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The Cardinal O’Brien accusation, his confession and his removal from Scotland has been a major headline in the news over the last couple of weeks. The Cardinal was a high profile figure in Scotland and had many supporters. He had recently come to prominence outside church circles in speaking out strongly against gay marriage. About two weeks ago he was accused by three serving and one ex-priest that he had had “inappropriate contact” with them and the story became main news. After a week of denying the accusation and threatening to sue, he confessed that his sexual conduct ‘fell below standards’. He was then spirited away by the church and has not been seen or heard of since.

There are of course in these incidents lots of lessons for us business continuity people on managing a crisis.

  1. Poor timing. Those who like conspiracy theories, point to the timing of the accusation just coming out at the same time as the choosing of a new Pope. The events in the accusation were alleged to happen several decades ago but have only come out now. How much the timing was due to the papal election we may not know, but it possibly couldn’t come at a worse time for the Catholic Church. They wanted to leave the many scandals behind with the election of a new Pope and this event just reminded everyone of these scandals.
  2. When the accusations come out in the press, public opinion seemed to split into two camps. There were a number of high profiles figures as well as members of the church and his congregation who voiced their support in the media. I think there were many who on hearing “sex scandal” and “Catholic Church” in the same news bulletin, were convinced he must be guilty.
  3. The lesson here is once your organisation has a certain reputation it is very difficult to change the public’s view. In the UK papers Tesco is making a huge effort by taking out lots of adverts, talking about its new procedures for the purchasing of meat, how it has learned from the horse meat scandal and how it will ensure it cannot happen again. It knows if it has a reputation for ‘shoddy goods” it will be very difficult to regain its reputation.
  4. Like a pebble thrown in a pond the reverberations for the crisis still linger on in the media. Questions are now being asked who knew what when, will there be an enquiry and how was this allowed to happen. The Church’s fears, I suspect, is, are there further revelations to come? Will this embolden other victims to make further accusations against other senior figures in the Catholic Church in Scotland which will lead to further scandal? One of the jobs for the Strategic / Crisis Team is to see if there are any other similar scandals which could be uncovered within the organisation and perhaps resolve them.  This way the organisation can draw a line under the incident, apologise, say they have learned from the incident and attempt to move on.
  5. The bottom line in this incident is whether your organisation will survive the scandal or whether it has entered a spiral of decline and will not survive. Castlebeck, the company which had six members of their staff jailed after they were filmed abusing vulnerable adults, has just gone into receivership after having to close the home where the abuse took place – they couldn’t attract enough customers to make the business viable. In the same way some of the suppliers to the supermarkets who supplied the products contaminated with horsemeat are likely to go out of business as their customers withdraw their business. In these two cases there are viable alternatives so the scandal can destroy the organisation. The Catholic Church on the other had has over a billion members, huge (brand) loyalty and it is unlikely that the members will switch to another religion or  Christian domination, so,  it will weather this scandal and continue.
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