The current inquiry into institutional child abuse holds some interesting lessons about the nature of religion, which I’ll stay clear of here. But it also holds a larger lesson about the ability of organisations to act morally and to act properly in the absence of external regulation. This will not be news to a lot of people, but I see many others misunderstanding it over and over again.
It’s this: For most organisations, most of the time, mission trumps morality.
Any substantial organisation is run by people who spend a lot of time upholding its virtues and the value of its activities and people. They buy into its mission. They internalise its mission. And so they should. That’s how leaders get things done.
This leaves them terribly placed to decide how moral issues between the organisation and other parties should be resolved. Their first, second and third instinct is to protect the organisation.
That is why self-regulation is a bad idea when the stakes are high.
And for proof, you need look no further than Cardinal George Pell’s evidence to the child abuse inquiry. A man who runs an organisation (the Sydney archdiocese of the Catholic Church) devoted to moral questions, who has engaged intellectually on moral questions for most of his life – and yet when the chips were down, Pell admitted that his concern for the financial health of his church trumped any desire to provide recompense to child abuse victim John Ellis and others like him.
From the Sky News report of Pell’s evidence, which seems reasonably reliable:
[Pell] admitted the church didn’t deal fairly with Mr Ellis “from a Christian point of view”, but in a legal sense it did nothing improper.
Dr Pell said he was consoled by a legal ruling protecting the church’s property trustees from being sued.
The commission has heard the archdiocese of Sydney has property and cash worth $1.2 billion.
Mr Ellis sued the church over the abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest between the ages of 13 to 17 in the 1970s, but lost the case in 2007 when a court ruled the trustees weren’t liable.
Lawyers disputed in court that the abuse had occurred, cross-examining Mr Ellis over a number of days, despite the church having previously accepted that it had happened.
Dr Pell said he regretted the action.
“I regret that. I was told that it was a legally proper tactic,” he said.
The church subsequently pursued Mr Ellis for $550,000 in costs, despite a psychiatrist assessing Mr Ellis as being in a fragile mental state.
What was going through Pell’s mind, you might ask. The answer is: his institutional mission, to ensure the success of the church. His moral mission was put aside.
You might think money is the point of it – that to adapt Upton Sinclair, leaders will not put morality first because their salaries depend on their not putting it first. And you may be right. I have my doubts. If you’re any sort of leader, salary is less important than success.
And if George Pell will put the mission first, most organisational leaders will do it.
A strong moral code within the organisation will guarantee nothing. After all, what group has a stronger moral code than the major monotheistic religions?
Self-regulation? Corporate social responsibility? Good corporate citizenship? In the clinches, most organisations will abandon or constrain them in order to preserve the organisation. Leaders will convince themselves that the wrong course is the right one, because the wrong course is the one that meets the organisational objectives. Sitting around the boardroom table, leadership groups will come to agree that weak arguments are strong ones, that bad behaviour is required behaviour, that wrong is right. That they are good people with strong moral codes in their personal life will mostly not matter.
Mission will trump morality.
Call it the Pell Principle.