Why the Vatican media strategy is failing
BBC - 4/14/2010
The Vatican's handling of child abuse allegations has been called into question, following a senior cardinal's suggestion of a link between homosexuality and paedophilia.
Gerard O'Connell of the British Catholic newspaper The Universe says the Church's attempts to defend itself often just cause more damage.
Where is the Vatican's media strategy going wrong?
Pope Benedict XVI has been caught in the eye of the cyclone for several weeks, battered by accusations from lawyers and victims in Germany, the USA and elsewhere that he and senior Vatican officials have badly mismanaged or sought to cover up serious cases of abuse, and protected abuser priests.
These accusations - if not fully answered or firmly rebutted in timely fashion - are particularly damaging to the Catholic Church's credibility and image, as well as to the moral authority of the Pope and of the Holy See on the world stage.
But the Vatican has struggled to defend him from the daily drip-drip of damaging revelations, and many questioned its communications strategy.
'Shooting the messenger'
When I asked John L Allen, the American Catholic commentator on the Vatican, why its media strategy was failing, he responded:
"As soon as I see that they have a strategy, I will answer you! The fact is, they don't have one, and that is where they are going wrong."
Indeed, the absence of a coherent media strategy is evident, as a variety of Vatican personalities take it upon themselves to respond publicly to the accusations.
They often do it in a defensive or denial mode, shooting the messenger, or denouncing a conspiracy against the Pope and the Catholic Church because of its moral stances on life, the family and bioethics.
Over recent weeks, the Vatican has often resembled a fire brigade as it dashed to quench a fire in one place only to find another has broken out elsewhere, and never knowing where the next might blaze up.
It was caught completely off guard on several occasions, before and after Easter, when its own people started fires right inside the Vatican.
Jews and gays
On Good Friday, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, preaching in St Peter's Basilica, sparked tensions with Jews by quoting a letter from a Jewish friend that suggested a comparison between the attacks against Pope Benedict with anti-Semitic attacks on Jews.
On Easter Sunday in St Peter's Square, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, dismissed as "idle chatter" the accusations against the Pope, thereby offending victims' organisations.
On April 13, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Secretary of State enraged the worldwide gay community by asserting that studies show a link between homosexuality and paedophilia.
The Vatican press office had to quench that fire too.
The Vatican press office had to quench that fire too.
Commenting on these missteps that fanned rather than moderated the media frenzy, Andrea Tornielli, a leading Italian commentator on the Vatican, said "all this makes it difficult to understand what is the Vatican's strategy and line of response". (Maybe that's because when you know you are guilty as accused it's hard to fabricate a legitimate line of response.)
The Holy See's press office is headed by an Italian Jesuit, Fr Federico Lombardi, a journalist who is also in charge of the Vatican's radio and TV stations.
But whereas in any modern government's communication strategy the chief spokesman is in on all the major discussions about key issues as was, for example, Alistair Campbell during the Blair government, the same is not true of Fr Lombardi. (If Fr. Lombardi was Archbishop or Cardinal Lombardi he would be in the loop. His lack of access matches his ecclesiastical level. As a mere priest his job is to support, obey, and defend his superiors. Not be part of the decision making process.)
He has not once spoken with Pope Benedict about the abuse crisis since it first blew up in Germany last February.
Fr Lombardi describes himself as "a spokesman who is dependent on the Vatican's Secretariat of State, from whom I get directions". (Getting direction from Cardinal Bertone truly is a serious handicap.)
"It is the Secretariat of State that decides the line, and I try to communicate that as best I can," he said. (This is a wonderful line. Lombardi points the finger exactly where it belongs. He was clever. He could have added, "and the best way to communicate that line is silence, but that would have been disrespectful!)
He does not consider himself as co-ordinator of the Vatican's media strategy. "No-one has ever given me that mandate," he told me. (No one will either. You are not ever going to be authorised to speak for anyone higher up the food chain.)
He realises the need to rebut accusations quickly when there is no solid basis to them, and to provide answers to questions.
Fr Lombardi's patent sincerity is an advantage and he is doing as well as he can under the circumstances. But he is being undermined when everyone in the Vatican feels they are in a position to comment too.
Fr Lombardi has collaborated closely, during the crisis, with the heads of the other Vatican media operations: L'Osservatore Romano - the official Vatican daily paper, the Council for Social Communications, and the website.
This has led to the publication on the website of a layman's guide explaining how the Vatican deals with allegations of sex abuse of children and priest offenders. (This is how the Vatican theoretically deals with allegations now. It's not how they dealt with them six months ago.)
While all this is a welcome development, it is far from being the centrally co-ordinated media strategy the Vatican needs if it wishes to defend its moral credibility and authority in an increasingly sceptical world.
One senior Western diplomat told me he wished "the Vatican could get its act together" because "there is no justification for the accusation that Pope Benedict has taken a soft line on child abuse". (But there is also ample justification for taking the line that Benedict still put the good of the Church (Priesthood) above justice for the victims.)
"I do believe they have a good story to tell", he said, "but they are just not getting it through."
The only reason anyone could find this state of affairs puzzling is because they don't understand bishops and cardinals function as if they were royalty and unaccountable to anyone. Why would anyone expect a mere priest to be able to corral a coherent response from guilty as hell senior clerics? As Fr. Lombardi states, mere priests take direction from superiors, they don't give direction to superiors. If they do they are more likely to hear 'off with their heads" than 'thank you for this good advice'.
This dynamic is played out all through the abuse crisis. Whistle blowers from the lower clerical ranks really did have their heads chopped off. (See Fr. Tom Doyle.) This aspect is to my way of thinking completely under reported. Good, honest, thoroughly disgusted priests were ignored or disciplined for 'breaking ranks' while the perpetrators who manipulated the sycophant game were coddled.
The constant attacks on the media from senior clergy amply demonstrate the point that priests who cared about the victims could not get anything done with in the system. They had to go outside the system to be heard.
Senior clergy have historically tried to shoot all the messengers. It was a strategy that worked with individual clerical crusaders and beaten down victims, but it didn't work with the Boston Globe. God did not strike down the Globe at Cardinal Law's petulant command. The reverse happened. Well, the reverse would have happened if the Vatican hadn't intervened and come to Law's rescue. God may not protect his clerical 'princes', but the Vatican factory does.
Thank God the western media is just too big to silence, that it is no longer particularly respectful of the self styled 'princes of the Church', and that it has stopped playing the game. Otherwise it would be royal infallible business as usual.
Bill Lyndsey has a very interesting article dealing with another aspect of Fr. Lombardi's problem. It is extremely difficult to put forth a coherent strategy when it involves a bunch of entitled men acting like a gang of entitled frat boys.
Bill's article brought back some very vivid memories for me personally. Back in the day when I was in grad school I was also the director of a sorority. I had more than my share of run ins with the entitled frat boys. I actually had three frat pledges tossed in jail for breaking and entering, amongst sending other signals that it would not be business as usual at the sorority I directed.
One of the presidents of one of the frats called me up to discuss my perceived hostility. I had him meet me at one of our Monday formal dinners where I told him he better show up in a suit and tie. I wanted him out of his comfort zone. He showed up and tried valiantly to get me to drop the charges against his pledges. His excuse more or less amounted to 'we've always done things this way. It's just harmless hazing." I threw an article about Ted Bundy's murders at a sorority in Florida on his plate and asked him very reasonably 'How do I know it's just harmless fun, and not Ted Bundy or some other sociopath taking advantage of your 'tradition'? He had no answer because frat boys never had to ask the question. It was never the frat houses being broken into. It wasn't frat boys being raped.
The Church is still refusing to deal with similar questions. It's not the priests being abused and like fraternities, the clerical system is self selecting, self perpetuating, and self governing. It's another tradition that gives cover to sociopaths, and it's another all male tradition that is asking us to tolerate it's immaturity and criminal activity for the sake of the tradition. It didn't fly for me back in my sorority days, and it doesn't fly now.