Contrarian: Boys ‘R Us, Inc.

A Catholic Church that’s only as sleazy as Enron would be an improvement

Say what you will about sleaze and self-dealing in corporate America, I doubt there was ever a company like the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where the entire management hierarchy fronted for a network of child molesters. Yes, the management weasels at Enron stole millions from their investors, but they didn’t rape their kids. And they didn’t cover for anyone who did.

Catholic Church reformers might want to readjust their sights. If they could get the church to achieve the levels of treachery and deceit that characterized Enron’s corporate culture — well, that would be real progress.

The Catholic Church in America had serious headaches even before it got out that some priests were taking too literally Jesus’s plea to “suffer the little children.” Attendance on Sundays keeps going down, new priests are difficult to recruit, and the church’s teachings on subjects like birth control have long been considered laughably irrelevant by the bulk of U.S. Catholics.

These kinds of problems aren’t unique to the Catholic Church. All organizations tend to run out of steam when the people in charge start putting their own desires before the needs of those they serve. It’s a thorny dynamic, but the business aisle of any bookstore is filled with diagnostic advice. Particularly sick nonprofits are often plagued with power-mad managers who prefer weak and dependent employees they can push around — which pretty well describes Bevilacqua’s relationship to his pederast priests. The tendency to overpromise and underperform is commonly known as “the marketing-sales disconnect.” When the marketing materials promise eternal salvation and a portion of the sales force rapes small children, that’s quite a disconnect.

Unfortunately, all the well-known strategies for reviving stagnant institutional cultures start with new procedures for openness and accountability — two things the bishops and cardinals evidently fear more than the flames of hell. There are countless books, videos and corporate seminars on moral intelligence, emotional intelligence, and overcoming self-deception in leadership. If all the members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops considered these ideas and took them to heart, they might have to resign en masse.

In response to the Philadelphia grand jury report, archdiocese lawyers complained that the Catholic Church had been singled out for criticism by a jury empaneled to look at clergy abuse in all faiths and denominations. The fact is that while the grand jury discovered sex abuse among clerics in other faiths, only the archdiocese had a top-down system to keep the crimes under wraps. The archdiocese couldn’t be charged with obstruction of justice in part because the archdiocese isn’t even legally incorporated. It truly is a medieval institution, without a board of laypersons to exert the kinds of checks and balances that every corporation, for-profit or nonprofit, relies upon.

The former governor of Oklahoma, a devout Catholic, was forced off a Catholic reform commission a few years back after making an indecent observation: The church isn’t run like a business, but it’s run an awful lot like that other famous Italian import, La Cosa Nostra.

Once again, I’d say that casts far too harsh a judgment — on the mob. The mob, after all, has some family values.

Forget Jesus, CEO. A Catholic Church operating on true Christian values is way too much to hope for in this lifetime. For now, Cardinal Rigali could improve the moral tenor of the archdiocese if he arrived at work each morning asking himself: What Would Tony Soprano Do?