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Vatican spokesman and his deputy resign unexpectedly

The spokesman for the Vatican and his deputy resigned suddenly Dec. 31, an official statement said. (Video: Reuters)
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ROME — The Vatican capped a tumultuous year Monday by announcing the resignations of its head spokesman, Greg Burke, and his deputy, the figures most responsible for day-to-day dealings with the media.

A statement provided no reason for the departures of Burke and Paloma García Ovejero, but the move magnifies the uncertainty facing the Vatican as it deals with criticism of its slow or opaque responses to the sexual abuse crisis. Over the past year, Pope Francis overhauled much of the Vatican’s sprawling communications office, which includes a newspaper, radio service and publishing house.

But now, ahead of a key global summit addressing the issue of abuse by clergy members, he will need to fill a new job: somebody who can be a public face for the reeling Roman Catholic Church.

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On Twitter, Burke said the resignations would be effective Jan. 1. “At this time of transition in Vatican communications, we think it’s best the Holy Father is completely free to assemble a new team,” Burke wrote.

He and García Ovejero were well known to journalists covering the Holy See, and Burke accompanied Francis on major trips outside Rome. Some Vatican watchers say the press office had lost some of its standing. Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University professor of theology who has written about the press office, said the Vatican was slow this summer in releasing information about the investigation into resigned Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and about the bombshell allegations by a former Vatican ambassador who said Francis and others knew about and ignored McCar­rick’s alleged abuse of seminarians.

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“If an institution is totally silent for days or weeks, this is not good,” Faggioli said. “This last summer was particularly telling.” He said the press office under Francis was “basically an empty shell.”

Francis’s own reputation has been damaged by his handling of the scourge, with many abuse victims and advocates calling on the Vatican to improve its transparency.

The press office has about 20 employees, but it was Burke and García Ovejero who fielded questions from the media. Burke, 59, had worked as a Fox News reporter in Rome before taking a job in 2012 in the Vatican communications office. He became the head spokesman in 2016. Burke is fluent in Italian and is a member of Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic organization.

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García Ovejero was the first female deputy spokesperson. Before coming to the press office, she had been a Vatican correspondent for a Spanish broadcaster.

Burke replaced the Rev. Federico Lombardi, who retired in 2016.

“The only thing I feel like doing is saying that I hope the [next] appointee can do a good job,” Lombardi said when reached by phone.

In December, Francis named Andrea Tornielli, a veteran Italian journalist, as the editorial director for Vatican communications. The head of the Vatican’s communications office, Paolo Ruffini, who also was appointed to his job in the past year, said the resignations announced Monday were “autonomous” and of “free choice.”

But Francis’s overhaul of the communications office has had its bumps. In 2015, the pope appointed Monsignor Dario Viganò as a czar to oversee the communications effort. Viganò was forced to step down in March in what was known as the “Lettergate” scandal, the selective and misleading release of a letter from retired Pope Benedict XVI.

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.

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