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The Vatican press office and the first law of good public relations

The much anticipated February summit in Rome must focus on doing the right thing, including taking a realistic look at the issue of homosexuality as a causal factor in clerical sex abuse.

In this 2016 file photo, Greg Burke, director of the Vatican press office and Vatican spokesman, and Paloma Garcia Ovejero, the vice director, are pictured at the Vatican press office. Pope Francis accepted their resignations Dec. 31. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

One day back when I was doing media relations for the American bishops’ conference, a journalist asked me what my definition of good public relations was. Without giving it much thought, I said, “Do the right thing, and tell people about it.”

I thought of that when the story broke on New Year’s Eve that the director and assistant director of the Vatican press office, Greg Burke and Paloma Garcia Ovejero, had resigned. Burke is an old friend, formerly with Time and Fox News, whom I know to be an honest, honorable media professional. Garcia Ovejero I do not know, but from all reports the same is true of her.

Their departure raises unavoidable questions–soon enough to be answered by events–centering on how the Vatican is going to handle the all-important public information side of the so-called summit on clergy sex abuse that Pope Francis has summoned to take place in Rome next month.

Attending this meeting will be the presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world–in the U.S., Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston–together with the heads of Eastern Catholic churches, representatives of superior generals of religious congregations, officials of the Vatican Secretariat of State, and the heads of several Vatican agencies.

The event, let us face it, is probably destined to suffer from having already been oversold by both its organizers and the media. And in a way, that’s understandable. The Pope, the bishops, and the Vatican all stand in need of a good meeting after months of buffeting for mishandling the abuse crisis. The journalists for their part need drama and excitement to justify the expenditure of ink and air time already devoted to this gathering.

But there are built-in, preexisting limits on what the meeting can reasonably be expected to accomplish. Time is one–the sessions will run from February 21 to February 24, hardly long enough for such a diverse group to do very much–while cultural differences and differences in the state of the law from place to place further restrict the action options.

Thus it’s reasonable to think the meeting will have few immediate results beyond bringing participants up to speed on the nature and extent of the problem while perhaps moving those who need motivating to take another look at what is being done to deal with the situation within their particular areas of competence. If so, exaggerated expectations that dramatic new on-the-spot initiatives will be forthcoming from this gathering will be disappointed.

That in turn suggests the disturbing possibility that those responsible for shaping public perceptions of the event may be tempted to do something that, I think, Greg Burke would not have been tempted to do–namely, try to create the impression that what took place was more consequential than in fact it was. In this, I might add, they would likely have the ready collaboration of those members of the Vatican press corps whom one might call journalistic cheerleaders.

A serious, sober discussion by top-level Church officials from around the world could in fact be a useful exercise, especially if it takes a realistic, non-hysterical look at the sensitive issue of homosexuality as a causal factor in clerical sex abuse. Such a gathering might not be high drama–and it might be criticized if it’s not–but it could be something a great deal more important: a modest but useful step in the right direction. Remember that first law of good public relations, mentioned above: “Do the right thing.”


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About Russell Shaw 189 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide and the highly acclaimed American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.

6 Comments

  1. Obviously – the men meeting in Rome in February are merely concerned that “their credibility” is damaged.

    Since so many of them, like Cardinals Cupich and Wuerl and Mahony and Danneels and all of McCarrick’s other pals are post-Catholic and/or post-Christian frauds, they are prevented from fixing themselves, because they, living in a career cut off from the Living God, and thoroughly disbelieving that Jesus died to free us from slavery to sin, they have no access to The Lord’s sanctifying Grace.

  2. The hierarchy as a group, and almost all of them individually, just do. not. get. it! If they would just do the right thing, no public relations would be necessary.

    What is the right thing? 1) Admit wrong — the abuse, the transfers, the cover-ups, and that the problem is both systemic and systematic. 2) Turn ALL records from the world over to local authorities. 3) Fire and defrock EVERY offender — abuser and cover-up superior. 4) Open the meeting to anybody who wants to attend — including working press. 5) Include laity, men and women, as participants in the February meeting with numbers, access and input equal to that of the cardinals. 6) 7) 8) … And I’m sure other things that do not come to mind at the moment.

  3. Expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed.

    These guys have not done anything in the past, and even their rhetoric instills zero confidence.

    “Oversold”? Shaw is writing I. A bubble. I know no one who hopes for much at all from the current regime.

  4. So, Pope Francis “accepts” the resignation of two credible lay journalists in the Vatican Press Office just before the bishops’ big clerical sex abuse summit, and yet the Vatican communications apparatus keeps around wolves in sheeps’ clothing like James Martin, SJ, Antonio Spadaro, SJ, and Thomas Roscia? Where is Pope Francis’ vaunted Jesuit discernment?

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