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Reforming the Catholic Church Requires Understanding How to Change

Church leaders must create an intersecting set of policies to limit the likelihood of future abuse.

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The report released by the state of Pennsylvania detailing abuse by more than 300 priests has put the Catholic Church back in the spotlight. On the heels of similar reports from around the world, it’s clear that Church leaders systematically protected its clergy from scrutiny and legal charges, while putting congregants at risk.

This institutional protection of individuals who performed heinous acts leads naturally to two questions. First, how could an organization that consists largely of good people who have devoted their lives to a holy cause have abetted such terrible and damaging acts? Second, what can the Church do now to ensure that nothing like this happens again?

I am a cognitive psychologist who studies motivation and human behavior. I also serve on my university’s compliance committee. In the wake of scandals at other large universities like Baylor University, Penn State, and Michigan State, universities have faced similar questions to those of the Catholic Church.

It is easy to know the right thing to do when you look back on events, and most people believe that if they were faced with dilemmas of the past, they would do the right thing. For instance, many people assume that had they been alive in Germany in the 1930s, they would have opposed the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. They would report the abuse of athletes at a university. They would say something in the face of sexual harassment in the workplace. They would speak out after discovering that a child had been abused by a priest.

But often times this doesn’t happen. Simply put, good people support evil behavior. For over 50 years, the field of social psychology has studied why. They explored topics like obedience to authority, diffusion of responsibility and conformity. It helps to understand the present situation with the church. 

The classic studies by some of the most prominent social psychologists demonstrate that people have a strong drive to obey authorities, even when they are told to do things they know are wrong. That—along with the shame associated with the acts they were made to perform—kept many abused children from telling anyone what happened, and kept parents whose children did say something from following up with the Church. 

Even when the abuse was reported, it often did not lead to immediate action. For one thing, people in general tend to interpret the actions of others based in part on their prior beliefs about them. The presumption about any priest is that he is a good man—he has devoted his life to the service of God. If you think someone is a good person, you give them the benefit of the doubt in deciding what you should think about their actions. Ironically, perhaps, this phenomenon is called the halo effect.  

Another factor is that when you find out something bad about a good person, it leads to a clash of beliefs that creates tension called cognitive dissonance. People relieve this tension by changing their beliefs to be more consistent. The belief that clergy are good and powerful is so strong that it is easier for many people, including Church leaders, to try to resolve this dissonance by denigrating the people who come forward or minimizing the severity of the actions.

On top of all that is motivated reasoning. When you have a strong reason to want to believe something is true, that makes you more likely to find ways to believe that it actually is true. For church leaders, even if they recognized that a priest had committed abuse, they could still convince themselves that when a priest was moved to a new congregation, that priest would reform his behavior.

And finally, abuse scandals like this create a tradeoff between a short-term and a long-term goal. In the long-term, every organization wants its members to behave ethically. In the short-term, though, it is often easier to avoid investigating bad behavior. That requires admitting that bad deeds were done, creating conflict in a community, and making reparations in the present. 

As it turns out, the Judeo-Christian heritage is well-versed in the difficulties of these tradeoffs. If you look at the Ten Commandments, most of them are focused on resolving a tension between what is desirable to do in the short-term and long-term in favor of the long-term. After all, theft, murder, and adultery are all actions that involve actions with short-term benefits that have long-term negative consequences.

None of these psychological factors are meant to excuse the behavior of church leaders or the leaders of any organization that has worked hard to duck a scandal. Instead, it points out how many psychological mechanisms need to be overcome to reform the Church and to create an organization that does not tolerate abuse.

So what to do? If the Church is going to be more effective at preventing abuse in the future, Church leaders will have to create an intersecting set of policies to limit the likelihood of future abuse, investigate new claims quickly, punish bad behavior publically and, perhaps most important, be transparent.

One important tool for Church leaders involves policies minimize opportunities for abuse. One key factor is the environment, which has a big impact on what people do. When it is easy for people to get away with something, that increases the likelihood that people will take an action they know is wrong. Universities discourage harassment and sexual misconduct, for example by encouraging faculty and staff to meet with students only in offices with the door open. 

Similarly, the Church can require that priests and youth advisors not be alone in a closed room with congregants. There are many ways to have private conversations that do not involve closing a door. If every congregant learns this social norm, then any attempt to meet in an isolated place would be met with concern.

In addition, in many cases, a priest’s bad behavior was known to other priests or employees who worked with him. Yet, they did not come forward. Telling people that they are now encouraged to report is not going to be enough to get people to come forward and report what they have seen or what they suspect.

Instead, training for clergy and other members of the Catholic community will have to lead them specifically through the process of reporting their concerns. People who report need to know that their claims will be taken seriously. They also need to be told what role they will have to play in an ongoing investigation. One factor that can prevent people from reporting something they have seen or suspect is that they do not know the consequences they will face for reporting. Giving people a first-hand view of the process during training can alleviate those concerns. 

The Church also needs to be more transparent about the status and outcome of investigations. Working up the courage to report a case of abuse and then participating in an investigation can be a long and harrowing experience. It may require many people to divulge things they are ashamed of. If Church members do not have confidence that their reports are being taken seriously, that will dissuade other people from stepping forward. 

Yes, this means the Church will have to air its dirty laundry. If a priest is found to have abused someone, he needs to be turned over to the authorities and the outcome needs to be publicized by the church as a statement that bad behavior will not be tolerated and that people who come forward can expect a full and serious investigation.

Church leaders also need training that forces them to confront the dilemmas that the tradeoff between short-term and long-term goals create. In the face of a temptation to do the wrong thing, simply telling people to do the right thing is not enough. All people, including Church leaders, need a specific plan to follow. 

Another tactic would be for church leadership to to role-play specific scenarios involving congregants, church employees reporting suspicions, and priests accused of abuse so that they experience the conflicting feelings they will have when an actual case arises. In that context, they can then practice procedures for initiating an investigation, interviewing people involved, and making an institutional response. 

This practice in a context that simulates real life allows the conflicting emotions to become a cue for the proper behavior. In the absence of a specific plan for how to do the right thing in difficult circumstances, all of the mechanisms that lead people to do what is easiest in the short-term will kick in and lay the groundwork for future harm and future scandal.

Organizations that face scandals can improve their behavior. But, this change requires giving people practice acting in specific circumstances rather than teaching general principles. This training may be uncomfortable for those that go through it, but you don’t want leaders to face discomfort for the first time when the fate of actual people hangs in the balance.

Art Markman is the Anabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at The University of Texas at Austin and Founding Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He is the author of several books including Smart Change. 

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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