The Pell Principle: Mission will trump morality

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.

About David Walker

David Walker runs publishing consultancy Shorewalker DMS ( and is an editor and writer for hire. David has previously edited Acuity magazine and the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has written on economics, business and public policy from Melbourne, Adelaide and the Canberra Press Gallery.
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20 Responses to The Pell Principle: Mission will trump morality

  1. desipis says:

    Sounds like the response should be something we can call the Pell Incentive:

    The commission has heard the archdiocese of Sydney has property and cash worth $1.2 billion.

    Take it all.

  2. paul walter says:

    I can see David Walker’s point..if you were to believe in your organisation, particularly when your organisation is (sometimes) about social work, helping the disadvantaged and (ought to be) putting forth views derived of a belief system requiring a fair hearing because it, at base, sympathises and employs time and brainpower advocating for equity and fairness for the humble and poor, you would loath seeing the good things that could be achieved jeopardised.

    Unfortunately, the Church’s approach to things financial has not always been in keeping with its teachings and it has been incredibly tardy in coming to terms with and dealing with paedophilia.
    Something in the outlook of “professional” clerics has been strangely deficient, even judgemental and lacking in humility when it comes also to things like Liberation theology, politics and ideology, contraception and gender issues in general.

  3. Patrick says:

    I agree. What amazes me is not tgat so many people are sceptical of this applying to the Catholic Church (let’s face it, many are not!) but that so many are incapable of seeing this principle when one substitutes “government” for “Catholic church”.

    Of course the real damage to the church is not that it’s members abused more people than others (is it possible to imagine that life in government care, for example, was better? (Although, perhaps the church had a broader reach)

    The real damage to the church is that this shows it to be in a critical way all too human. And if we can’t trust the church more than any other organisation, be it government or private, then shouldn’t we regulate it as such, and then why should we believe in it?

    I am not saying that those questions are definitively answered by the abuse inquiries but they are definitely posed.

    • paul walter says:

      Yes, that is a good corollary..Human too human, aint it the truth, who amongst us hasnt come a gutzer somewhere along the line…

  4. I used to be not trampis says:

    if only George Pell had used biblical principles in his decision!!

  5. John Adams says:

    Yes Christianity went off the rails very early in the piece when the hierarchy were set up to extend power over those below them.
    Christ sent his disciples out to preach the good news, he didn’t say, “go forth and established Popes, Bishops, Priests and Deacons!

  6. lance hart says:

    The lesson here of course is organisations place money over morality. It is clear our government behaves with the same lack of ethics, economic wealth is the driving force where all just and fair conduct is thrown out the window in pursuit of the dollar. The Pell principle could also be termed ‘Our governing principle’. There is no difference as our leaders are usually derived from the legal system.

    • David Walker says:

      Lance, that may be the right lesson but it’s the opposite of my view. I was arguing that money is far less important than success in fulfilling the institutional mission.

  7. FDB says:

    Governments are certainly massive spin machines, but anyone who thinks an Australian government would in this day and age throw huge resources into defending public servants who have raped children, then dragging their victims through the courts for damages needs to take a few deep breaths.

    Governments are uniquely concerned with not offending the morals of at least a majority of people.

    The Catholic Church has shown itself to be uniquely unconcerned… with even its own teachings, let alone public opinion.

  8. desipis says:

    so many are incapable of seeing this principle when one substitutes “government” for “Catholic church”.

    All power corrupts; whether it be political, spiritual, militaristic or economic. It’s why equality is not just a matter of morality but also of pragmatic benefit for society.

    • David Walker says:

      All power corrupts

      No doubt, but it corrupts some more powerfully than others, and it corrupts at different rates in different institutions. Some people resist. Some institutions encourage resistance. There is a continuous task to design the machinery so as to lessen the corrupting effect.

  9. Mel says:

    Can any of the lawyers present please explain why the Catholic Church cannot be sued in relation to the behaviour of its priestly caste?

  10. ChrisB says:

    The correct quote from Lord Acton (himself a prominent Catholic, and speaking specifically of the papacy) is “All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The ‘tends’ in there is a warning against promiscuous application to every entity. Government is not necessarily a zero-sum change between corruptees.

    • desipis says:

      Of course it’s not a zero sum game. As David suggests above, we need to look at how to design government institutions to be resistive to corruption.

      A wholesale “small-government” approach, to which Patrick’s comment about government was related, has the potential to increase corruptive influences. Private property is one of the most absolute forms of power we have in modern society.

    • Mel says:

      Yep. The government is subject to constant scrutiny by the media, Her Majesty’s loyal opposition and the electorate whereas the Catholic Church is run by faceless old men who have almost endless resources thanks to a tax-free multi-billion dollar property racket and who can apparently hide behind the legal fiction that their church doesn’t even exist.

      Apples and oranges, I’d say.

  11. Gummo Trotsky says:

    Sympathetic as I am to the general thesis of this post, there remain a lot of ‘buts’ … starting with the proposition that ‘Mission will trump morality’. On examination, it seems that this proposition would be better stated as ‘Higher morality will trump ordinary morality’; the ‘higher’ morality in this case being the moral mission of the Catholic church to make itself the pre-eminent spokesthing of the one true (Christian) God and the ‘ordinary morality’: the equally moral prohibition on kiddy-fiddling.

    On that basis, I conclude that there’s no corruption in either the Catholic church’s handling of sexual abuse of children by the clergy, or in George Pell’s personal handling of the issue. In both cases the mission – the higher moral purpose – dictated defending the institution against its detractors. Even when that defence went against personal perceptions of what was right. Not an example of corruption then, but a demonstration of thoroughgoing righteousness.

    And that brings us to the real difficulty – the test that Pell signally failed. That of making a choicwe between ‘righteous’ action (to at least maintain the moral pre-eminence of the Catholic church) and right action – deciding that some choices were beneath him as a human being. Making that kind of choice is a matter of ethics not morality.

  12. Tel says:

    The commission has heard the archdiocese of Sydney has property and cash worth $1.2 billion.

    Some (like depsis above) will go out of their way to find reasons to get hands on it, others (like Pell) will look for reasons to defend it… but either way it’s a distraction from the work that a church is intended to do. I suspect it isn’t healthy for any church to accumulate too much wealth. Probably true of a corporation as well, take a look at what happened to the NRMA.

    Then again, eventually every organisation starts to exist purely for the purpose of maintaining its own existence… or at least, that’s the conclusion that the Theory of Evolution would suggest. Maybe there’s some Intelligent Designer out there trying to prevent this effect from happening, I’ll leave that to Pell.

    A strong moral code within the organisation will guarantee nothing. After all, what group has a stronger moral code than the major monotheistic religions?

    Ummm… trade unions?

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