You will not find me writing about religion very often on this blog (or in National Underwriter, for that matter). But seeing as that it is Ash Wednesday – that day when Catholics mark the beginning of Lent by receiving upon their foreheads an ashen cross – and that I recently had a run in with what amounts to the Catholic anti-defamation league over something that appeared in National Underwriter, I thought I’d share it with you. I think there is a lesson to be applied to the life and health industry here. Others do not. I invite you to be the judge.

Our story begins with the 2010 Year in Review we published back in December. If you read it, you might recall I wrote and ran a several-page timeline of the major news events of the year, splitting them between items of interest specific to the life and health insurance industry, and items of interest to a wider audience. The general interest items were chosen by me owing to a subjective interpretation of thee vent’s overall magnitude and the degree to which my audience might possibly care about them. The item on the church – which was me trying to provide a secondary summation of the year’s news on this topic, ran as follows:

“As the Catholic church’s sex abuse scandal continues, POPE BENEDICT XVI’s former arch-diocese of Munich-Freising reveals he transferred a suspected pedophile priest to another post, thereby allowing the priest to continue abusing children. The Vatican continues to decry these criticisms.”

I received no feedback on the item whatsoever. Until a letter from the Catholic League arrived on my desk on Feb. 22. I was sick that day, so I didn’t get to it until the next day. The letter reads:

February 17, 2011

Dear Mr. Coffin:

On p.17 of the December 20 edition of National Underwriter, in a section titled, “2010 Year in Review,” there is a picture of the pope with the following statement: “As the Catholic church’s sex abuse scandal continues, POPE BENEDICT XVI’s former arch-diocese of Munich-Freising reveals he transferred a suspected pedophile priest to another post, thereby allowing the priest to continue abusing children. The Vatican continues to decry these criticisms.”

This characterization is grossly unfair on several counts. The newspaper that broke this story, the New York Times, admitted that it had no proof that Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger (now the pope) knew anything about the transfer of the priest, Peter Hullermann. Yes, Ratzinger sent Hullermann to therapy—that was the way all religious and secular instutitions handled cases of employee sexual misconduct at the time—but to say that he approved his transfer is without evidence. In fact, the Times said that Ratzinger’s office was “copied on a memo” about the transfer. It further admitted that the memo was routine and was “unlikely to have landed on the archibishop’s desk.” Please note, too, that Hullermann was not a pedophile—he was a homosexual (his victims were post-pubescent males).

That’s quite different from what the article alleges. Readers come away from reading the story thinking the pop only knew about the transfer, but that he aided and abetted further abuse: the words “thereby allowing the priest to continue abusing children” means just that. Moreover, it is unseemly to say that the sex scandal “continues” when, in fact, this story was about a case that took place in the 1980s. The data show that the timeline when most of the abuse cases took place was the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, and indeed the average number of credible accusations made against a priest (there are more than 40,000 of them in the U.S.) in the past five years has averaged 8.6 a year. In the last year we have data for, 2009, the number was six. In short, there is no secular or religious institution in the nation that has less of a problem today with the sexual abuse of minors than the Catholic Church, owing, in part, to the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI.

In March of last year, President Obama signed the health care bill; 300 Christians were murdered by Muslims in Nigeria; and 14 people were killed in Baghdad on the first day of voting in Iraq’s parliamentary elections. Yet none merited inclusion in the big events of March 2010. But a distorted story about the pope did.

I would like to hear from you about this issue. More important, it would only be fair to notify your readers of this misrepresentation.

Sincerely,
William A. Donohue, Ph.D.
President
The Catholic League

I take letters like this seriously, but I also strongly disagreed with Donohue’s take on things, so I responded that day with a letter that reads:

February 23, 2011

Dear Mr. Donohue:

Thank you for writing, and for voicing your concerns over our content in the December 20 edition of National Underwriter Life & Health. The content you quoted was written and researched by myself, and I take sole responsibility for it.

That said, I will not apologize for what I wrote, as my text was based off of a wide reading of news stories regarding the degree to which Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger was involved in the handling of Peter Hullermann’s numerous instances of sexual misconduct. You mentioned the March 25 New York Times article (“Memo to Pope Described Transfer of Pedophile Priest”) merely noted that Ratzinger was copied on a memo that was unlikely to have landed on his desk. Indeed, the story says just that. It also says there is no proof that Ratzinger didn’t read it, however, so the article hardly clears him. Now, to go on that alone as an indictment would presume Ratzinger guilty until proven innocent, but the article further states that at a later meeting that Ratzinger did attend, the matter of Hullermann was brought up and action was intiated. In Ratzinger’s presence, such a thing bears the future pope’s approval, either tacit or implicit.

Regardless, the fact remains that under Ratzinger’s watch, Hullermann was able to continue serving the Church despite his misconduct, and as a result, further misconduct occurred in settings that would have been impossible had Hullermann not be associated with the Church. Despite lower functionaries taking the blame for the handling of the Hullermann case, Archibishop Ratzinger ultimately shares that blame for the results of his actions and/or those of his subordinates.

It bears noting that National Underwriter is hardly the only media outlet carrying this story and in the manner in which we carried it. Media brands from across the world have drawn the same conclusions as National Underwriter – that a scandal did involve the Church in 2010, that it did involve Ratzinger’s handling of Hullermann’s alleged sexual misconduct, that because of how that was all handled Hullermann continued his work with the Church and continued to execute sexual misconduct with minors, and because of that, the Pope drew considerable scrutiny and criticism. It leads to an ugly conclusion, but then again, it is an ugly story.

I say these things having been an altar boy myself. My brothers and I serves St. Jane Frances De Chantal in Easton, Pa. for the lengths of our childhoods. The priests we worked with were fine, honorable, moral individuals who never once even suggested anything improper to myself or my brothers despite myriad opportunities to do so. I have no axe to grind against the Church or Pope Benedict XVI. But as a journalist, I must report what I see. And what I see is a failure of Ratzinger to act decisively at a time when he could have prevented future harm, choosing instead to rely on a bureaucracy that led to further personal tragedy.

In closing, I have a few notes about the details of your letter itself. I do not know the precise ages of the boys Hullermann molested, save that they are repeatedly referred to as boys, and as minors. Sexual misconduct with such qualifies as pedophilia, if not in a court of law then certainly in the court of common parlance. Let us not split hairs over the nature of what Hullermann did so as to defend the Church. It looks bad. Moreover, if Hullermann was merely a homosexual and not a pedophile, as you contend, then why do you refer to his partners as “victims?”

As for the “continuing” nature of the sex scandal, while the majority of Hullermann’s misconduct indeed took place in the 1960s to mid-1980s, allegations of additional misconduct emerged as late as 1998. Given the truly long-term way in which allegations of this sort tend to arise in this and in other sexual misconduct cases, it is fair to say that the scandal will continue until such time as it is definitively closed in the eyes of a skeptical public. At present, the case is far from considered closed by the Church’s detractors, and thus, the scandal continues. Such is the nature of reputational risk.

Finally, you noted that last March, Obama signed the healthcare bill, Muslims killed Christians in Nigeria, and violence marred Iraq’s parliamentary elections, and yet, “…none merited inclusion in the big events of March 2010. But a distorted story about the pope did.” That is not true. We covered Obama’s signing of the healthcare bill on the same page as the bit about the Pope. In fact, the healthcare bit appeared directly underneath the bit about the Pope. It was impossible to miss, unless the Pope mention came to you by way of a clipping service, or you were only given that single piece of content. Regardless, when I compiled that timeline, I tried to include items that were of specific importance to the life and health insurance industry, items of wider importance to the general public (as many of our readers elect to read National Underwriter and few, if any, other news sources) and items that touched both industry and wider interest. The note about the Pope falls in the last category.

How, you may ask? The general interest is obvious, as the story generated a substantial amount of global media interest in 2010. It is of industry interest in that the Knights of Columbus is, in fact, sells a sizeable amount of life insurance, and is the second-largest fraternal order that does so. Its reputation and marketability is directly tied to that of the Church. While the KoC had nothing to do with Hullermann or Ratzinger, its ability to sell life insurance is directly impacted to the ability of the Church to gain and retain parishioners. That makes this, indirectly, a life and health insurance story. Perhaps the connection stems from my own history with the Church, and of my knowledge of the size of the KoC, which might be one of the largest life insurers few people realize is in the life insurance business, but there you have it. Connection made.

Thank you once again for writing. I would consider your letter for reprinting in our letters column, but I would only do so if I ran my rebuttal after it. I cannot imagine that would do much service to either of our organizations, especially when we would be spending an entire page arguing over what is, in reality, a rather small piece of content that has generated no other comment – positive or negative.

Sincerely,
Bill Coffin, Editor in Chief
National Underwriter Life & Health

I figured the matter was closed. I was wrong. A few days I received in the mail a copy of the 2010 Report on Anti-Catholicism with the following letter:

February 25, 2011

Dear Mr. Coffin:

Your letter is unconvincing on many levels, but nowhere is it more evident than in your remarkable assertion that because there is no proof that the letter about Hullermann reached Ratzinger, it doesn’t mean he didn’t read it. Nor is there any proof that you have not molested one of your employees simply because there is no evidence you did. Follow the logic?

If you have a problem with the Knights of Columbus, bring it up with them. Your comment that you somehow successfully established a connection by mentioning them—as if this has anything to do with my complaint—is positively inane.

Enclosed find a copy of our 2010 Annual Report on Anti-Catholicism. Sleep well knowing that your contribution will be noted in next year’s edition.

Sincerely,
William Donohue
President

At this point, I posted all of this to Facebook to get a sense of things. I figured it would be helpful to get some feedback. mostly, my friends supported me, though one did think my initial coverage was a little too sharp. Fair enough. But what I found most interesting was a note from a friend of mine, who is both a Catholic and is in marketing and communications. Check it out:

I don’t know enough about the particulars of Ratzinger’s involvement in the case to offer anything of interest on the discussion between you two.

I do, though, know a little bit about marketing, public relations, and media relations. Now, I understand that Mr. Donohue is not an employee of the Roman Catholic Church. But I would assume he has an interest in maintaining civil relationships with journalists in the interest of nurturing a press that treats the Catholic Church fairly.

His first letter, given his organization’s mission, is more or less appropriate. His second letter, though, is a total unforced error. Also, that Annual Report must be quite a compendium if your forty words are anti-Catholic enough to include.

Personally, if I were him I would have written back:

“Thanks for your thoughtful reply. If you are open to discussing in more detail why I think Ratzinger acted in good faith throughout this process, I would be willing to continue the conversation. I may be more familiar with the issue, given the fact that this area is my specialty. Or I may not. But I do know I would be the last person to go to for underwriting insight!

“In the meantime, your observations regarding the KoC are interesting, and something I hadn’t really considered. Do you have coverage from your magazine about their insurance operation you are able to share? If not, do you think there is anything I can do to help someone on your team come up with such coverage that your readers would find worthwhile? I am very friendly with Mr. Z and Mrs. Y, who would probably love to talk with you.”

A less charitable take on it came from another friend, who had this to say about the Catholic League itself:

Not that you don’t already know this, but my father put the crazy factor description perfectly in a note to me. (I don’t know that he’d necessarily want his words floating in the facebook world, so I figured I’d excerpt and put them in a note.)

From Dad, Irishman, former seminarian and one of the few Catholics who still attends mass and believes (though maybe not necessarily in the pope):

“I think it is run (and possibly the sole membership consists of) by a guy name O’Donoughue. The actually name of the group is the Catholic anti-defamation league. He seems to think that there is a vicious anti-Catholic prejudice at work in America. Haven’t you noticed that sign in restaurants that says “No Catholics and dogs alowed”? Don’t people spit at you if you say your family was Catholic? He is a paranoid embarassment and he lives on Long Island. No surprise there.”

Now, I have thought about this entire exchange a lot since it all went down, and I ask myself, why did I include that bit about the Pope? Why do I think it matters to my audience? And does Donohue really have a point? In the end, I think it matters because the Church and the insurance industry both have something very important in common: whether they deserve it or not, they have very substantial, ongoing reputational risk issues. And the reason why that matters is because the individual things that bring up reputation, whether they are large things or small things, have a cumulative effect on how the public views the institution in general. There always comes a time when that comes back to haunt the institution itself. I remain convinced that the biggest reason why health care reform passed was because despite all of the industry lobbying and trade group pressure, legislators ultimately will go with what will get them re-elected. And nobody ever lost an election because they bashed on insurers. Ever. I have said this before, and I will say it again.

I think Donohue’s response to me was disproportionate, but then again, it looks like he always intended for it to be. A group like that needs its enemies, and so it provokes needless conflict. It’s not good for the church, but there you have it. Inversely, the insurance world needs friends, and how it responds to its detractors is the front line of rebuilding and improving the industry’s large-scale reputation. It comes down to every body out there doing the small stuff every day that builds up reputation, knowing that all it takes is one bad news headline to set so much if it back. This industry is up against a patently unfair reputational challenge. But it must persist, or else its villain status will become even worse than it is now. And given how important this industry is to the health and wealth of our economy and daily lives, for such a thing to happen would be grim news for us all.

It is not enough for the industry to educate people on why they need your services, or to make them understand how important insurance is. I remember watching Joe Plumeri of Willis rant about that the night he won a big industry award, and nobody outside of the room cared one bit about what he said. Where this industry will succeed is by winning the hearts of people more than their minds. And I know a lot of people are doing this already, and doing it well. It’s just that there is so much more work to be done. National Underwriter will be there to shine a bright light on the heroes of the industry, because they deserve it, and on the villains, because they deserve it more. But between us, I’d rather cover the heroes any day.

Be good, and I’ll see you next time.