October 2, 2012
The story of Paolo Gabriele, the Pope’s former butler who is facing a three-judge Vatican tribunal who will rule according to a 19th century penal code, appeared in yesterday’s New York Times. He is charged with making photocopies of confidential Vatican documents and for making those documents available to Gianluigi Nuzzi an Italian journalist.
Mr. Nuzzi, based on the content of those documents, wrote a book entitled: “His Holiness: The Secret Papers of Pope Benedict XVI.” In his book, which became a bestseller in Italy, the author publishes correspondence between the Pope and his private secretary in which corruption and malpractice among Vatican administrators is discussed.
Mr. Gabriele, a 46 year old father of three had worked in the Vatican for over 20 years, basically most of his adult life. He has now not only lost his job but is also facing a possible sentence of 4 years in jail.
The Pope appointed a commission of three cardinals to investigate either the leak or the alleged corruption. I hope that they did both. The commission reported their findings to the Pope. Unfortunately, these findings have not been made public.
According to court records, Mr. Gabriele was motivated by a desire to make public the corruption he witnessed in the Vatican. He said: “Seeing evil and corruption everywhere in the church … I was sure that a shock, even a media one, would have been healthy to bring the Church back on the right track.”
If all the information above is correct, he qualifies as a whistleblower.
There have been a number of very famous whistleblowers in recent U.S. history, such as Frank Serpico who exposed corruption in the NYC police department and Jeffrey Wigand who blew the whistle on the tobacco industry. In 2002, Time Magazine honored as “Persons of the Year” whistleblowers, Cynthia Cooper of WorldComm, Sharon Watkins of Enron and Colleen Rowley of the FBI.
New legislation has been passed to protect whistleblowers from retaliation and dismissal and in some cases to provide them with significant financial compensation. The SEC has an Office of the Whistleblower.
Yet, in general whistleblowing is not perceived positively. It often considered a threat and a betrayal of loyalty.
It is understandable that institutions, whether public or private, would much rather resolve any questionable behavior internally. There is some wisdom in the popular saying “Do not wash your dirty laundry in public.” Certain negative incidents or actions need not be revealed and publicly exposed as long as the issues are addressed within the law and in an ethical manner.
Kirsty Matthewson, the Marketing Manager at Expolink a global company that specializes in whistleblowing, wrote in her article “Ethics and Whistleblowing” that advocating whistleblowing within organizations fosters “a culture of self-regulation and accountability, management can help ensure their staff and business operations are protected.”
However there may be situations when there is very little hope that problematic issues will be addressed seriously and that reform and changes will occur internally. In such cases going public is the only solution but it should be the one of last resort. “Going public” can have very serious, traumatic and irreversible consequences both for the whistleblower and for the institution.
A whistleblower will need courage and should take to heart what Albert Einstein once said:
“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”