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

"Over the years, there has been frustration [that] we're not consulted," said Matthew Bunson, editor of the Catholic Almanac.

American supporters of the pope say he should pay more attention to his -- and the Church's -- image.

Structural impediments

In addition to modernizing its approach to public communications, one suggestion made by many is that the Church should apply worldwide the tougher rules against child abuse that its U.S. bishops put in place in 2002.

They say the Vatican can appear tone deaf, even on the most sensitive subjects, and have theories why. One is structural, with a system that harbors a military respect for rank and fiefdom and is a massive, centuries-old theocracy that still requires some official documents to be in Latin.

Experts say there is no unifying figure or office to pull together a team during a crisis. Public communications are dealt with by multiple institutions: Lombardi, a Jesuit priest, runs the Vatican's media and press office. The secretary of state's office is also a key player, and the Pontifical Council for Social Communications has dozens of advisers around the world to help it spread the faith, including a Bombay filmmaker, a TV executive from Indonesia and a radio correspondent from Africa.

The council isn't charged with getting involved in news. But to some, it's emblematic that during an epic crisis, this panel of communications experts doesn't meet again until next year. Lombardi recently made a point of saying that he speaks for the Vatican, not the pope.

"The mind-set is that no one speaks for the pope," Shaw said. "If the pope wants to speak, he'll speak for himself."

Barry McLoughlin, who holds crisis management seminars for U.S. bishops and helped them craft the tougher 2002 rules, said he's "in agony" watching the Church fail to get its footing. He said people around the pope may be too intimidated to deliver bad news to his face.

"Whether it's a golfing superstar or an international automaker, the communications advisers have to have direct access to the decision maker," McLoughlin said. "That's just a rule."

To those less supportive of Church leaders, there seems another reason why they don't communicate more: They don't want to. The pope and those in the Vatican, these people say, wish to remain in another world, focusing more on traditions and customs, even if that means in some cases keeping sex-abuse allegations private or letting the Church's internal justice system grind away slowly as victims suffer.

But that's not how pope defenders might frame it. "One thing that makes [Vatican critics] bonkers is this idea that everyone's spiritual welfare might be handled better internally," Bunson said. "But the civil system doesn't have to worry about eternal life."

Even as Lombardi framed the problem as coming from an outside world that doesn't understand the Church, he said, "We have a long way to go."

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