Crisis of faith

power corrupts absolutely, and nowhere is this more relevant today than in the
Catholic Church, where the recruitment of priests has been hit by a wave of
scandals. Paul Simpson reports

And you think you’ve got HR problems. The sexual abuse accusations against
priests in at least 13 countries may be the biggest threat to the Roman
Catholic Church since a monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to a church
door half a millennia ago.

"On a scale of one to 10, this is 11," says Robert L
Dilenschneider, former head of US PR giant Hill & Knowlton, who helped to
manage such crises as the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. "The church
has been hit by a truck, and permitted the truck to back over it several

Yet for the church, the real crisis runs far deeper than the
headline-hogging story, known in Catholic circles as the ‘skandala’. The church
now confronts – albeit in an extreme form – the kind of HR challenges faced by
many large multinational corporations.

Unlike most multinationals, the church doesn’t want to downsize the
workforce serving its one billion ‘customers’ around the world. They are
ministered by 404,000 priests, and while it is hard to generalise about a
global workforce this large, it is fair to say that morale is patchy, retention
is not brilliant, and many priests are afflicted by alcoholism, financial
troubles and loneliness.

In many countries, recruitment levels are far below what the church needs to
replace priests who are dying, resigning or defrocked.

Statistics give some sense of the depth of this HR crisis.

In the US, where there are about 46,000 priests, the church is only
recruiting 40 per cent of the number it needs to maintain the clergy at
existing levels – even though the number of Catholics has risen by a third
since the mid-1960s. Donald B Cozzens, a priest and author of The Changing Face
Of The Priesthood, says: "One in seven priests ordained for less than five
years is resigning."

In the UK, the figures tell a similar, if less dramatic, tale. The number of
Catholic clergy in England and Wales fell by 22 per cent between 1981 and 2000.
However, Father Anthony Wilcox, chairman of the National Conference of Priests
in England and Wales, says these figures must be seen in context.

"The church has never been exclusively about the clergy, the laity has
played an increasing role," he says. "And our losses, in terms of new
recruits, are not that much greater than many other professions."

The struggle to recruit priests – which occurs on a national or regional
basis, depending on the country – is not an Anglo-American phenomenon. In
eastern Europe, recruitment is actually on the rise, especially in Poland – the
homeland of the Pope. But Father Marek Dziewiecki, who manages Poland’s
seminaries, admits: "A third of our seminarians abandon their studies
within the first two years."

Like any other big employer, the church has had to compete in a much tighter
labour market. The end of the baby boom, society’s increasing secularisation
and the church’s own image, made recruitment difficult long before the

As joining the priesthood is traditionally regarded as a calling from God, financial
rewards do not receive as much attention in comparison to other occupations. A
survey conducted in 1999 suggested that diocesan priests in the US could earn
between £8,500 and £11,000, although with benefits, the package may rise to
more than £20,000.

In England and Wales, however, Wilcox says: "The system is completely
different. A priest may be paid as much as £7,000 by his parish and diocese,
but he gets many benefits on top of that. There is no official pension for
retiring priests, but that is something we are trying to change."

In desperation and hope, a dozen American dioceses have turned to
advertising. Two years ago in Chicago, 30-second ads with slogans such as
‘Dreaming of a white collar job?’ ran in a $1m (£600,000) local TV campaign.
And in Minnesota, the New Ulm diocese is running its own Men In Black campaign.
It even has its very own website, which features priests posing in Men In Black
sunglasses. But there is no hard evidence to prove that either initiative has

Some Catholics feel the recruitment crisis is self-induced. The ailing Pope
John-Paul II has emphasised the official line that priests should be celibate –
although one survey suggests that as few as one in 10 actually are.

He has ruled out the ordination of women more strongly than any previous
pontiff. In one comment on the abuse crisis, the Pope suggested that clergy
should consider the roles of "careerism, distrust and jealousy"
within the church. And the Vatican recently reiterated its opposition to
homosexual priests.

One survey of 1,500 priests in the US and Germany found that one in 10 were
homosexual, and other surveys suggest a global figure of 30 per cent. This is a
very large problem. The Vatican officially insists that all homosexuals should
leave the clergy, which would significantly deplete the church’s worldwide
workforce. And boys – children and teenagers alike – have been the most
frequent victims of sexual abuse by priests.

Psychologists suggest that 5 per cent of priests in the US may be guilty of
sexual abuse. Although that is lower than the average for American men in
general, it doesn’t look good in the headlines. Indeed, one new recruit told
the Boston Globe newspaper: "The potential fruitfulness of my ministry,
particularly with children, has been mitigated before I have even had

What has outraged many American Catholics (and some priests), even more than
the abuse itself, is the systematic cover-up by some church leaders. Victims
have been intimidated or paid off, and the priests shipped to different
parishes, often with no attempt to prevent further abuse.

The scandal is a global one. There have been accusations and compensation
claims in England, Ireland, Poland, Italy, Austria, Belgium, France, Canada,
Chile, Austria, Africa, Hong Kong and Australia.

But the scandal is worst in the US, and its very epicentre lies in Boston,
Massachusetts, where the Boston diocese has already paid out $40m (£24m) in
claims, and may file for bankruptcy. With its broken faith and shredded
reputations, one journalist was prompted to compare the scandal there to Enron.

If the church was a Fortune 500 company, the obvious solution would be to
fire whoever was in charge in Boston. But John L Allen, a Vatican reporter for
the US-based National Catholic Reporter website and author of a book on papal
succession, says: "Decisions that might take weeks in other organisations
can be studied for years at the Vatican."

Boston Cardinal Bernard Law finally quit last December after months of
damning newspaper editorials, protests by churchgoers and even a petition
calling for his resignation by local priests.

Effectively leaderless

The US conference of bishops has pledged to set up a massive new system of
tribunals to deal with claims, and hired Kathleen L McChesney – previously the
number three official at the FBI – to run an office for child protection.

But the bishop’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy on abuse by priests was vetoed by
the Vatican, as it was ‘unchristian’.

The ‘skandala’ could cost billions. In Ireland, the church has offered $110m
(£66m) to thousands who were sexually abused as children in Catholic schools or
care centres. Insurers are reluctant to protect the church, and churchgoers are
now less keen to donate money they fear will end up in lawyers’ pockets.

Any other multinational stricken by a crisis of this magnitude would be
forced into a far-reaching debate about the way ahead. Yet leading American
Catholic academic Richard McBrien says that the Pope’s physical frailty means
the Vatican is "effectively leaderless". The bureaucrats, McBrien
adds, want to believe that the scandal will simply go away.

The Vatican has always had an aura of secrecy and mystery about it. In
different times, that was seen as part of its attraction, but in times of
scandal and distrust, it becomes a liability.

The Pope’s critics say that for all his personal magnetism, he has stymied
intellectual debate in the church.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, nicknamed ‘the Pope’s enforcer’, has extended the
scope of papal infallibility. Theologians teaching at Catholic institutions now
have to be licensed, and clergy and theologians have been excommunicated,
isolated or had their books pulped, for not toeing the line.

Management guru Peter Drucker says one of the hallmarks of organisations
that achieve true global leadership is that they welcome diversity of opinion.
Judging by its present performance, the Vatican is doing the exact opposite.

Ironically, a group of Catholic churchgoers, called Voice Of The Faithful,
that wants to increase the laity’s role in the church, has been banned in some
US dioceses. The group has fallen foul of the hierarchy’s distrust of
movements. Yet critics say the same distrust has not greeted traditionalist
sects, such as the Legionaries of Christ.

To non-Catholics, the church always seemed the ultimate top-down
organisation. As with most multinationals, local managers traditionally enjoyed
great autonomy. However, Austrian Cardinal Franz Konig insists that
increasingly, the Vatican has "not consulted adequately, or not consulted
at all" regarding the selection of bishops.

Many fear that the recent frantic centralisation is not led by the Pope
himself, but by the Curia – the papal court that governs the Roman Catholic
Church. These fears intensify as the pontiff becomes more infirm. Allen says:
"Most of the cardinals appreciate the current pontificate, but are tired
of the micro management." This has turned bishops into local middle

So can the Roman Catholic Church put meaningful change into effect? Common
sense – which is backed up by research from US academic Jerry Porras – suggests
that a radical structural change will not occur unless those within the
organisation drive the process, recognising its urgency and welcoming the gains
the change might bring. In other words, the church must want to change.

Some reformers hope the fall in the number of priests in Western Europe and
North America may force that change. In Europe, one estimate states that as
many as 30 per cent of dioceses have parishes with no resident priests.

Reformers argue that the church may feel it is less damaging to admit
married or non-celibate priests, than to risk churchgoers not being able to
take the Eucharist.

Yet others say the ‘skandala’ – which the Vatican seems to regard as a
primarily Western phenomenon – may simply reinforce head office’s determination
to focus on the fast growing markets of Latin America, Africa and Asia, writing
off traditional markets in North America and Western Europe.

Much will depend on the selection of the next Pope or the one after that.
These choices may initially deepen the crisis, because despite all the
controversy, John Paul II is popular among reformers and traditionalists.

Those hoping for change should ponder the wisdom of Yves Congar, the late
French Dominican priest and theologian, who said: "All reformers must
exercise active patience."

Recommended reading and websites

– The Changing Face of the Priesthood, Donald B Cozzens, Liturgical Press,

– Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal
Election, John L Allen Jr, Doubleday, 2002

– The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform and the Future of the Church,
George Weigel, Basic Books, 2002

– Boston Globe Spotlight Investigation: Abuse in the Catholic Church,
January 2002

– National Catholic Reporter

– New Ulm, Minnesota, USA diocese ‘Men in Black’ website:

The average age of a priest in the US has soared from 47 in 1970, to 60
years of age today

There are already more American
priests over 90 than under 30. The average age of a Roman Catholic bishop is
now 66 (although in England and Wales, as Father Wilcox points out, a new
generation of bishops has recently been appointed). In England and Wales, the
church needs to hire 660 new priests every year simply to replace those who
have retired

The decline in the global number of
priests seems slight – down 4 per cent over 20 years to 404,000 in 1997

Yet the European priesthood has
shrunk by 15 per cent over that period. In Belgium, enrolments are down by half
since 1997. For the first time ever, no admissions were recorded at four
seminaries in Switzerland in 2002. In Ireland, the numbers enrolling to train
as priests are down 88 per cent since 1965. In Africa, though, enrolments are
up 49 per cent from 1978 to 1997

The church’s hr crisis

A breach of trust

In total, 15 bishops worldwide have resigned after charges of
inappropriate sexual conduct or cover-ups. In the US, almost 300 priests have
been suspended in the ‘skandala’. In Canada, a religious order had to file for
bankruptcy after lawsuits over abuse – an option the Boston diocese has

A morale issue

One in four American priests say they are now less likely to
encourage young men to join the clergy. A 1999 survey of priests in the Chicago
diocese found that 80 per cent admitted to loneliness and isolation, and half
admitted to problems with alcohol and finances.

God and mammon

Payouts to victims have highlighted the church’s lack of
financial controls. Bishops enjoy almost absolute discretion. In Philadelphia,
US, one cardinal spent almost $5m (£3m) renovating a villa while impoverished
parishes closed down. The US church, which has annual revenues of around $7.5bn
(£4.5bn), is almost as big a contributor to the Vatican coffers as Germany, and
many American Catholics now donate less than they did, or nothing at all.
Greater transparency and tighter controls are needed to restore confidence
and revenue.

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