The Power of Religion To Influence Corporate Responsibility

The recent experience of the near calamitous meltdown of the financial system was a clear indication of what can happen when unbridled greed and inadequate regulation are given free rein. The controversies swirling around News Corp are another ugly example of what happens when an ethical values system isn’t in place in the boardroom and powerful, intimidating personalities are given permission to create a culture that prizes “scooping” their competitors over serving the public good.

The question is: what can these debacles teach us about the role of ethics and morality in the marketplace and, perhaps more importantly, are we ready to learn?

As the director of the Faith Consistent Investment ministry of my congregation, I have been engaged in shareholder advocacy and corporate social responsibility since the early 70s. Recognizing the enormous influence global corporations have to impact the “common good”, my colleagues and I press CEOs and management to scrutinize their business practices on a myriad of issues from policies on lending and executive compensation, to water use in drought-prone areas and to human rights abuses in the supply chain wherever they source products or services. In the early 90’s I began to notice that corporate management referred quite often to the unique culture of their particular company and the values and practices that flowed from that culture. It became clear to me that there was a concerted effort on the part of responsible management to codify these values within the context of an identity statement that was part of the organizational DNA that would govern both its internal and external behavior.

An ethical values system has proven to be an important ingredient in the delivery of quality services and products, and the key to building customer loyalty, employee satisfaction and long term viability. But where do these values systems come from?

Historically, it can be demonstrated that the impact of faith on the social responsibility of any given corporation can be traced directly to the religion and character of the owner or CEO and how he/she integrated their value system into the corporation’s identity and operations. It was generally assumed that the decisions and actions of the business leader directing the corporation were significantly influenced by the religious principles at the foundation of their personal lives.

Religion’s impact is also seen through debate in the legislative and rule making processes whereby societies regulate businesses. As corporations are granted a license to operate they are expected to comply with the principles and constraints that are included. Basic values such as honesty, transparency, responsibility, fairness and integrity that are common to most faith traditions are included in this social contract.

A number of things that have changed over the last 75 years have profoundly impacted the intersection of religion and corporations. Let me briefly identify four of these changes and the consequences that flow from them.

Evolving Business Models: The Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) is the predominant business model today. LLCs whether public or privately held are managed and owned by a diverse group of professionals and shareholders, each with their own religious beliefs. These new models are less likely to be strongly shaped by the values and beliefs that business leaders or employees bring to them.
Influence of Corporations on all aspects of life: The legislative and political landscape, our culture and priorities are all profoundly shaped by the influence of corporations. This is true within the business and economic sectors, but also in the development initiatives that are taking place in some of the remotest villages and communities across the world. These are spaces where religious institutions, as spiritual guides and teachers of their followers, compete directly for public influence.
Access to information: The democratization of information through the development of the Internet and other modes of communication and travel have uncovered accounts of corporate abuses from all corners of the world. This has awakened an acute awareness of the relatedness that exists between people and communities because of the products and services that they rely on.
Active ownership of shareholders: Church communities and values-driven individuals who hold shares in corporations or are stakeholders in corporations have become increasingly more organized and active in the responsible exercise of their ownership and their stakeholder positions. This has resulted in direct and productive engagement by religious institutions with the management of major global corporations on a host of issues.
But for too many of us, corporate behavior is an abstraction and disconnected from our daily lives and so, the Banking and News Corp headlines are just that: headlines that produce momentary outrage but no meaningful change in corporate behavior. We must demand that corporations behave ethically and in service of the common good and bring values back to the boardroom.

The fantastic wealth of Irish Catholic religious orders revealed

When the Irish Government negotiated a settlement of the compensation due to the tens of thousands of people abused and traumatised in institutions run by the Catholic Church, the total came to €1.36 billion.

The Government wanted the Church to pay half of this, but during negotiations in 2002, the Church managed to wangle its way into contributing only €120 million (£107m) – a pitifully small fraction of what was needed.

This deal was struck on the hypothesis that there would be 2,000 claimants, something the Church was uniquely qualified to know would not be the case.

In the event there were 14,000.

Only after a great deal of public pressure, the amount the Church will pay is now to be renegotiated, with the Government having carried out a review of the assets of the religious orders that abused, over many years, those in their care.

The review has revealed the staggering wealth of these religious orders. It showed between 1999 and 2009, the orders made €667 million in property deals.

Almost all of these sales were made while the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was investigating the years of suffering endured by children in their care.

The properties included land banks, houses, farmyards, a swimming pool, a warehouse, sports grounds and convents.

A quarter of all these trades involved the 2,088-member Sisters of Mercy.

Its four provinces sold 195 properties, including a €32m deal for 16 acres in Killarney.

The order still retained over €1 billion in land assets after these deals.

The 250-member Christian Brothers made €79m in the decade under review and the smaller Oblates of Mary Immaculate featured prominently because of the €105m it made by selling its Belcamp campus in north Dublin.

The top 13 trades by the orders brought in a combined €409m, while the remaining 313 units were sold for €81m.

The €667m total contributed to the revenue of 17 of the 18 orders which, in 2009, agreed to renegotiate the controversial 2002 indemnity deal.

The subsequent sales returns consisted of over 395 properties in the Republic, the North, Britain and America.

The details were released to an Irish newspaper with the orders’ agreement.

Some properties were transferred to community, public and diocesan bodies for nominal fees. Others were bought at peak prices by speculators and developers.

The asset review took place after a public backlash following the Ryan Report two years ago.

The report’s contents forced the Government and the orders to revisit the deal which capped the liability of the orders at €128m.

On the basis of the review, the orders raised their offer to €476m.

This was to go towards compensating victims, building the new National Children’s Hospital and erecting a memorial.

However, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn says he is disappointed by the offer from the various orders – they are still several hundred million short of what is needed.

He is now seeking further property transfers and says he will use bailiffs to seize more property if necessary to make up the shortfall.

But, as Dearbhail McDonald, the legal editor of the Irish Independent, pointed out, much of the money is tied up in charitable trusts for a specific purpose.

He maintains it will be difficult — even impossible — for the Government to access it.

“The chances of the Government sending in the bailiffs to the religious orders is about as likely as the sisters and brothers footing their half of an estimated €1.36bn abuse bill: negligible.”

Ruairi Quinn wants the orders’ overall contribution to be raised to €680m.

He says that if the Church does not pay its fair share of the settlement it will mean further cuts in public spending in a country already suffering mightily in the recession.

The Government is to re-open discussions with the clergy shortly.

“I’m going to enter into these negotiations with an open mind,” said Minister Quinn, although he told reporters that he is “not confident” that the Church will stump up its share.

“This is about recouping for the distressed Irish taxpayer a vast amount of money, the alternative which is that we have to reduce further expenditure and introduce saving in areas that we would otherwise not want to do.”

Despite the sales, the various religious orders retained a bank of property assets worth €3.07bn and financial assets of €704m.

Hello And WELCOME!

Welcome to HEAR OUR VOICES! This is the blog section of


I’m hoping that as we get going here we’ll find the courage to speak, anonymously, if must be, but speak nonetheless.  I hope that in time, and with the help of others, like you, we’ll be able to make this site a clearing house for all issues that impact on our lives as gay clergy and those of our non-clerical brothers.

If, as some have suggested, gay men comprise up to 60% of the ranks of the Roman Catholic priesthood, then I think it is high time we begin to take our rightful place at the table.  I think this will only happen if we learn from each other, support each other, challenge each other and through this interaction make the alliances we’ll need to become the activists we must.

Again, in time, I hope to be able to incorporate a social networking component to this site, to facilitate us getting to know one another better.  If any of you have resources to bring to this common effort, I’d sure like to hear from you.

I feel as thought I am better situated than many of you to launch a site like this, because of my status as a gay priest, but one that no longer publically functions in that capacity.  I am happily beyond the ecclesiastical reprisals a lot of you still fear.  But I am still  painfully aware of the spiritual isolation and emotional distress that we experience as gay men in the church.  My 13-year battle with the Oblates Of Marry Immaculate to save my ministry, after the publication of my doctoral thesis: Gay Catholic Priests; A Study of Cognitive and Affective Dissonance, in 1981  have left its scars.

So, let’s make this happen, shall we?

I welcome your thoughts and comments…prayers would be nice too.

Richard Wagner, Ph.D.