Bishop R. Daniel Conlon reads a newspaper prior to the start of a US bishops' meeting in November 2007. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)
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
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
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 contextConlon’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
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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
The Church can do
a lot better than simply saying a claim was “unsubstantiated.” Upon returning a
priest to ministry, a diocese could announce:
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:
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
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 formwhich was never
distributed diocesan-wide and wasn’t intended to protect the parish or diocese
from accusations of sex abuseKearns 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
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.