate from seeing a true recovery and revitalization of the Church. First, the resignation of a bishop involved in this scandal only means that he won't be able to make the problem any worse. That's it. Any hopes that things will be better thereafter rely on him being replaced by a good shepherd who will set a new and right course. More so, they rely on auxiliary bishops and the priests and deacons all carrying out their duties properly and with a renewed sense of their authentic roles. If you want to say the buck stops with the Archbishop, fine, but that has little play in the reality of avoiding the problem in the future. I hope that the Vatican uses this opportunity to raise up a new breed of bishop who will be everything that we all dream he should be. I expect, though, that there is no great way to predict who these men are and we will have a fair number of CEO bishops in the years that follow, despite this scandal.

The only other advantage that comes from a resignation is the perception that the problem is being fixed. Maybe that is needed for heads to cool. Catholics recognize the harm created from the perception of scandal. It's a classic reason, for example, why an unmarried couple shouldn't live together even though they may have no intention of having sex before marriage. The scandal the perception would cause is something to be considered. (Although, in this day and age, the perception will probably be that they are sleeping together, but may not give rise to much scandal.) That said, we need to be honest about the limits of what is being addressed by a resignation in that case.

If you don't feel that a bishop can stay on and work to solve the problem (be it because you don't think he would if he stayed or you won't stand for him staying), at least acknowledge that there is much work to be done after he leaves and that you have a part to play. After all, no one has looked into this question: besides priests and bishops, were there any parishioners who knew what these priest-abusers were up to and failed to report it?

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