Toxic Chanceries

Michele McAloon

By Michele McAloon

Michele McAloon is a wife, mother, retired Army officer, and canon lawyer. She resides with her family in Germany.

toxic chancery

Despite sincere efforts by many to curb the sexual abuse crisis and initiate reform in the institutional Church, the true disease has yet to be cured. A significant problem still lies in the work environments of the chanceries and tribunals in dioceses throughout the country.

From my own experience of working in a Tribunal, and in recent conversations with Tribunal and Chancery workers in multiple dioceses, there emerges a consistent narrative of toxic work environments characterized by needless secrecy, dismissive attitudes toward lay employees, a lack of collegiality between lay workers and the ordained, an unspoken ordinance against expressing a contrary opinion to policies and decisions made by a bishop, and many other complaints of incompetent leadership and management problems.  

Admittedly, not every diocese in the U.S. operates under the specter of incompetence and indifference, but the clergy sexual abuse crisis that broke in 2002 in Boston, the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, the recently published McCarrick Report, and most recently the mismanagement of Cardinal Wuerl in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., did not come from a vacuum. As we examine these cases, it is easy and very tempting to cast blame and place oneself above the poor choices of prelates who should have known better. But did they know better? 

If they are products of the environment that many Church employees have witnessed firsthand, perhaps our expectations of those men may have been too high. One could reasonably argue that the men who were an eyewitness to McCarrick’s depravity were not of evil intent. They were a living embodiment of the diocesan environment in which they had been formed and that they had inherited. 

The origin of many of these ills can be traced to the recruitment of conflict-avoidant priests, seminary formation cloistered from the real world and failing to teach authentic leadership, the lack of Christian zeal and holiness in Church operations and business, low expectations for work performance, lack of training, immorally low salaries for lay workers in jobs that offer little professional satisfaction, over-reliance on lawyers to manage risk, and the list continues. 

In recent months, there has been a clamor among pundits that simply returning to gospel values will dispel the current problems affecting the Church. Yet, this does not explain Theodore McCarrick and a host of other morally corrupt clerics who made a great show of their purported holiness but lived secret lives of depravity. The connection between gospel values and a professional work ethic needs to be made by genuine Christians who actually possess leadership skills and are willing to lead others in building an environment where love of God and neighbor are lived values.         

Another expensive program cannot teach how to live gospel values in the diocesan workplace. Only a renewal to the mission and purpose of the Church—the salvation of souls, with a heightened sense of empathy, personal responsibility, courage, and a healthy dose of a self-sacrificial sense of service in carrying out this mission by those who work in chanceries, tribunals, and parishes—can prevent another McCarrick tragedy. Bishops, as spiritual and ecclesiastical leaders, must emerge from the shadows of their secular lawyers and hidden audits to boldly inculcate the values of empathy, personal responsibility, and courage in their chanceries and tribunals. If a bishop can admit to himself that he may not know how to do this due to his own lack of leadership training, there are a host of experienced Catholic lay leaders in a diocese who can help identify and teach the skills needed to create healthy work environments.       

Low salaries in many chanceries often discourage mature and experienced lay leaders, who could provide mentorship, from coming forward out of higher-paying secular jobs to serve on episcopal curiae. Leaders with a genuine sense of service will only serve if they feel their work contributions can make a difference. Lesser salaries can be compensated by a rewarding professional experience where subordinates and superiors are members of a team in which they contribute and build something greater than themselves and of which they can claim ownership.       

Management principles can be taught in books, but leadership skills require personal contact with strong and capable leaders who, by teaching subordinates to lead, demonstrate they are more interested in the fulfillment of the mission rather than worries about diluting their own personal power. Personal responsibility demands a sense of ownership and a problem-solving attitude in all aspects of Church life, but particularly in a chancery managing something as complex as a diocese. 

Problems can only be solved when access to information is the norm. Secrets are about power, but confidentiality is about respect. Private donations, routine personnel decisions, and other sensitive materials may need to be kept confidential to respect the privacy of individuals, but the withholding of information needed to manage and make decisions is unreasonable in a work environment. Secrecy and the withholding of too much information prevents the solving of problems and destroys trust. Without a basic element of trust, leadership that motivates and influences people to achieve greatness is not possible.      

A bishop or priest who openly admits his staff does not tell him anything may have to admit his personal leadership in his diocese is lacking. Apostolic authority does not place a bishop on a pedestal above his people. Employees, priests, and laypeople must be able to approach and speak candidly to a bishop or a priest. Digging deep into the pews and asking advice from those whose salaries are not paid by the diocese or the parish will provide much-needed clarity and begin to promote a culture of openness. 

Priest employees and supervisors need to view themselves as colleagues with their lay counterparts and not as hierarchically superior. Leading by example, especially from the ordained, is a powerful tool to set standards of zeal and holiness in the diocesan workplace. Excusing backlogs of work because of being tired, due to having two jobs as a pastor and a chancery employee, falls on deaf ears of co-workers who may have multiple jobs due to notoriously low Church salaries and then actually have to pay bills and raise families on those salaries. Priests should ask for and expect from the bishop the necessary management training to supervise employees and then become competent in these areas. 

Standards for timely responses to lay requests must be put in place. Bad news does not get better with time, and no response is far worse than a negative response. How many times has one of the lay faithful asked for something to not even receive an acknowledgement of the request, much less a response? Conflict-avoidant bishops, priests, and lay employees lead to serious problems. Both lay and cleric chancery employees must be able to engage in candid and respectful conversation during disagreements and conflicts. A bishop with a reputation for bursts of anger or witnessing a priest in tears when decisions are questioned, encourages neither candor nor conversation. 

Great leaders create great leaders. But no one is a born leader. Skills such as how to build morale, motivate followers, or differentiate between power and authority can only be taught in a close relationship with a trusted mentor. In a discussion as to why leadership in the Catholic Church has been so weak in recent decades, a general vicar put his finger on the nexus of the problem. According to the insightful vicar, shortages of priestly vocations has resulted in a lack of worthy and capable mentors. Older, more experienced priests used to teach younger priests, who served as pastoral vicars for a number of years, the skills needed to run a parish. 

Due to the shortage of priests, the newly ordained are now often given the responsibility of a parish very quickly in their careers and with little preparation. Combined with a seminary training squirreled away from any diocesan connection, along with academic curriculums that do not teach or even emphasize the importance of personal leadership in the Church, young priests have no opportunity to learn basic skills such as how to deal with conflict. In a larger, secular culture where weak leaders abound, the lack of worthwhile and competent leadership examples adds to the challenge of leader development.  

Theodore McCarrick is a testament to the tragic consequences of not teaching leadership and the lack of capable holy mentors in the professional development of the ordained. Trends in weak ecclesiastical discipline will continue in the absence of transparent and competent leadership exerted by bishops and priests whose apostolic authority demands them to lead.                  

Professionalism and management in the Church should not be an oxymoron or a ready-made joke. For the Catholic Church, professional behavior demands standards of holiness, zeal, and excellence in the workplace. The body of Christ deserves nothing less. We can make the McCarrick figure truly a thing of the past. Simple reforms, brought about by a will to change and holy leadership, ensures a Christian future for every member of the Church.