The theme of reputation management

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has found that the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales – Cardinal Vincent Nichols – put the reputation of the Catholic Church ahead of victims.

The Times (paywall) report:

In its report on the Church, the inquiry said the cardinal made “no acknowledgment of any personal responsibility to lead or influence change. Nor did he demonstrate compassion towards victims in the recent cases which we examined.”

It added: “His acknowledgment that ‘there is plenty for us to achieve’ applies as much to him as it does to everyone else in the Church. He did not always exercise the leadership expected of a senior member of the Church, at times preferring to protect the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and in Rome.”

The report further notes that the Vatican declined to cooperate with the inquiry. The Times state:

The IICSA report said: “After several months of correspondence, the Holy See belatedly confirmed it would not provide a witness statement. This response appears to be at odds with the May 2019 papal pronouncements from Rome in which Pope Francis asserted that there needed to be ‘concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church regarding its approach to child sexual abuse’.”

The Holy See’s response, the report added, “manifestly did not demonstrate a commitment to taking action”.

Now, I don’t particularly intend to use this as an opportunity to stick the boot into the Roman Catholic Church here. The report is clear enough in its findings. It documents both the scale of the abuse and the evident lack of effort on the part of that church to do anything about it.

What I am more interested is the theme that seems to come up again and again whenever these stories of abuse surface. Whether it is the seemingly systemic incidents in the Roman Catholic Church, the cases within the Anglican Church or those that have happened in dissenting circles. It is the repeated theme of seeking to protect the reputation of the church and/or its leaders at the expense of the victims.

It is, sadly, a trend that extends well beyond the specific issue at hand in this report. Far too often, reputation management takes precedent over justice for the victims of serious sin and abuse. Even when inquiries are launched, those who claim they want to stop such things happening again frequently refuse to cooperate with them. Similarly, accusations and evidence is often suppressed and ignored so as to protect the reputation of the ‘good men’ who later appear to be at the centre of things, to save the reputation of the church itself or out of some misplaced sense of protecting the gospel.

But the fact is, such reputation management is evidently anti-gospel. Even from a purely pragmatic perspective, when these things come out (as they almost inevitably do), we hardly commend the gospel when it becomes apparent that we sought to cover-up serious wrongdoing for the sake of reputation. Christ was not particularly concerned about rescuing his reputation; he was more interested in rescuing reprobate sinners. Indeed, as reputation-management goes, Jesus’ ministry would seem to be a disaster.

The fact is, Jesus – and his gospel – are concerned with justice. They are also concerned with sin. The gospel is realistic enough to know that sin happens, even among those who claim to believe it. Grace is built into the very heart of the gospel, after all. But what it cannot stand is unrepentant sin. And there is little that says I am not repentant than a desire to cover-up and ‘manage reputation’. That it to say, we do not want to repent. We do not want to acknowledge wrongdoing. We are prepared to allow injustice and sin to stand, uncontested, because our reputation is of more importance to us than Christ’s and his gospel, and certainly more so than the people who have been damaged.

I was struck, reading the report, how this is ultimately the issue when systems simply do not work to protect the vulnerable. It seems reputation management is frequently the watchword. That should make us very worried when we find ourselves in places overly concerned about their own reputation because it is entirely likely, should it ever be an issue, it will take precedent over Christ’s.