Lack of Vatican communications strategy on scandal baffles pope's U.S. defenders

By Michelle Boorstein
Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Vatican spokesman doesn't regularly discuss the clergy sex-abuse scandal with the pope. Its communications council's next meeting is in February (on the agenda: "the Internet"). For American defenders of Pope Benedict XVI, it has been frustrating to watch an apparent lack of a communications strategy for dealing with the scandal.

"My best answer would be a primal scream," Russell Shaw, who was the U.S. bishops' spokesman in the 1970s and '80s, said when asked about the Vatican's recent dealings with the public. "It reflects a totally inadequate understanding and mind-set as to the whole subject of communications."

Facing a torrent of cases in Europe and a new effort by survivors' advocates to highlight unresolved cases around the world, members of the pope's inner circle have said things that have only drawn more criticism, like the priest who on Good Friday compared criticism of the Church's handling of the abuse crisis to violent anti-Semitism.

Most American organizations facing such a barrage of negative news would long ago have pulled together a crisis management team and made top officials available for interviews to explain their point of view. But the Vatican said such an approach is too commercial for the Church to adopt. "We are not a multinational enterprise, this is clear," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said in a telephone interview. "The normal situation of the Church and the Vatican is to help the people to understand the teachings of the Church and the documents of the pope and not to sell particular products."

On Friday, however, Lombardi released a statement that appeared to be trying to change the conversation. It said the Church wanted to emphasize its cooperation with civil justice systems and a desire for "reconstituting a climate of justice and full faith in the institution of the Church." Benedict, he said, "is ready for new meetings" with victims of clergy sexual abuse.

Untapped experience

Some American defenders of the pope's actions say they are mystified about why the Vatican has not reached out more publicly to U.S. Catholics, who were tempered by a decade of experience in helping the Church hierarchy respond when the subject erupted publicly in Boston in 2002.

Lombardi said the Vatican is consulting privately with some American leaders. Some obvious candidates, including Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop emeritus of Washington, and Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory, credited with making the Vatican understand the severity of the U.S. scandal, declined to speak for this article. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops, said they would not publicize any assistance they might offer.

"Any conversations between us and the Vatican I wouldn't mention," she said, hastening to add, "and that's not to say that there have been any conversations."

Walsh, who worked with the bishops' press office during the U.S. scandal, said the Vatican didn't see the need to speak out extensively during the scandal, as "it was seen as an American problem."

There appears to be a more organized effort, particularly in the United States, to defend the pope. American bishops across the country, including Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, took to the pulpit and op-ed pages over the Easter weekend. "What happens when a pope is persecuted?" was the title of a news release by the Atlanta-based Catholic public relations firm Maximus. "Martyred Popes" was the name of a blog post by American Catholic writer Robert Moynihan.

But still, there is sense that U.S. expertise is going largely untapped by the Vatican.

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