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

By Michelle Boorstein
Sunday, April 11, 2010; A04

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.

"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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