Whistleblowing In The Catholic Church

The Role Of Wrongdoing Characteristics And Ethical Climate

Project Description

“Blowing the whistle” entails using non-public information with which the organization has entrusted the whistleblower or which the whistleblower has come upon while acting for the organization. This is especially critical in organizations whose reputation is under scrutiny for recent misbehavior, as with the Catholic Church. In this project, we explore the relationship between organizational characteristics and their relationship to whistleblowing in the Catholic Church. We aim to examine the role of ethical climate and wrongdoing characteristics as the underlying mechanisms of whistleblowing. Our project offers a revised definition of whistleblowing, a comprehensive interdisciplinary literature review based on the major components of the definition, a conceptual model of whistleblowing, and an application of the model to compare reactions to the clergy sexual abuse and the financial misconduct scandals in the Catholic Church.

Our project is not about sexual abuse and financial misconduct per se but rather about the silence and concealment that prevented the Church to handle them promptly and properly. It aims to help understand why sexual abuse allegations were resisted and reporting was discouraged but allegations of financial misconduct have been more actively investigated within the Church. Our paper is focused on the organizational factors that help explain reactions to wrongdoing in the Church. In the sexual abuse scandal, the Church’s interventions addressed individual contributing factors (such as individual sins, pathologies, and crimes) and individual responses (such as the removal, restriction, or rehabilitation of a particular priest, and the implementation of individual-based safety policies and protocols in parishes). We argue that it is precisely that focus on individual factors what explains the Church’s failure to handle systemic organizational forces facilitating serial sexual abuse, complicity, and silence. We suggest that members of an ethical organization such as the Roman Catholic Church observing wrongdoing are more likely to stay silent when the wrong can seriously threaten the organization’s core ideals (e.g., clergy abuse). Conversely, they will be more likely to blow the whistle when the wrongdoing is less connected to the identity of the organization (e.g., financial misconduct). The paper contributes to the normative and the empirical literature on whistleblowing, sexual harassment, and financial misconduct in the Catholic Church.

The intended contribution of this paper is threefold. First, it sketches a revised definition of whistleblowing, by identifying the necessary and sufficient conditions for an act to be labeled as blowing the whistle and it organizes the academic literature on whistleblowing along the lines of the major components of whistleblowing in this definition. Second, this paper develops a conceptual model to predict and explain decisions to blow the whistle by considering the combined influence of organizational climate and perceptions of misconduct’s wrongness on the decision to blow the whistle. Third, the conceptual model developed in this paper is applied to understand and describe whistleblowing and concealment at the Roman Catholic Church in response to two recent incidents of organizational wrongdoing, namely, the case of clergy sexual abuse and the case of financial misconduct in the Vatican.

With our project, we tried to understand the complicated background of blowing the whistle and examined what factors triggered collective silence or reporting misconduct in the Catholic Church. We conducted an interdisciplinary literature review on whistleblowing and integrated the normative and the empirical inquiries on whistleblowing. With our conceptual model, we scrutinized whether the perceived impact of the wrongdoing on organizations’ core ideals affects employees’ whistleblowing behaviors. We argued that if the wrong seriously threaten the organization’s core ideals and identity, employees would be less likely to blow the whistle to internal and external authorities. On the other hand, if the wrong is less connected to the organization’s identity, employees would be more likely to report the wrongdoing to internal and external authorities who have power over the situation. More specifically, our research suggests that a strong ethical climate may hinder the members of the Church’s whistleblowing behavior when the observed wrongdoing is believed to be essential to the Church’s core ideals. In the case of sexual harassment, we propose that since clergy abuse seriously harms the Church’s core defended value of clerical celibacy, abuse is more likely to be concealed by members. Unlike sexual harassment and assault, financial misconduct cases are considered less attached to the core ideals of the Church because the Church is not primarily an economic institution. Therefore, we argue that the underlying reason for the external reporting of financial misconduct cases in the Church is the nature of the wrong and its perceived impact on the Church’s core ideals.

Key Findings

  1. Despite the organizational climate and mission of the organization, there is still systematic wrongdoing that is concealed within the organization because it is close to the core ideals the organization wishes to defend. There are cover-ups of the wrongdoings, negative publicity surrounding the cases, whistleblowers informing public about it, retaliation for reporting, and expensive lawsuits for institutions.
  2. We believe that it is very important to implement effective internal and external reporting channels within the Catholic Church. Several incentives for reporting can encourage whistleblowers to come forward before wrongdoing becomes a major scandal. Such incentives can include anonymous reporting channels, educating employees about reporting, financial incentives and protecting whistleblowers from retaliation.
  3. Organizations need to change the narrative about whistleblowers—who should be seen as heroes rather than traitors.
  4. Overall, through promoting culture of trust, transparency and accountability, one can encourage whistleblowing. Therefore, we need to pay close attention to organizational factors over and above the individual factors that are often used to misexplain wrongdoing and mismanage interventions.

Principal Investigators

Miguel Alzola is Associate Professor of Ethics at the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University. He has published on the philosophy and psychology of character, the integration of empirical and normative research in business ethics, and role morality.



Öykü Arkan is currently an Assistant Professor of Management at Sabancı Business School. She recently completed her doctoral studies from Management and Global Business department at Rutgers Business School under a Fulbright Fellowship. In her dissertation, she explored the role of moral character and organizational ethical climate in understanding employees’ whistleblowing behaviors from a virtue ethics perspective.