60 Minutes, the CBS television news magazine, aired a story recently that got me thinking about the right use of power. It featured the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin.
According to the CBS report, Martin has provided "tens of thousands of pages of evidence against specific priests," detailing the sexual abuse of children in Ireland.
The Archbishop states on camera that there was overwhelming evidence of cover-ups by Church officials dating back a quarter of a century.
"Abuse isn't... just the, you know, the actual sexual acts, which are horrendous, but sexual abuse of a child is — it's a total abuse of power," he told correspondent Bob Simon. "It's actually saying to a child, "I control you." And that is saying to the child, "You're worthless."
Martin goes further by suggesting that his superior, Cardinal Sean Brady, as a younger priest, had ordered two victims to remain silent. Years later and after the Church settled out of court and in secret, Brady apologized for not informing the police or health authorities about what he knew. The priest he covered up for went on to molest twenty other children.
Nothing new in this, you might say. Newspapers around the world have been filled with such accounts for the past decade.
What is different here is the approach that Archbishop Martin has taken to address the wrongs and begin to restore credibility to the Irish Church and perhaps, beyond. He is forthright and that, unfortunately, is uncommon.
Further, it may signal a renewed sense of moral leadership and direction within the Church on this issue. To date, the Vatican has not muzzled the Archbishop.
When used correctly, power is an agent of good governance. It provides the authority to carry out policies and plans that benefit people, organizations and society. For instance, we provide our elected officials with the power to pursue a course of action deemed in the best interest of the electorate.
However, the improper use of power and authority is widespread in our society and not just a problem within faith traditions. Government, business, community and family life has been plagued by abuses. They may not be as dramatic and horrific as the abuse scandal that has rocked the Church but they are, nonetheless, common.
These transgressions include physical, verbal and sexual abuse, discrimination, profiteering and confidence schemes, insider trading, bullying, racism, persecution and public humiliation. This is the stuff of headline news.
Power also reveals dangerous character flaws, addictions and entitlements that undermine public trust. Mimi Beardsley Alford was a 19-year old White House intern when she was plied with daiquiris on her fourth day of work and "deflowered" by President Kennedy, the most powerful man on earth at the time.
Bill Clinton, thought to be an informed source on the matter of sexual impropriety in the White House, once opined about the transgressions of the mighty, saying: "Politics gives guys so much power that they tend to behave badly around women. And I hope I never get into that."
Jennifer Flowers, Paula Jones and Monica Lewinski are apparently just three of hundreds of women Bill Clinton was alleged to be involved with outside of his marriage. Clinton became only the second president in history to be impeached. Whether you believe the Starr investigation was a witch-hunt or not, the four investigations cost U.S. taxpayers almost $80 billion according to CNN.
In the matter of using power wisely and well, character is currency. Character development and ethics education are two ways that emerging leaders can be prepared for the rigors and temptations of authority.
So is an ethical framework that identifies right conduct, unacceptable behavior, and the steps that must be taken when integrity issues surface. Consequences for stepping across the line should be also be made clear, and enforced when necessary, as a deterrent.
The Penn State sex abuse scandal is a case in point. Assistant coach Jerry Sandusky has been indicted on 42 counts of molestation. Several school officials have been suspended or dismissed for their role in covering up or failing to report these transgressions, including legendary coach Joe Paterno.
Archbishop Martin's approach is instructive for anyone managing an institution, company, team, or community where the abuse of power has occurred. He demonstrates four admirable leadership practices in addressing the scandal: accountability, honesty, proactivity and remorse.
Being accountable is a first step in rebuilding credibility and regaining public trust. The Murphy Commission Report into the sexual abuse of children by Irish priests was a scathing indictment of the Archdiocese's handling of the scandal, citing "obsessive concern with secrecy and the avoidance of scandal" and "little or no concern for the welfare of the abused child."
Obviously, the first allegiance of the Church was to protect its priests and itself from prosecution. Victims were told to remain silent, priests were moved to new parishes, therapies were sought. But the scandal could not be contained due to its ubiquity and severity.
In 2009, Martin was quoted in the Irish Times, stating, "The first thing the church has to do is to move out of any mode of denial."
Martin has been an advocate for accountability, recommending that two bishops linked to the scandal step down. Apparently the Vatican overruled him.
Secrecy is the agency of unethical conduct. When authority figures demand secrecy or cover-up wrongdoing they are accomplices.
Martin's decision to reveal what he knew to authorities is a mark of leadership and character. It is also the mark of someone who understands the dangers of allowing the rot to remain hidden. Eventually it eats away at the foundation of an institution, especially one dedicated to upholding spiritual values. When that occurs the institution topples.
The Irish Church is at a breaking point because its leadership chose secrecy over justice. "There's still a long path to journey in honesty," Martin said to 60 Minutes, "before we can truly merit forgiveness.
Honesty is not enough when a scandal comes to light. It must be supported by corrective action. Proactive leaders facilitate the identification and removal of those engaged in unethical and criminal conduct. They also ensure the rules are made clear to all involved.
Until Martin became Archbishop, no one in the Irish church was willing to actively aid The Murphy Commission. Martin released over 65,000 documents. "The material was there," he explained to Bob Simon in the 60 Minutes report.
The Guardian newspaper reports that Martin has been active speaking from the pulpit in repudiation of those who actively protected pedophiles and has met with victims groups.
Remorse is the expression of deep regret and the act of making amends. Words alone are insufficient to initiate healing. Significant gestures must accompany the words for rectification to be achieved. For example, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, like those in post-apartheid South Africa, and more recently in Canada dealing with abuses of First Nations peoples, have made an impact in accelerating healing.
Remorse must be heartfelt. Certainly it was palpable in Martin's 60 Minutes interview. Let's leave the last word on remorse to the Archbishop himself, an honest man and a responsible leader.
"Someone once reminded me of the difference between on the one hand apologizing or saying sorry and on the other hand asking forgiveness. I can bump into someone on the street and say "Sorry".
It can be meaningful or just an empty formula. When I say sorry I am in charge. When I ask forgiveness however I am no longer in charge, I am in the hands of the others.
Only you can forgive me; only God can forgive me. I, as Archbishop of Dublin and as Diarmuid Martin, stand here in this silence and I ask forgiveness of God and I ask for the first steps of forgiveness from of all the survivors of abuse."
September 29 & 30, 2012
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Patrick O'Neill leads Extraordinary Conversations, a consultancy in transformational change management and organizational development. He writes Breakthrough and Transformational Leader newsletters, a blog called Visions and works with organizations committed to high performance.