“We are not a multinational corporation”

From WaPo‘s religion left-slanting blog On Faith

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, [That is what she thinks they are doing?] 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. [To whom?   Clearly Fr. Lombardi said – and anyone with Italian can hear it even off the page… that the Church isn’t a multinational "firm", "business", "business enterprise", "corporation".  Italian "impresa".] "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, [WHAT?!?] 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. [good] Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops, said they would not publicize any assistance they might offer. [good]

"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. [Which might tell them something.]

"Over the years, there has been frustration [that] we’re not consulted," said Matthew Bunson, editor of the Catholic Almanac. [I bet!]

American supporters of the pope say he should pay more attention to his — and the Church’s — image. [Reasonable.  But there are different approaches to this.  And the Church is not a business.  The Pope is not a CEO.]

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[How many cliches are in that?]

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.  [Yahhhh… riiiiiight….]

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." [A rule for…  whom?  Whose rule?  To accomplish what?  Could it be that there is a different objective?]

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, [orrrrr……] 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." [Right.]

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."


I have a great many observations about the Church and communications… but… well… what to say … first, that is?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. teevor says:

    I must say, this touches on an issue that I’ve been thinking about for some time now. Also, knowing your own experience with the Vatican bureaucracy, Father, I have been wondering your views on this matter in particular…

    It is painful to see this constant rerun of events: Something is said or happens, then the press, unchecked, uses it as an opportunity to lambaste the Church and meanwhile the Vatican, who for outsiders is viewed like a corporate board, mumbles out a few half-baked often awkward comments that, while they seem reasonable or harmless to people who have a basic understanding of the Church and who are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, are either ineffectual or are twisted into a weapon to attack the Church.

    The obvious response is that the Vatican and the Pope in particular have more important things about. That is true to an extent. But it seems to me that given the serious damage these manufactured scandals have caused, a more organized and responsive and indeed, aggressive communications strategy could be warranted. This seems important as a tool of evangelization. That is to say, the Church owes it to the faithful and to the world to present herself in truth and defend the faith – this means defending itself as an institution.

    There are plenty of laypeople who speak for the Church (Bill Donohue being the most obvious example). How about institutionalizing this? The Church is more decentralized in many aspects than many people realize, but that’s just the thing, is that outsiders and many of the faithful really just have no idea.

  2. teevor says:

    I would like to add, at the risk of cluttering up your board, that I meant to write ‘laypeople and clergy who speak out for the church,’ and I did not mean to suggest that effective communication with the world is the sole province of the laity.

  3. Jack Hughes says:

    Part of my degree deals with public relations (in the internet age), and I have to say that first years could do better than the current lot, don’t get me wrong I’m sure that Fr Lombardi is a great priest but it seems that he just doesn’t get the secular press (probebly as a result of being isolated from the world before his appointment)

    First we had the problems with +Williamson which was a total debacle, then he wrongly asserted that the Holy Father had never been a member of the hitler youth, then he tried to ‘clarify’ the comments the Holy Father made about condoms and AIDs, then we have the attrocious handling of the fallout from the current abuse scandel with comments refering to it as ‘petty gossip’ coming from leading Cardinals. He also seems at times to substitute his own opinion for what the Holy Father actually says/thinks.

    If I were in charge of the Holy See’s press office I’d dammed well make sure that everything anyone said to the press on this matter was pre-screened and checked for factual accuracy/sensitivity, I’d be spending all day briefing them, making sure that they all toed the line, knew not to put their foot in it (one big problem is that most priests/religious who end up in press offices are so not of this world that they naively assume the press are pussycats and will do as they are told) and engaging with the press in constructive manner (ok sure hells bible aka the grey lady isn’t going to be nice, but the Times, The Telegraph and the broadsheets will probebly give you a fair hearing).

    This is not only a crises but an opportunity, we can give people the real facts not the manure printed by newsweek, heck we can use this as an opportunity to engage with the world and spread the Gospel, sure the Church is not a corporation but we do have a pretty bad PR image which will further preujuce people against us, possiable to the ruination of souls.

    Perhaps we need to return to appointing a competent lay person (such as the last guy) to head up the Vatican Press Office, heck if they’d have me I’d quite happily help organise the Vatican’s response to this particular crises Pro Bono

  4. sawdustmick says:

    As one living in the UK, I don’t get to read all the nauseating articles in the US press, but we have enough “Pope bashing over here” – taking many forms, to even wanting to arrest and try Pope Benedict when he comes here in September.

    In my opinion, the following statement:-
    “But the civil system doesn’t have to worry about eternal life” sums up the whole current mentality. Many salient points in this piece, but this one sticks out like a sore thumb to me.

    The thought of Eternal Life (or more probably the thought of hellfire) makes people – even some Catholics – very uneasy, better to sweep the issues under the rug and try and discredit the system / organisation that proclaims (the truth !) them.

    This is best achieved by the lap dog media who don’t care if something printed is even half truth or not and certainly don’t care what colateral damage is caused, and to whom.

  5. Virgil says:

    First piece of advice, STOP ACTING LIKE YOU’RE UNDER ATTACK! You are not being attacked. By exposing the problem, even the ridiculous mainstream media is trying to help.

    A “cheat sheet” of talking points, one emphasized every couple of days, which should be repeated ad nauseam after the requisite flowery apologies that do not try to shift blame.

    1. PAST. Old news. folks. Much has changed since the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s. Better standards are in place now. (Then enumerate the better standards, institution by institution: schools, youth ministry, seminaries, chanceries, canon law, Vatican.)

    2. PRESENT. This is not a Vatican problem, or a bishop accountability problem, or a priesthood problem, or a gay problem, or a SNAP problem. It is a Church problem, and we ought to be working to solve it together. (Then give concrete examples, with participants standing there smiling happily.)

    3. FUTURE. Because even these efforts have not been enough to get every past victim to come forward, and because there are still rare (repeat, RARE) cases of nasty things still happenning, we are announcing further actions. (Then give a clear list of actions, people, and timeline: studies like the John Jay one for countries outside the US, special synods that include a lot of lay participation, disclosure of past pay-offs, revisions of canon law, etc.)

  6. Dauphin says:


    Right, malicious slanders against the Pope are an attempt to… help.

  7. Traductora says:

    While I think the Vatican press office does need somebody a little more nimble on his feet than Fr Lombardi, I’m not sure that anybody or even any team of people could really deal with PR situation.

    No matter what we do, the press is going to go on making wild charges, which even if responded to or retracted the very next day, will have caused the desired damage because most people read only the headlines and the only headlines that count are the first ones (in addition, the retraction or correction will not make headlines in any case). The press can act irresponsibly because they know the Church is a safe target. They won’t have a fatwa put out on them and they won’t even be subject to libel suits, and in addition, they will receive the hearty support of most secular institutions.

    Jesus didn’t respond to Pilate because there was really no point in doing so, and I think we have to realize that there is no point in our rising to every accusation they make against us. I think there should be a patient, measured, steady and mostly legal (and not PR) response. Perhaps a legal team could immediately examine each statement, track it back and sort out the facts and then place the information on a centralized website ASAP – for those who were really interested. But I don’t think a frenzied publicity barrage in response to each accusation would help at all.

    However, there is one thing that I really think needs doing: the Catholic in the pew needs support. The bishops and priests should be talking to their people about this. They should be preaching on it and not just with the breast-beating which is normally all we hear; everybody already knows that this is horrible and (most of) the bishops who mishandled it sincerely regret their mistakes. It is not the press, but the people in the pews who have to be given factual information with which to rebut these lies, and I think there is no PR campaign that could be more important than one directed at the average, faithful church-going Catholic, who certainly needs all the support he or she can get.

  8. elmo says:

    The “rule” mentioned in the article about crisis communications advisers having access to decision makers is a PR rule; at least that is what I was taught in my journalism school classes. McLoughlin is thinking like a PR adviser to a business. I don’t know if he was the one who sold the bishops on the mandatory workshop about protecting children from sexual abuse that is now required of any church volunteer. But it is a perfect example of a PR answer to a crisis — implement a mandatory “consciousness raising” seminar that does little to address the actual problem but gives the corporation cover when asked what it is doing to prevent future crises.

    I think Fr. Lombardi has it right: The Vatican isn’t corporate hq. The Catholic Church isn’t selling shampoo. The rules of public relations do not apply here because the mission of the Church is truth, not placating the masses with happy talk until the corporate crisis du jour is over. Even the name “public relations” is a bit of image burnishing; the field has its origins out of military propaganda efforts. Two of its earliest practitioners were involved in making human rights abuse seem okay: Ivy Lee with the Nazis, and Edward Bernays with U.S. involvement in the overthrow of Guatamala’s democratic government. Bernays was a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and pioneered the use of psychological methods to “engineer consent”, as he put it. Noam Chomsky borrowed this phrase in his book Manufacturing Consent about the confluence of public relations, social science and the media in lulling us all to sleep.

    I’m glad that the Church instinctively shrinks away from the use of propaganda. However, we in the west live in a world now in which the media have an unseen yet almost totalitarian control over the people, who are plugged in about every waking hour. We are living in Orwell’s world, where the Eye is in our homes recording what we buy, what we watch, what we type on blogs, and even what we say to each other on our cell phones. The media have so much power that the Church can’t ignore them even though to fight back effectively would seem to be an acknowledgement that the engineering of consent is useful, and even necessary. How can the Church which preaches the gospel be party to such tactics? It can’t and still be the Church. That to me is what Fr. Lombardi is saying.

  9. Rob Cartusciello says:

    Peggy Noonan had a good editorial at the WSJ on this: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303960604575158310656792820.html?mod=WSJ_article_RecentColumns

    As for me, I am getting worn down from the press onslaught this week. It has cast a pall over the Octave of Easter for me.

    I need to take some time off from the articles. My wife has (accurately) observed that I have developed a morbid obsession with the topic.

  10. Traductora says:

    Rob, that’s precisely what I meant. The average lay Catholic in the pews is getting worn down by this. If anything, the Church needs to do a PR campaign for us; we need good, sound, truthful but motivating preaching on this topic. We need the bishops who are silent to step up and defend the Church and we need our parish priests to encourage us to hold fast and keep the Faith. Otherwise, it really does just get to you.

  11. AnAmericanMother says:

    As usual, Ms. Noonan is a starry-eyed naif. She spins a lot of fine-sounding words while missing the point and failing to dig into the topic.

    She doesn’t ‘get’ this any more than she ‘got’ Obama.

  12. catholicmidwest says:

    I don’t think we need a corporate-like communications department, which is a what a corporate-like strategy would require. We have enough red tape and politics already. The last thing we need is the evening polls trying to drive anything more at the Vatican.

    Sorry, but this idea would make the church move even slower and be LESS believable.

  13. catholicmidwest says:

    The Vatican could get just as much done if they proceeded something like what Virgil suggests above.

    Our problems are under control now folks. Shall we talk about the public schools?

  14. Hank_F_M says:


    A modest proposal.

    Have the Pope appoint you head of Vatican media policy and operations with his complete support and a blank check.

    Next have the Pope make you an Archbishop, not in recognition of you many deserving talents and accomplishments, but so you can (charitably) tell Decastries to pound sand.

    Then go and “kick posteriors and take names” (again charitably) until there is media policy in place that is worthy of the Body of Christ)

    If not you, then he should appoint somebody with that brief while it we only have a disaster.

  15. A Sinner 2 says:

    While there are many good suggestions here, I think we have to realize that these attacks have NOTHING to do with child abuse. These are attacks on the pope’s attempts to move forward with reform. If, instead, he “got with the program,” he could be a card-carrying member of NAMBLA and the media would love him.

  16. robtbrown says:

    The Vatican should say three things:

    1. Except for laicization of priests, diocesan bishops and superiors of religious orders have the juridical competence to handle all these cases–and remove priests from contact with people.

    2. For various reasons those in authority in the Church were late to understand the understand the severity of this problem.

    3. As a Cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger was one of the first to confront the situation.

  17. robtbrown says:

    Should be:

    2. For various reasons those in authority in the Church were late to understand the severity of this problem

  18. Thomas G. says:

    While all muse over the clumsy Vatican communications, where are the articles in the secular press that ponder its egregious reporting, the echo-chamber effect of repeating stories (sometimes verbatim) in different outlets without quality-checks, the heavy overlay of innuendo upon a skeleton of purported facts, all related without proportion or context.

    I know, I’m preaching to the choir . . . .

  19. Randii says:

    I think the ultimate fallout from this will be loss of faith among many formerly devout Catholics.

    Three things will happen among this group. One, they will lose their Christian faith altogether, or two they will embrace evangelical or Orthodox Christianity. Some evangelical sites are already using this as a means to expedite thier outreach to convert Catholics.

    The third group will remain but over time is likely to find itself more and more a minority in a church where the laity’s general progressive outlook is sure to advance given the scandals.

    Right now it seems the faithful orthodox churchgoer is being worn down as some above note.

    Attendance at Easter Mass last week in a parish near me was the lowest ever recorded. The church was just 60% full when noramlly, on Easter, it is 100% full.

    The 3 hour good Friday service found the church virtually empty.

    This is anecdotal but it’s clear this will have a devastating effect on many. Ironically those who seem more likley to stay in the US church are the progressives who see the time as drawing near that their hope for a reformed US Catholicism will happen.

    Bottom line, the orthodox contingent of the US church will be most impacted by this and most likely to leave for other faiths or no faith at all.

    Some above mention the possibility of the de facto establishment of a US Catholic church. I think that’ a real possibility as the progressive element seems emboldened while the orthodox are in retreat. IMO the US chuch has been in effective schism for a while. Look at the women’s religious orders and their refusing to co-operate in the visitation. Does anyone think that even if Rome orders reforms that the religious orders will obey?

    As in decades past, the orthodox have been left twisting in the wind by Rome. Their complaints of abuses in the liturgy and cathechisis have been generally ignored and now they are again left pretty much alone and defenseless in the face of the scandal.

  20. catholicmidwest says:

    Actually, some of this is old hat and not bothering a lot of us who got through the mess of 2002–except for the tediousness factor.

    We know it’s not Benedict’s fault, the NYT’s hateful flatulence notwithstanding.

    What’s really more likely to happen is that the lukewarm (aka dissident) types, who emote constantly but take or leave real catholic teaching on a daily basis, are more likely to drift out of the church and wander off to one of those pseudo-catholic churches that are growing very quickly: American Catholic Church and all that. Some of them seem to be starting up their own little house church institutions too, I see, if CTA newsletters are any guide. Good riddance to them.

    The ones left behind, in the real Catholic church Latin rite, are likely the ones that are tougher and more orthodox. I know you don’t like hearing that, but it’s how this is playing out. I went to church on the Vigil at one of the most traditional parishes in this part of the country and it was crammed full.

    The orthodox contingent of the Roman Catholic Church, as you term us, are the LEAST LIKELY to be changed by all this. We’re also the least likely to be bothered by the new translations coming next year.

  21. catholicmidwest says:

    Note well, randii,

    Some may pine for “reformed Catholicism” all they want. But the facts are clear: Across the country, parishes are becoming more traditional every year in the USA. There are more adoration chapels every year in the USA. More masses of 1962 are said every year in the US. Next year, we will have a new translation of the Latin Rite missal and it will be used by the official Latin Rite churches; it may even provide us with a more distinct marker than we’ve EVER HAD for deciding orthodoxy for ourselves.

    As Fr Z says, Brick by Brick, it’s happening.

    Those for whom all these developments are anathema will find this growth of true Catholic identity more and more unacceptable. And if they ever wish to find themselves in the atmospheres of liberality and progressive LUV they constantly howl about, they will have to set those up themselves–as alternate churches. Or run off and join the American Independent Catholic Union or Whatever It’s Called This Year.

    We have a university parish near here that prides itself on all things progressive. Yet, it just put in an adoration chapel because the new students, unlike the old ones, wanted it. In fact, they demanded it. This is the wave of the future. On Palm Sunday, the highlights of the music at this parish were in Latin. I thought the old hippie priest was going to choke. They were sung by a prodigy from the University–a man with a beautiful tenor voice, a new convert 20 years old. He didn’t want to sing them in English because they were written to be sung in Latin and he knew that because he was a scholar too. Even this most progressive of parishes is going through a sea change in disposition. Yes, the Church is changing, but not the way you think.

  22. AnAmericanMother says:

    Amen, CMW!

    We have a very orthodox, traditional parish. The church was crammed full for all Easter Masses except the sunrise Mass (which is held in the outdoor chapel – small, but full.) Overflow Mass in the new Parish Hall.

    N.B. all folks who are stuck in “protestant time warp mode” — mash here.

    Or if you’re really not feeling charitable today, here.

    I rest my case.

  23. TNCath says:

    The LAST people I want consulting with the Vatican are Theodore Edgar McCarrick, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, and Sister Mary Ann Walsh.

  24. PostCatholic says:

    The rules are for those who would defend a good reputation during scandalous events are simple. Tell your story. Tell it openly. Tell it forthrightly. Accept responsibility for fault. Tell it first, so it doesn’t have to be “exposed” or “uncovered” or “leaked.”

    The rules for those who would lose a good reputation during scandalous events are inverse. Keep your story secret. Answer only the unavoidable questions and keep silent about the rest. “Manage information” so that reporters begin interviewing the uninformed but vocal for data. Allow your worst critics to drive the arc of the story. Refuse to accept responsibility for fault, and instead try to blame only the principal actors and nebulous entities Then attack the media itself for what was inevitable, viz. they got the story wrong and began to slant the coverage against you.

    And when you bother with the commentary, recognize that all commentators go over the top with outrageous statements and incomplete information sometimes. Very few apologize for it. As a for instance, last week you attacked the 65 year old Commissioned Corps and the good medical professionals that work for it as a Nazi “private army”. Say the black: I retract and I apologize. Do the red: Mean it..

  25. PostCatholic says:

    I guess I’m not allowed a red font color. [That’s my job. o{];¬) ]

  26. PostCatholic says:

    I take it you’re too over the top to do the right thing, though, and are going to let it stand that you called hard-working people a private Nazi army? At least say the black.

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