Insights into litigation, sports law, media and legal culture

Assessing brand damage to the Australian Catholic Church: What research tells us

Sorry about the jargon, but if Catholicism really were a brand, ad agencies wouldn’t be fighting for the account right now” – Damian Thompson, The Telegraph [1]


One issue the Catholic Church will be watching closely is the impact on Australian Catholics of Cardinal George Pell’s testimony from Rome before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Commission) in March 2016.

True it is, it would be hard for anyone subjected to intensive cross-examination for four days between the hours of 9 pm and 3 am to look consistently impressive. However, it is also true that, for many watching his testimony on television or in person, His Eminence has not at times looked very eminent.[2]

Catholicism is a brand, and it knows it. Like any good brand, the Australian Catholic Church tracks its engagement with consumers, namely, its congregation. We will get to those results shortly. We will also put ourselves in the shoes of the unenviable brand strategist charged with the task of turning this brand around within Australia.

The concept of ‘brand’ is inherently subjective. It is more than just the word, image or symbol that cues our recognition of an organization, team, category, product or thing. Rather, it is what we call to mind from memory when we think of a brand. The associations are sensory and emotional. They are unique to each person. The aim of a brand strategist is to make them positive. – ‘The consumer psychology of brands’, Bernd Schmitt, Journal of Consumer Pscychology 22 (2012) 7 – 17

For a brand strategist, qualitative research and quantitative research is often needed to help understand what people think of a brand.

Qualitative research involves researching people’s reactions to a brand in an intimate setting, such as a focus group. Participants are often provided with vouchers or a nominal fee of, say, $15 to share their views.

Imagine I am in a focus group right now. With a cup of tea in hand I am asked: When you watched Cardinal Pell’s testimony, what things came to mind? My response would be: Catholicism – Des Gannon – Negative feelings about the Church – a sick feeling. I will expand on this shortly.

Quantitative research typically involves a statistically sound survey across the whole or a segment of the population. To that end, the Catholic Church keeps an eye on its own brand health by its participation in the National Church Life Survey. This is conducted in Australia every five years.

Often people or responses are grouped by age, gender, demographic, location and other attributes. I can see myself, for example, in the ‘Lapsed Catholic’ category.

One must then try to make sense of all this.

Qualitative research – The hypothetical ‘Lapsed Catholic’ Focus Group

Desmond Laurence Gannon

Father Des Gannon was my parish priest for seven years. He was a paedophile and the subject of Case Study 35 of the Commission. Of course I did not then know he was a paedophile. Nor did the good parishioners of St Martin of Tours who donated $3,500 to him upon his retirement in 1993 as a token of their appreciation.[3]

Father Gannon presided over St Martin of Tours in Macleod-Rosanna from 1980 to 1993. I went to Mass there every Sunday from 1980 to 1987. I would listen to Father Gannon’s sermons and think how normal he was. He talked about things like accounting. This did not surprise because he looked like an accountant. He did not fit my romantic expectations of a priest, drawn largely from hirsute statues of Jesus.

In his sermons, Father Gannon also referred frequently to his time at Braybrook, his previous parish. Father Gannon’s sermons contained fond and frequent references to excursions with groups of boys. There seemed to be a lot of excursions. It struck me at the time that Braybrook must have had a lot of disadvantaged boys needing Father Gannon’s help.

The data produced to the Commission revealed that 25 people have made either a claim or substantiated complaint of child sexual abuse in relation to Father Gannon. The alleged incidents occurred in the period from 1954 (two years before his ordination, when he was 25) to 1984 (when he was at St Martin’s). Fourteen institutions, generally parishes and schools were involved.

A psychiatric report indicated that Des Gannon compartmentalised his sexuality from being a priest. On the one hand, he admitted there were about 15 boys with whom he variously formed sexual relationships from 1957 to 1979 (or 1981), some lasting for a number of years. In total, he estimated there were between 51 and 100 boys between 13 to 15 years old that he had touched in a sexual way. On the other hand, in all areas of formal prayer, private devotions, charity, priestly duties and church life, Father Gannon came across as a very spiritual man. So much so, he even said he found the promises of obedience, celibacy and living simply ‘easy enough’ to keep. To this, Archbishop Denis Hart commented at the 2013 Victorian Inquiry that there was a lack of integration in his sexuality and in his person, something the Church now worked on very hard with priests, in addition to better screening practises. – Victorian Inquiry, 20 May 2013, page 42

All 25 claims went through the Melbourne Response. Of these, the Church paid 22 victims a total of $848,000, averaged at just over $39,000 per claimant (after taking into account treatment, legal and other costs).[4]

Father Gannon has hijacked my memories of some of the best times of my life. Then, I was making great friends at Antioch, a youth group St Martin’s had recently introduced. My friends at Antioch included boys. This was important to me because, as an only child attending a same sex school, having boy ‘friends’ was special. I loved our excursions, our weekends together and even Tuesday morning Mass (held informally for youth group members at a house owned by the church).


St Martin of Tours Camp 1986

St Martin of Tours Camp 1986


St Martin of Tours Camp 1986

St Martin of Tours Camp 1986

Now, when reflecting on this period I feel faintly ill. I think about the boys Father Gannon molested. I also think about the Catholic Church’s cover up, permitting him to leave St Martin’s in 1993 with honours, namely, the title ‘Pastor Emeritus’ which conferred on him status and money.[5]

In 1992, the year before his resignation, the Vicar-General had concluded Father Gannon was “a time bomb ready to go off”.[6] He was right. In April 1993 the first complaint about him was received, from a former student at the school in St Anthony’s Parish, Glenhuntly. Interviewed later that month, Father Gannon admitted the complaint and told of another five or six children he had offended against in different parishes. Archbishop Little then directed he go quietly.[7]

Rather than proposing a difficult conversation with the good parishioners of St Martin’s about whether there were any other abused children in their midst, in May 1993, Archbishop Little wrote a positive letter to Des Gannon about his contribution to the parishes where he worked.[8] Cardinal Pell observed in relation to this conduct: “He got the bloke out. But the way he did it was reprehensible”.[9]

Father Gannon pleaded guilty on 4 April 1995 to the first criminal charge he faced, and it appears he did so in relation to other complaints. In all, Father Gannon was sentenced on five occasions for sexual crimes against children. Twice he was jailed.[10]

The Vatican, however, was not made aware of these matters until about 2011 (at least 18 years later) when the Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, using the language of “better late than never” requested that Father Gannon be laicised (returning former priests to the status of lay people). He explained the delay on the basis that Rome’s processes for laicising priests were too complex to pursue until the 2000s. The Holy See responded that, due to his ‘extreme age’, a penal precept should be imposed instead. This is a lesser penalty restricting where a priest can go and what he can do.[11]

1990s disengagement

Why did ‘Negative Feelings About the Church’ also come to mind when I was confronted with images and testimony of Cardinal Pell?

Importantly, such reactions may not be personal to Cardinal Pell. They are certainly not the product of a ‘witch hunt’. However, as a ‘brand identity symbol’ of the Australian Catholic Church, an image of Cardinal Pell can invoke a range of reactions from memory, whether good or bad.

Confession looks great in The Godfather, but I did not find the process mysterious. It was claustrophobic. I did not like getting up close and personal with a stranger in a closet, with the ‘upside’ being the number of Hail Mary’s I was told to say when I got out.

Communal reconciliation, also called the Third Rite, was a refreshing change. Hugely popular in Australia in the 1980s and early 1990s, the whole congregation was absolved together of their sins via a cathartic, shared experience in Church. The Pope, however, didn’t like it, and said this practice should stop.

In 1999, the ABC Four Corners Program lifted the lid on things long whispered between parishioners.[12] About priests being disciplined for conducting the Third Rite. Of secret informants who would take notes of ‘transgressions’ during Mass then report to Rome. These people were members of a conservative Christian group preferring a traditionalist approach.

The most popular and progressive priests appeared to be targeted most. For young Catholics like me, who by now attended Mass sporadically in between University life, Bruce Springsteen concerts and other equally important social commitments, the prospect of returning to anything like Latin Mass was not a concept to contemplate with joy.

Melbourne’s then Archbishop George Pell strongly supported the return to orthodox doctrine. By the time he was appointed a Cardinal in 2003, George Pell had already spent a decade on Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.[13]

To George Pell, the concept of egalitarianism seemed alarmingly close to flexibility and, in turn, to heresy. He endorsed a strict approach for students: “…I’ve said, a little bit cynically once or twice, because when they come to drift away from the church, they’ll have a good idea what they’re drifting from, so they’re much better equipped to come back”.[14]

Others were less confident, with The Age reporting, upon George Pell’s elevation to Cardinal, a leading Catholic layman as saying: “George claims it’s forthrightness like his and doctrinal clarity that will bring people back to the church. I’m convinced very few have come back to church because of what he’s done – but many have left”.[15]

Quantitative Research: What surveys tell the Australian Catholic Church about itself

The biggest threat to the Australian Catholic Church, according to George Pell about 15 years ago, was that “we’ll just merge into the background”. He said, “We’re a minority church, fewer than 30 per cent of the people”. He worried that “we’ll just take on the colours of our society” and “we’ll become the bland leading the bland”.[16]

Well, I don’t think we have to worry about that at the moment. Australian Catholics are certainly standing out from the crowd.

Major organisations frequently monitor the relationship between brand associations and brand loyalty. For example, in professional sport, surveys of professional sport consumers are often conducted, to study the relationship between ‘brand association dimensions’ (e.g. identification, escape, nostalgia and product delivery, star players) and brand loyalty.[17]

Within the Catholic Church of Australia

 The Australian Catholic Church has participated, amongst other things, in the National Church Life Survey since at least 2001. The 2011 survey represented the results of 47,286 adult forms from 210 parishes. This is an enormous sample, representing responses from Practising Catholics (not Lapsed Catholics like me).

The analysis below is drawn from the 2011 National Church Life Survey Results. It identifies trends in Australia before the impact of significant events such as the 2013 elevation of Pope Francis to the Papacy, and the commencement of the Royal Commission into sexual abuse.

Whilst the number of respondents to this Survey is huge, it is down by about 30,000 since 2001.

The resulting Denominational Church Life Profile (Church Life Profile) provides an interesting picture.

In 2011, the average age of church community members was 57 years and 1 month. 61% were female and 39% were male. 32% were tertiary educated and 30% came from a Non-English background.

If you think the ‘brand’ analogy is a little, well, secular, look no further than the ‘9 Core Qualities of Church Life’ said to be central to the life of a vital church.


Source: National Church Life Survey 2011

Source: National Church Life Survey 2011

These dimensions are categorized into, first, Internal Core Qualities (the inner life of the community), secondly, Inspirational Core Qualities (the vigour of a church and the catalysts that inspire a church to move forward) and, thirdly, Outward Core Qualities (the outward looking life of the church).

There was purportedly some good news for Catholics in the 2011 Church Life Survey. The Core Qualities of ‘Faith’ and ‘Worship’ were said to be trending up. In particular:

  • 19% of respondents said that in the last year they had experienced much growth in their faith through their parish.
  • 59% said they always or usually experienced inspiration during the liturgies.

Trending down, however, were the Core Qualities of Belonging (‘sense of belonging is strong and growing’), Vision (the question essentially concerned the ‘local church’ rather than Rome), Leadership (again, the questions were essentially directed to the local church) and Faith-Sharing (inviting someone else to attend church).

Remaining largely static was Innovation. Does the term refer to giving communion to homosexuals, the abolition of clerical celibacy, the introduction of women priests and the sanction of public dissent? No. Rather, the fine print suggests that “innovative change” means proposed changes to Mass such as “style of music” and “seating layout”. 43% of respondents supported such changes, but 32% of respondents were neutral or unsure.

Catholics compared to other denominations

The Denominational Comparisons, at the rear of the Church Life Profile, provides significant insight into the health of the Catholic Church of Australia relative to eight other Christian methods of worship (Anglican, Baptist, Churches of Christ, Salvation Army, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Uniting, Lutheran)

The Catholic Church fared poorly, often coming in last, compared to the other denominations.

For example, the ‘positive’ result reported above in relation to ‘Faith’ was pretty bad when compared to other denominations.

19% of Catholic respondents said they experienced growth in Faith in the past year. But this was significantly behind Anglicans (29%), Salvation Army (31%) and Pentecostal (40%).

To further illustrate, the Catholic result on ‘Vision’ was a long way behind its ‘competitor’ Christian faiths.

18% of Catholic respondents said they were aware of and strongly committed to the local church’s vision. But this can be compared to 37% for Anglican, 45% for Salvation Army and 62% for Pentecostal.

Likewise, Leadership (directed to the local church) was a poor result for Australian Catholics.

13% of Catholic respondents said that leaders at the local church encouraged gifts and skills to a great extent. This can be compared to 22% Anglicans, 26% Salvation Army and 45% Pentecostal.

Catholics compared to Australians generally

In its November 2013 article, ‘Losing my Religion’, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) looked at the change over time in numbers of people reporting no religion in 2011, and explored their characteristics.

In summary, over the past 100 years, the number of people reporting no religion in Australia has increased from one in 250 people to one in five. In the 2011 Census this represented 22% of Australians.

With some good news for Catholics, 25% of the population identified themselves as such (the highest proportion of those who identified themselves with a religion).

This would be a significant result for a brand strategist. It suggests that members of the Lapsed Catholic group identify themselves as Catholic on the Census. If they still identify themselves culturally as Catholic, perhaps they are not lost forever? A PowerPoint presentation from such a brand strategist would likely suggest that this group can be recaptured.

Younger people made up a high proportion of those reporting no religion (around half who did so being less than 30 years old).

Older people in Australia were considerably more likely to report a religion (only 10% of people aged 65 years and over reported no religion).

Young adults (aged 15 to 34) were also a major source of the increase in reporting no religion in 2011. For example, the proportion of 20-24 year olds with no religion in 2011 was nearly 11 percentage points higher than the proportion of 15-19 year olds in 2006.

For a brand strategist, the youth result is bad news. Combine this result with the average age of an Australian Practising Catholic in 2011, namely, 57 years (see Church Life Survey). An ageing congregation suggests a significant threat to the long-term future of the Catholic Church in Australia. The PowerPoint presentation would strongly recommend urgent strategies to reach out to the youth segment.


Whilst research into people’s brand responses is crucial, there is not much point to the exercise unless people do something with what they learn.

The Australian Catholic Church is not a straightforward product. It is like the largest and most complex of team sports.

To promote brand growth in such circumstances requires a ‘Whole of Church Response’. But who are the members of the Australian Catholic Church who would take charge of such a program? Who would they involve in its execution? To whom would a brand strategist even report? Where would Rome fit in?

The 2016 National Church Life Survey will come out at some point (it took two years for the 2011 results to be released). Whether the results are actioned, or put in the bottom drawer, is something this oldest of institutions needs to decide. If the Church decides to act, how best to do so is a challenge not for the faint-hearted.


[1] ‘Has Pope Francis decontaminated the Catholic brand?’, The Telegraph, 29 July 2013 edition

[2] See, for example, ‘Cardinal George Pell went by the book and not by the heart’, Andrew Bolt, Herald Sun, 1 March 2016 edition (he has since retreated from this view); ‘We learned about George Pell’s pain. But what about the children?’ David Marr, The Guardian, 3 March 2016 edition

[3] Page 78, Transcript 1 December 2015 (Commission)

[4] Page 27, Opening address by senior counsel assisting the Commission (Case Study 35) [117] to [120] (Opening Address)

[5] For confirmation of the cover up, see testimony of Cardinal Pell before Victorian Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations (Victorian Inquiry), 20 May 2013, page 50 (noting Cardinal Pell had no personal knowledge of this incident and was remarking on the conduct of others).

[6] Bishop Emeritus Hilton Deakin: page 5 transcript 4 December 2015 (Commission)

[7] Opening Address at [113] to [116]; Victorian Inquiry, page 50.

[8] Opening Address at [115]

[9] Victorian Inquiry, 20 May 2013, page 51.

[10] Broken Rites, ‘Victims of Father Gannon defeated a cover-up, with help from Broken Rites’, updated 1 November 2015

[11] Victorian Inquiry, 20 May 2013, page 8

[12] Four Corners, The Vatican’s Verdict, 8/3/99

[13] ‘The inexorable rise of George Pell’, The Age, 1 October 2003 edition

[14] Four Corners, supra

[15] ‘The inexorable rise of George Pell’, The Age, 1 October 2003 edition

[16] Four Corners, supra

[17] ‘Understanding brand loyalty in Professional Sport: Examining the link between Brand Associations and Brand Loyalty’, Gladden and Funk, International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship, Vol 3, Iss 1, 54-81

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: