Vatican's textbook case of how not to manage news

Sat, Feb 20, 2010, 00:00

ANALYSIS:A little explanation might have gone a long way to averting some of the widespread negative Irish reaction to the Rome meeting, writes PADDY AGNEW

AS THE Irish media gathered in the Vatican’s Sala Stampa in Via della Conciliazione, just off St Peter’s Square, last Tuesday lunchtime, the Vatican’s senior spokesman, Jesuit priest Federico Lombardi, was preparing a briefing on the outcome of this week’s historic meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and the Irish bishops.

Knowing the aggressive nature of the secular media and having learned over recent months to recognise Irish public and private anger at the clerical sex abuse phenomenon, some of Lombardi’s closest advisers told him not to hold the briefing at all. You will simply be bombarded with an avalanche of aggressive, ill-informed questions that you cannot possibly answer, they told him. This really will be a case of a Vatican lamb offered up to the media wolves, they suggested.

Lombardi is a decent, honest, competent and patently good man and one who has long been recognised as such by the Vatican’s permanent press corps. True to his nature, he ignored the advice and stepped up to the plate for what was a decidedly uncomfortable briefing which focused on controversial issues such as: the lack of an invitation from the pope to the Irish abuse victims; the failure to address the question of Irish episcopal resignations, in particular the position of Bishop Martin Drennan of Galway; the refusal of the papal nuncio in Ireland, Giuseppe Leanza, to appear before the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee; the level of overall Holy See responsibility for the entire clerical sex abuse crisis.

It says much about Holy See thinking that there were those who thought that maybe the best thing to do would be to not hold a briefing at all but rather let the Vatican press release speak for itself. At this stage, there are plenty of people in the Holy See who realise all too well that there is no way to spin the clerical sex abuse story. This is simply bad, bad news.

Yet, not for the first time, the Vatican offered up a textbook study of how not to manage news.

The basic problem was the unrealistic expectations raised by this encounter. Having summoned Irish bishops to Rome for an unprecedented meeting, it was only normal that expectations would be raised. The problem, for the Holy See, was that they then needed, but failed, to play down those expectations by explaining the true nature of the meeting.

A little explanation might have gone a long way to heading off some of the widespread negative Irish reaction to the meeting. For a start, it could have been explained beforehand that meetings between the pope and abuse survivors (which have a precedent) are never pre-announced, to avoid them becoming a media scrimmage-cum-photo-op.

Likewise, it should have been clarified in advance that the meeting would not be discussing the question of espicopal resignations, something for which the Catholic Church has its own tried and true procedures, involving the Congregation of Bishops. Thirdly, it could have been pointed out that many ambassadors, including those from countries such as the USA and the UK, refuse to appear before foreign affairs committees, or the equivalent thereof.

Explanations about all of the above would have done nothing to appease many of the church’s critics but they would at least have avoided the widespread criticism that this week’s meeting was a waste of time because it had failed to address the “outstanding” issues.

That the Holy See did not see fit to prepare more fully the terrain for the media in the build-up to this week’s meeting comes as no surprise. The Holy See marches to a very different beat, works to a very different timetable from that of the secular world. In a sense, nothing is more alien to the Holy See than the idea that its actions and deliberations should be dictated by the requirements of either public opinion or the world’s media, both likely to be strident but transient.

There is, too, the very obvious consideration that Rome rules the affairs of 1.2 billion Catholics. Four million Irish Catholics do not, never have and never will represent a top priority for the Holy See – issues such as relations with the Islamic world, relations with the worldwide Jewish community, relations with the various Eastern Orthodox churches, the plight of besieged Catholics in places such as the Middle East and the People’s Republic of China and global warming, to name but the most obvious, come much higher up on the Vatican’s post-it list of things to fix.

That is not to say, however, that the Holy See takes the question of clerical child sex abuse, in Ireland or anywhere else, lightly. If this week’s meeting has achieved anything, it may be the universalising of the problem.

When he met the media last Tuesday, Cardinal Seán Brady said: “We also know that it is now recognised that this is not an Irish problem, not an anglophone problem; it is not a problem of the Catholic Church, but it is a great problem.”

Gone, it would seem, are the days when senior Curia figures could lightly dismiss the problem as an Anglo-Saxon matter. Eight years ago, at an infamous Vatican news conference, the Colombian Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, then head of the Congregation for the Clergy, when asked about clerical sex abuse, responded by pointing out that most of the questions had been put in English, adding that “this in itself is an X-ray of the problem”.

Most of us understood that remark to mean that this was an issue for the anglophone world but not necessarily for anyone else. Cardinal Hoyos compounded a negative impression that day by going on to defend the church’s preference for “keeping things within the family”. On top of that he gave the impression that he suspected many media outlets to be working off an anti-clerical agenda.

In November of 2002, speaking in Murcia, Spain, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, had sounded a similar note when saying that extensive media coverage of the US sex abuse crisis had led him to conclude that it was part “of a planned campaign . . . It is intentional, manipulated, there is a desire to discredit the church.”

Those days would seem to be gone. Holy See sources argue that both the pope and the Curia have been on a steep learning curve since then. They point to the exceptional nature of the forthcoming pastoral letter to the Irish faithful, the first time that the pope has dedicated an entire document in large part to the clerical sexual abuse problem. Even if it will be addressed to the Irish, this is a document that will inevitably have a universal, benchmark dimension as part of the church’s magisterium.

Underlining the point about the universal nature of clerical sex abuse is the case of Padre X, in the archdiocese of Bologna, Italy, a case which resurfaced in the Italian media just prior to the Irish bishops’ meeting with the pope. This case makes very familiar reading to Irish eyes since Claudia Colombo, a lawyer for the families of 10 children, aged three to six, allegedly victims of abuse by an elderly priest, has denounced the “embarrassment” and “mafia silence” of the archdiocese, suggesting that the church was concerned only with “avoiding a scandal”.

Which brings us to one of the bottom lines of Holy See thinking on the question of clerical sex abuse – a bottom line which explains all the insistence on “appropriate diplomatic channels” for contacts between the Murphy commission and the Holy Office or indeed the papal nuncio’s refusal to go before the foreign affairs committee, namely, that co-operating with the commission or going before the Oireachtas committee could in some way be interpreted as admission of legal (whatever about moral) responsibility for clerical sex abuse.

The Holy See has looked on aghast as the US Catholic Church has paid out upwards of $2 billion in damages to victims of clerical sex abuse. This is one buck that it does not want to see stop at the Apostolic Palace.


Paddy Agnew is Rome Correspondent