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Ian I. Mitroff Headshot

Too Close for Comfort: Agonizing Similarities Between Penn State and the Catholic Church

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Let me state my main conclusions at the outset. In times of a major crisis, every organization is not only judged in terms of how well it manages its crises, but it is also judged in terms of how well or poorly pervious organizations have theirs. In a word, the sins of the fathers are directly visited on the sons. Thus, as different as they are, Penn State is not only judged in terms of all the things it did wrong in handling its repeated episodes of child abuse, but it is the direct inheritor of everything the Church did wrong. In short, Penn State has been made worse because of prior cases of abuse.

I have been researching and consulting with regard to major crises of all kinds (criminal, natural disasters, financial, reputational, etc.) for nearly 30 years. During this time, I have seen all types of organizations become trapped in the same disastrous pattern from which they rarely escape.

First of all, the fact that they have failed to prepare adequately beforehand for a series of crises keeps them from responding appropriately and timely once a crisis has occurred. In today's world, it's no longer a question of if a major crisis will strike each and every organization, but only what the particular crisis will be, how it will happen, where, when, why it will occur, who is responsible, and what resulting crises the initial crisis will set off as part of a chain reaction. For if an organization is not prepared for an initial crisis, then it is woefully unprepared for subsequent ones that surely follow.

Second, they fail to learn from the crises of others both within and outside of their industry, type of institution, etc. After all, a crisis couldn't possibly happen to them because they are obviously different from anyone else.

Third, they fail to pick up and deal with the inevitable early warning signs that precede virtually all crises, and in particular, those that are about to strike them. Long before a crisis actually occurs, it sends out a repeated trail of signals that something is about to pop or has already occurred somewhere in the organization. If one can pick up and attend to these signals, then in many cases one can prevent a crisis from occurring in the first place, the best possible kind of crisis management.

Fourth, they fail to take action against the dominant attitudes in their culture that lead them to believe that they are exempt from crises. In other words, they fail to address and overcome denial. Make no mistake about it; denial is the single worst enemy and fault of all. For instance, if one is not a Church, then how could one possibly learn from the numerous and repeated cases of child abuse that happened within the Catholic Church? Indeed, even if one is, "What happened to them couldn't possibly apply to us. Therefore, what do they have to teach us?"

Fifth, they are burdened with overly rigid, bureaucratic, and authoritarian structures that prize secrecy and control above all else and thus make it virtually impossible for anyone beneath the very top to take appropriate and timely action. But then, such structures also make it virtually impossible for those at the top to take timely action as well, for the structures exist to protect those at the top from knowing what is really going on at the bottom. In short, in many cases, the top really doesn't want to know. It's not just that ignorance is bliss. Rather, ignorance wards off the enormous anxieties that are a fundamental part of having to deal with complex and messy situations that by definition do not have easy and simple solutions.

In this sense, as different as they are, Penn State and the Catholic Church have much in common. Indeed, far too many organizations do.

I could push the analogy. For instance, football is figuratively, if not literally, "religion" in Middle America; coach Paterno was a "minor saint," etc.

But, I want to make a deeper point that is virtually overlooked unless one is aware of the big picture that only comes with studying crises over a long period of time. The particular crisis an organization, institution, etc. is currently experiencing is almost always related to the same or a very similar set of crises that happened to another organization, and furthermore, that the preceding organization dealt with poorly. That is, all of the failures of the previous organization come home to haunt the current one. The current organization is not only judged against the poor record of the previous organization(s), but through "guilt by identification" it is blamed for all the abuses of the past.

I am obviously not talking about direct causality because one organization does not necessarily cause the crises of others although as The Great Financial Crisis shows this is indeed possible. No,
I am talking about an "enduring circle and cycle of blame."

I am also not talking about "fairness," for all questions of fairness go out the window once one is ""convicted' in the press and elsewhere of 'unspeakable crimes' against the most vulnerable members of society."

As a result, I have a "law of crises." The time that it takes for a crisis to envelop and potentially destroy an organization and/or individual is inversely proportional to the time that a previous organization has gotten away with a similar set of crises. Thus, if an organization got away with criminal activity of one kind or another for say 10 years, then a current organization will only get away with the same crime for one-tenth of the time if not substantially less. One is not merely punished for one's crimes, but for all those that came before.

The philosopher Santayana said it best of all: "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it."

The key question is what all organizations will learn from this unforgiveable human tragedy, and what they will do about it to lessen it s chances from occurring in the future. Unfortunately, if the past is any predictor, not much.

If I were what's left of the top leadership of Penn State, I'd be worried about what other crises are festering in the system!

Ian I. Mitroff is a crisis expert and an Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book with Murat Alpaslan, A Prefect Mess: Why Everything Is A Mess And How To Cope With It, University of Pennsylvania Press.

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