Just for fun when we’re talking shop, my PR friends sometimes like to evaluate escalating public scandals by asking each other: “What do you think might be the best damage control strategy for this crisis?” Here’s an example: over a 15-year period, our local Catholic Bishop Remi De Roo used church funds to invest in a failing horse-breeding venture, all without bothering to ask anybody for permission. In desperation, he then tried to secretly cover his horse-breeding losses with a real estate deal that also went terribly wrong – once again using the church’s money.
For the sake of clarity, let’s call this “stealing”. De Roo’s Catholic diocese was left with a debt of over $12 million to cover his losses. But the church never did press criminal charges against him.
It seems that as far as the Catholic church is concerned, wayward priests who choose to commit crimes – from stealing $12 million to sexually abusing minors – don’t need to face the same legal consequences that you or I would face. And from a public relations viewpoint, my PR pals agree, that’s a disastrous perception.
Instead of calling the police, for example (which is most certainly what would have happened had you or I stolen money from a church), when the diocese found out about the missing $12 million, church officials (in a remarkably forgiving internal report on the scandal) wrote that De Roo was merely “the victim of bad decisions and human frailty.”
There are those cynics who might argue that the true “victims” here were Catholic parishioners who had been tossing their hard-earned money into the collection plate every Sunday morning for decades. And even though official approval from the Vatican itself is a requirement for all Catholic diocesan transactions over $3.5 million (approval that De Roo did not bother getting), not even the Vatican took any formal action against him for stealing their money.
An apology from De Roo to the Catholics in his diocese was printed in all parish bulletins: “I am truly sorry and beg your forgiveness.” But meanwhile, the local diocese had to cover the losses through the sales of $1,000 bonds, and by liquidating their assets.
Like many recovering Catholics, I am now left wondering if this is the same Catholic church I was raised in.
Back in my catechism classes at Mount Mary Immaculate Academy, I was taught that taking things that don’t belong to you (like, let’s say $12 million) is a sin. I don’t recall using “victim of human frailty” as an excuse to avoid suffering consequences for my actions.
But apparently, if you’re a Catholic priest, you just say your Act of Contrition and *presto!* – it’s business as usual as if the sin never happened, whether you are stealing money or sexually abusing minors under your care.
This sex abuse scandal continues to expand, from the earliest claims filed in the U.S. to Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Austria and Switzerland – and the list grows.
But as the Liberal Christian Examiner reports, it’s been the latest abuse scandal from Germany, homeland of Pope Benedict, that recently tested the Vatican’s PR skills. Among more and more damaging allegations of predator priests being protected instead of punished was this bombshell about the Pope himself:
“Abuse claims investigated in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, where Pope Benedict was then Archbishop Ratzinger from 1977 – 1982, reveal that he dealt with a priest accused of child molestation by sending him to therapy and then allowing him to resume pastoral duties, at which time he was again accused of molestation and finally prosecuted.”
The unspeakable trauma of young innocents being abused by predator priests cannot be underestimated, but a deadlier blow to the global reputation of the Catholic church may well be decades of organizational success in the willful protection of these abusers instead of their victims.
Consider the stupefyingly offensive remarks of retired Archbishop of Milwaukee Rembert Weakland, who was the direct supervisor of 58 priests accused of sexual assaults on minors under his watch:
“We all considered sexual abuse of minors as a moral evil, but had no understanding of its criminal nature.”
Perhaps the Pope believed that his poor child-molesting priest was, like Bishop Remi De Roo, merely the victim of “bad decisions and human frailty.” But when the Pope himself is implicated in a systemic cover-up and denial of criminal activity, you’ve got a viral public relations crisis spreading from the very top down.
The Huffington Post’s Christopher Brauchli, in his piece called The Pope’s PR Problem, would agree. He writes:
“The compassion button has now been turned off and the PR people appear to have gone on holiday as the Vatican responds to these allegations. Statements of contrition and shame have been replaced with attacks on the press. Since these acts in Germany occurred on his watch, Benedict cannot write yet another pastoral letter expressing ‘outrage, betrayal and shame felt by the faithful’ because he would have to acknowledge responsibility as well.”
Ironically, as I have unfortunately witnessed several times in my 30+ years working in public relations, reputation management and crisis communications, the original problem has now morphed into several even more destructive ones:
- 1. Catholic priests abuse generations of victims worldwide
- 2. the church fails to protect victims by covering up the abuse
- 3. the church responds badly to growing accusations of cover-up
So you may be asking yourself: who is the PR guy at the Vatican who gives expert counsel about crisis communications on such highly sensitive issues?
It’s Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s press director. But after covering a Lombardi lecture on communications last May in London, The Guardian described his comments on the Vatican’s public response to the abuse scandal like this:
“We have all the makings of what both Catholic and non-Catholic commentators call a PR failure, carnage, nightmare and train wreck.”
For example, this PR advisor to the Pope implied to his London audience that somehow the church’s sexual abuse scandal might not necessarily be a bad thing. He is reported to have said:
“Once the first wave of criticism had passed, people (at the Vatican) were able to do some hard thinking – and they did. The subsequent reflections were serious, penetrating and well-argued. It took a while for word of them to reach the public, but eventually the public did hear about and really benefit from these contributions to the discussion.”
If you did not get one word of that bafflegab, you’re not alone. Dr. Tina Beattie, professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton University in England, has written an Open Democracy essay called The Catholic Church’s Scandal: Modern Crisis, Ancient Roots in which she says:
“I am not convinced that the Vatican is yet aware of what a challenge this scandal poses to its authority and moral credibility.
“Rome’s smooth-talking representatives are capable of astounding feats of verbal dexterity when it comes to refusing to fully acknowledge the culpability of those responsible for decades of evasion and concealment.
“Moreover, some attempts to target the media show the Vatican hierarchy to be profoundly out of touch with the perceptions and values of everyday people.”
Astonishingly, Dr. Beattie tells us that even in the midst of this horrific sex abuse scandal, the Vatican has still somehow found the time to launch an official investigation into women’s religious communities in the United States, in order to weed out those Catholic nuns guilty of what Vatican spokesman Cardinal Franc Rodé calls a “feminist spirit” and a “secularist mentality”.
So let me get this straight. The Vatican takes no action when a Bishop steals $12 million, and takes no action when generations of innocent victims are sexually and physically abused by its priests.
But feminist nuns? These intolerable offenders must apparently be weeded out and swiftly punished.
What on earth are these people thinking?
Another frightening example of what’s been called ‘patriarchal apartheid’ is the recent excommunication of a nun at a Catholic hospital in Arizona because she approved an emergency abortion last year to save the life of a critically ill patient.
Ironically, although it has taken years, sometimes decades, to bring sex-abusing predator priests to justice, Sister Margaret McBride was excommunicated in a matter of months.
One wonders how many of those predator priests have been excommunicated like the evil Sister Margaret was?
It may be that there is simply no amount of public relations expertise that can help repair the reputation of a church that is this broken.
© 2010 Carolyn Thomas