Is the 10th Circle of Hell Reserved for Bad Flacks? Or, The Vatican’s Irreversible Public Relations Blunders

Does the Pope have an in-house public relations team, or is the Vatican getting expensive, or pro bono, outside counsel to handle the latest, growing scandal over the actions — and alleged cover up by pre-pope Ratzinger, then a Cardinal, and others  — of one particularly notorious pedophile priest who was accused of molesting more than 200 deaf children in Wisconsin? Whatever the answer, those inflicting their advice on the Holy See, need to be shown the door. Yesterday.  They have mismanaged this crisis by magnitudes of 10 or more.

This pathetic news story unfortunately provides a teaching moment or three about what not to do in a crisis situation that not only affects the now-grown victims of the child abuse and their surviving family members, but the millions of Catholic believers still taking direction from an authority claiming to be the intercessor between humankind on Earth and God in heaven.

Rich in the irony that only real but unseemly events can produce (the Vatican’s “PR problems” exploded during the Catholic Church’s most sacred week of the Christian year, Easter), the sheer incompetence of the fiasco is staggering! You can read the entire unraveling of papal credibility and its anointed message masters at this Washington Post account here: The money quote, as they say in the profane world, is here:

“In a Good Friday sermon in St. Peter’s Basilica attended by the pope, the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa said a Jewish friend had written to him, saying the recent accusations about the church reminded him of the ‘more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.’”

“Jews know ‘from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence,’ the priest said, and ‘because of this, they are quick to recognize the recurring symptoms.’”

Mistake One

In a crisis, do not look for an out where none exists. The church needs to admit this priest perpetrator — and the hundreds of other abusers whose priestly vocations were corrupted by their own actions against the innocent — should never have been allowed to continue as an ordained priest. The now-Pope Benedict and his Cardinal colleagues were egregiously in error then for ignoring the case for 12 years.

Mistake Two

In a controversy this extreme and incendiary, never send a messenger who lacks a clear message and genuine authority. The Vatican needed to find a credible spokesperson within or outside of its ranks to go on point and take the heat if the top guy isn’t going to do it.

Mistake Three

In a roiling crisis with growing controversy, widening worldwide anger and enduring media coverage,  don’t drag in another historical controversy to deflate or deflect the main accusations. That the Reverend Catalamessa would bring the Jewish “experience” into the fray — after centuries of distrust between the two faiths and questionable insensitivity (if not disturbing inaction) on the part of Catholic Rome during the persecution of Jews in Europe during WWII — is simply one hell of a way to dump more fuel on a raging inferno.

As the above newspaper story of Good Friday concludes: “’If they hired someone to draw up the worst possible PR plan for the church, they could not do any worse than these guys are doing right now,’” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington.

“’It’s disastrous,’ he said. ‘They really need to get someone from the U.S. bishops conference who has been through this before to get over there and help guide the coverage. I mean, to invoke the persecution of the Jews? They are making every mistake in the book.’”

Amen, brother. Amen.

One response to “Is the 10th Circle of Hell Reserved for Bad Flacks? Or, The Vatican’s Irreversible Public Relations Blunders”

  1. Well said, Martin! When initial reports of pedophile priests starting circulating in the U.S., I was called by legal counsel for a major archdiocese (irony — when clergy are in trouble, they call the Jewish kid). On the line with him were the archbishop and a couple of his senior advisors. I was told that they had offenders within their jurisdiction and were guilty of under-reacting to the situation. I gave them Crisis Management 101 advice about coming clean with humility and honesty, telling the world what they intended to do to ensure that this would never happen again.

    I wasn’t hired.

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