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Crisis Management in the Catholic Church: Lessons for Public Administrators


Tom Barth is a professor in the Master of Public Administration program in the Department of Public and International Affairs at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW). He teaches, conducts research, and consults in the areas of public management, human resource management, leadership, and public ethics. Prior to his academic career, he was a public servant in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency. He is currently serving as the Interim Vice Chancellor for Public Service and Continuing Studies at UNCW.


The Catholic Church offers a timely, significant case study of institutional failure. Looking at an in-depth examination of the sex abuse scandal conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the author discusses how the church crisis relates to classic public administration and crisis management theory. Given the similarities between the church and the government as public bureaucratic institutions, public administrations have much to learn from the case. Lessons include immediately sharing harsh truths with the public, accepting the stark realities of higher “public” expectations, establishing appropriate accountability systems, and fostering trust by building close community relationships. It is equally important to consider that church leaders neither fully considered nor absorbed key lessons from existing administrative theory. Concepts such as inappropriate organizational culture, bureaucracy, technicism, and goal displacement often blind leaders to adopting best practices based on well-established theory.