Crisis Anew at the Vatican

April 3, 2010 at 12:38 am 1 comment

The Catholic Church’s child molestation scandal has reasserted itself with recent reports placing Pope Benedict XVI at the center of decisions that left pedophile priests unpunished and/or unchecked. There is crisis anew at the Vatican and no sense of crisis communications despite the longstanding scrutiny of this issue. 

Benedict is enduring criticism that his predecessor John Paul II largely escaped due to his mythic reputation built during the 1980s and declining health as the abuse scandal grew. As the former Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict XVI supervised clerical discipline for over 20 years and created a paper trail that is being used against him, notably in the cases of Lawrence Murphy, a priest who admitted abusing deaf children in Wisconsin but was never defrocked, and Peter Hullerman, a Munich priest revealed as a molester in 1980, only to be sent into therapy and reassigned to parish duties while the pope served as the Archbishop of Munich. 

Pope Benedict’s defenders are emerging from the Catholic Church’s highest ranks, decrying media implications of mismanagement and cover-up against the pontiff while he was an archbishop and cardinal. Cardinal William Lavada, Benedict’s successor as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, posted a letter to the Vatican Web site attacking The New York Times for its articles and op-eds on the latest sex abuse revelations which examine Benedict’s handling of notable cases. 

The tactic is typically seen in politics when the candidate or office holder takes the high road while surrogates take the offensive. The problem: it is a sad reprise of official fingerpointing as abuse stories began breaking in Boston and other American cities in 2002. “I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign … to discredit the church,” is a period quote from then-Cardinal Ratzinger, as featured in a recent New York Times op-ed

Other papal defenders have shifted blame to underlings and factions under the orders of Pope John Paul II. In even more desperate and ill-conceived moves, a Vatican legal official declared Benedict’s immunity from court proceedings as a head of state. At a Good Friday service, Benedict’s personal priest likened treatment of the pope to the “more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism,” unleashing immediate protests and prompting a distancing statement from an official spokesperson. As for the head-of-state defense, the Vatican may want to monitor tweets and blogs to see how often Benedict’s name is mentioned alongside Slobodan Milošević, Augusto Pinochet and Saddam Hussein–an example of how sound legalese can make bad PR. 

The Vatican must take the following crisis communication steps: 

  • End conflicting messaging. Legal counsel, personal priests and other papal defenders must cease adding to the confusion.
  • Remember the real victims. This is not about Benedict XVI, no matter how bad things get for him in the media.

The blame game, exemplified by Cardinal Levada’s rebuke of The New York Times, is the worst form of response in a crisis. For solid communications advice, the Vatican should consult scripture: 

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3) 

After two millenia of New Testament wisdom and years of painful experience from the global sex abuse scandal, the Vatican has no excuse for its current PR failures.

POSTSCRIPT 1: Cardinal William Levada, Pope Benedict’s successor as head of the disciplinary Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and author of a Web post defending the Pope against The New York Times, chose not to tell parishioners about an accused priest he restored to duty. Levada’s actions took place while he was archbishop of the Portland Archdiocese, the first Catholic diocese to declare bankruptcy under the weight of lawsuits by abuse victims.

POSTSCRIPT 2: The Vatican says that accusations of Benedict helping cover up pedophile priests is part of an “anti-Catholic hate campaign” stemming from the pope’s opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion. This attempt to present Benedict and the church as victims contradicts proper crisis communications practice and risks greater backlash from sexual abuse victims and their supporters.

POSTSCRIPT 3: AP reports that while a cardinal, Benedict resisted defrocking a priest convicted of molestation, “citing concerns including ‘the good of the universal church.'” A signed letter on the matter from Benedict (Cardinal Ratzinger) is offered as evidence of his actions and attitudes. A lack of proper engagement in crisis communications encourages this sort of detective work by the media and the public.

Entry filed under: Crisis Communications, Leadership, Social Media. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Three Recent Examples of Bad PR |  |  October 21, 2011 at 8:55 am

    […] their acts. While the church’s non-response to the Kansas City indictment may be better than the combative, defensive tone it has taken in years past regarding sexual abuse reports, it is yet another PR misstep amid a crisis that has endured for […]


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