Last August in Omaha, Bishop Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Illinois delivered a speech entitled, “Help for Bishops in Rebuilding Trust.” The talk was designed to encourage the lay faithful in speaking up about all of the progress that the Catholic Church has made in providing safe environments for children and protecting kids in light of the abuse scandals.
“You may be in a position to be pastoral assistants to bishops in binding up the Church’s wounds and restoring trust. I hope God calls you to that task and equips you for it,” Bishop Conlon said.
However, more than halfway through his speech, in which he pointed out the urgent need for lay people to spread the Church’s message, Bishop Conlon quipped that the “credibility” of bishops was “shredded” when it came to the issue of child sex abuse.
Media outlets immediately jumped all over the opportunity to report that a Catholic bishop had announced that the bishops’ credibility was “shredded.” The bishop’s remark had all the traits of a terrific headline; “R. Daniel Conlon, Catholic Bishop, Says Church’s Credibility On Sex Abuse Is ‘Shredded’” read the headline on David Gibson’s report for Religion News Service.
Never mind that the words were frequently taken out of their original context—Conlon’s larger point was about empowering lay people to fulfill the Church’s role of reaching out to victims and promoting a message of healing. The enemies of the Church had all of the ammunition it needed, and the damage was done.
The importance of the sound bite
Conlon’s episode serves as an invaluable lesson to the Church when it comes to making speeches, issuing off-handed remarks, composing articles, and dealing with the media. We live in a culture of the sound bite, and the enemies of the Church are ready to seize on this.
In a sound-bite culture, context and honesty are easily thrown aside. Bishops and spokespeople need to understand that many in the media are always seeking out anything negative with which to hammer the Catholic Church. Words must be chosen extremely carefully. The Church’s enemies don’t give a rip about context or if you “meant something else.”
Many enemies of the Church have become masters of the sound bite. David Clohessy, the national director of the anti-Catholic group SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) continually rails against bishops who allegedly “ignore, conceal, and enable heinous child sex crimes.” The words make a great sound bite; they look good, and they catch people’s attention. Journalists love this, and many could not care less what the actual facts are.
Catholic officials and diocesan spokespeople need to utilize strong, concise, and engaging sound bites. Such a strategy will not only fortify the Church’s struggling public relations, but it will also educate the public about the unrivaled advances it has taken to protect kids.
A time to strengthen the message
Indeed, the last two decades have been dark days for the Catholic Church as stories of wretched abuse by criminal priests have wreaked immeasurable damage to innocent victims. We must never forget that. Victims must take priority in actions by the Church.
However, as the Catholic Church in the United States has become nothing less than a punching bag in the media, the time has come for bishops and Church spokespeople to become bolder and more media savvy. This includes getting rid of feeble-sounding and politically correct platitudes that do nothing but portray the Church as a weak and easy target.
When an archdiocese recently removed a priest from ministry over an allegation that he had abused someone years ago, the archdiocese released a statement that included a quote from the archbishop: “We are committed to the protection of children and young people in our parishes and institutions.”
Such a statement is undoubtedly true; of course the Church is committed to protecting children. What organization says it isn’t committed to protecting children? It also does not say anything about the unprecedented measures that the Church has taken in the past to address abuse in the Church and what it will do to get to the bottom of this particular case.
The archdiocese’s full press statement did indeed outline the many measures that it has taken to address abuse, as well as what it will do to get to the bottom of the new case before it now.
However, newspapers rarely reprint full press releases in their articles. Yet they do like to include quotations from Church leaders and spokespeople. Therefore, upon removing accused priests from ministry, dioceses should have their leaders and spokespeople directly address the efforts they have made to combat abuse. For example:
“No other organization has accomplished more in confronting the issue of child abuse in its institution than the Catholic Church,” said Bishop X. “In accordance with our national policy, this diocese will have our team of professional investigators and our lay review board work to get to the truth of this serious allegation.”
Much of the public is still unaware of the unprecedented measures that the Church has taken to tackle the scourge of child abuse: annual audits, diocesan review boards, intensified employee screenings, abuse awareness trainings, and tens of millions of dollars spent on therapy for victims. Stronger statements enable the Church to get the word out about what it has done.
And in those instances when dioceses return falsely accused priests to ministry, the Church should purge the weak-sounding word “unsubstantiated” from its vocabulary. Investigations into abuse claims often take years, and if a diocesan review board concludes that a priest has been falsely accused, it should say so, and say it strongly.
The Church can do a lot better than simply saying a claim was “unsubstantiated.” Upon returning a priest to ministry, a diocese could announce:
Our lay review board, composed of psychologists, victims, and child welfare advocates, exhaustively reviewed this allegation and found no reason to conclude that the accusation was true. Bogus accusations are a sad reality of today’s culture. Fr. [X]’s reputation has been greatly damaged, and we are going to work to restore his reputation the best we can.
Developing thick skin
Many may ask: But won’t audacious statements from the Church upset groups like SNAP and their Church-suing lawyers? The answer: Of course they will. But these same people will complain about the Church no matter what it does. The Church needs to understand this.
Enemies of the Church, including those in the media, will always falsely accuse the Church of “attacking” and “belittling” victims. It’s simply what they do. Unfortunately, no matter what the Church does, this will never change.
When returning a falsely accused priest to ministry, the Church can strengthen its position by making a statement along these lines:
The diocese puts children’s safety first. We do not let lawyers and professional Church critics dictate our decisions. The only reason we return an accused priest to ministry is because our lay member review board found no evidence at all that any abuse took place. Period.
A great example of what to do
Fortunately, there are encouraging signs that some diocesan spokespeople are taking a stronger initiative with enemies of the Church and the media. Just last week, media outlets in the Boston area made the astonishing claim that a parental form for a religious education program at a parish in the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts was designed to absolve the Church from future child abuse claims.
Even though at least one parent noted that the form was “just like any other form that you have to sign” these days, high-profile contingency lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, who has successfully sued the Church for millions of dollars, used the incident to blast the Church in the media again.
A couple days later, SNAP announced a press conference outside the Fall River Chancery Office. Instead of sitting quietly inside while SNAP members castigated the Church, Fall River diocesan spokesperson John Kearns went outside and confronted the two leaders in front of the media.
When the pair from SNAP made a false statement about the nature of the form—which was never distributed diocesan-wide and wasn’t intended to protect the parish or diocese from accusations of sex abuse—Kearns refuted the claim. The SNAP representatives did not dispute his explanation.
“I wish you had called me,” Kearns said to the two SNAP representatives, as Fall River’s Herald News reported.
Kearns should be commended, as he provides an excellent example of how diocesan spokespeople and other Church officials can strengthen the public relations of the Church by going on the offensive. When unfair or false stories are being perpetuated, diocesan spokespeople need to be there to repudiate the falsehoods and mischaracterizations.
How will this benefit the Church? As Church officials and diocesan spokespeople become more vocal, Catholics and the rest of the public will become more aware of the exceptional efforts that the Church is making in creating safe environments for children.