NEW POPE WILL HAVE OPPORTUNITYTO RESET VATICAN COMMUNICATIONS
By Richard E. Nicolazzo
Here’s the Vatican’s massive crisis communications problem in a nutshell:
After being accused of improper conduct with priests, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s highest-ranking Catholic leader, announced in February he was resigning and wouldn’t take part in the conclave to elect the next Pope.
What does the Church say? The Vatican confirmed that O’Brien had resigned as Archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh, but insisted the accusations against him had nothing to do with his quitting. Really?
In my view, given what’s happened to the Church over the past decade statements like this lack transparency and credibility, and infuriate Catholics around the world who are trying to see light at the end of this dark and disturbing tunnel.
With the start of the conclave only days away, it’s been another rough stretch for an institution that faces one of the biggest PR problems in modern history.
The respected Italian newspaper La Repubblica has reported that Pope Benedict XVI resigned after receiving the results of an internal investigation (delivered in a 300-page, two-volume dossier) that laid bare a sordid tale of blackmail, corruption and gay sex inside the Vatican.
Naturally, Rev. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, refused to comment on the report.
This comes in the wake of a grass-roots campaign orchestrated by parishioners to shame another Cardinal, retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, into refraining from taking part in the conclave because of his alleged role in protecting sexually abusive priests. Mahony, who is testifying before a grand jury, maintains he will participate in the conclave and vote.
Jesuits Stepped Up and Took Responsibility
More than a decade ago, my firm faced the same problem, albeit on a smaller scale, when it represented the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The Society was drawn into the public maelstrom over the occurrence and handling of pedophilia cases involving clergy in the Archdiocese of Boston.
The Jesuits, long noted for producing some of the Church’s leading theologians and educators, staffed three preparatory high schools in New England. Allegations of sexual abuse had been raised about a number of Jesuit priests, in particular, one who coached young boys at Boston College High School.
Instead of ducking the matter, the Jesuits stepped up and took responsibility. Leadership of the N.E. Province created a hot line inviting anyone to call who might have been impacted by the priest in question. At one point, the Jesuits stood by school leadership at a press conference where every question was addressed and answered. The Jesuits also offered psychological counseling for the victims, their families and anyone who might have been impacted as a result of the abuse. They displayed humility, kindness and sympathy.
It turns out that as far back as 1987, the N.E. Province adopted a formal policy for dealing with cases of sexual misconduct. In 1994, the policy was further amended and strengthened to adhere to relevant state laws.
While the scrutiny of the Boston Archdiocese continued for years, the Jesuits’ recognition of the problem and commitment to take immediate remedial action took the media spotlight off their Province in a matter of weeks.
What lessons from the Jesuits matter can be applied to Rome? Here are six ideas that, in my view, can begin to change the tide.
1. Take Responsibility. The first step in any crisis is to take responsibility. While the Church has settled a number of lawsuits and established counseling centers for victims, there is an air of arrogance and lack of accountability for the behavior of the clergy at the Vatican. They must admit to wrongdoing.
2. Clean House. The Church has been too reactionary. Gratuitous PR toward victims further demeans them and leaves permanent psychological scars. The next Pope has an opportunity to take more decisive action, even defrocking priests, monsignors, archbishops, and cardinals suspected of any type of illegal or illicit sexual behavior, or for hiding the behavior of others. As things now stand, the “dribble-out” effect continues to haunt the institution. It’s time to make all clergy accountable for their behavior.
3. Stop the Secrecy. One of the most common mistakes in any crisis is secrecy. Perpetuating the centuries-old way of doing things inside the Vatican breeds mistrust. The report referenced by La Repubblica is a good example. Allegedly, when it was given to the Pope, it was stamped “Pontifical Secret.” Instead of burying it, maybe the new Pope should release this document to the public as an example of the type of “cleansing” that signals a new era. Getting the facts, taking responsibility, and being transparent are key steps in addressing a major crisis.
4. Get Outside Help. Having become so insular, the Church continues to struggle with a meaningful solution to this human tragedy and PR nightmare. Like any institution, when systematic problems linger for years and years, outsiders can often provide an objective perspective and lead the way out of the darkness.
5. Name an Effective Spokesperson. I have no doubt that Rev. Lombardi, who is often quoted, is an honorable priest put in a difficult position. However, the Church should put someone in front of a microphone who can actually say something meaningful about this issue. Start simple: instead of eloquent stonewalling, say something like “…As an institution, the Church will not tolerate any illegal or illicit behavior by members of the clergy. One’s position in the Church hierarchy does not matter. We are going to be transparent.”
6. Change the Model. The Church continues to adhere to celibacy and won’t allow women to say Mass. Decades have rolled by with the Church stuck in the past. Would any practicing Catholic (not the men with the robes and hats inside the Vatican, but the people in the pews) actually object to letting priests get married? My hunch is it would be a very low percentage. As Frank Bruni wrote in a N.Y. Times op-ed on February 26, “…The pledge of celibacy that the Church requires of its servants is an often cruel and corrosive thing. It runs counter to human nature. It asks too much.”
The institutional and communications tasks facing the Church are multi-layered, complex and emotionally charged. While improving communications is a good start, it will not be a panacea for a meaningful turnaround. However, it will be a powerful first step and clear message to the 1.2 to 1.3 billion Catholics globally.
Change in the Catholic Church can’t come soon enough.
Joe M. Grillo, partner at Nicolazzo & Associates, contributed to this commentary.