Even though the U.S. bishops have adopted reforms to try to end the clerical scandals, do not expect any letup in the media’s focus on the church. View the past six months as a Catholic Watergate and expect consequences similar to those that presidents and political candidates have endured from the media for the past 30 years.
Here is one former reporter/public-relations professional/journalism professor’s prognosis on what Catholic leaders and spokespersons can expect for the next five to 10 years (minimum).
1. Any hint of any scandal involving any Catholic cleric will be presumed true unless incontrovertible evidence proves otherwise.
2. Reporters will carefully monitor their local dioceses to report on progress in the bishops’ implementation of the reforms adopted at their June meeting in Dallas.
3. Bishops who are known to have covered up abuse can expect continued intense local and national media scrutiny.
4. Denials by bishops will be discounted unless the accuser is clearly psychotic.
5. Reporters will dig deeply into the private lives of clerics, if they have received any tips of possible abuse, payoffs or other scandal. No one dares miss the next Archbishop Weakland incident.
6. Attempts to blackball or stonewall reporters and church critics will only make things worse and, in some cases, may give rise to create new incidents worse than the originals.
7. Lies will be uncovered by newly zealous reporters unwilling to believe anything from church officials.
8. Court records and leaked documents will provide investigative reporters with continued fodder for years to come.
9. Newly appointed bishops will be scrutinized in the press in the same way as prospective cabinet members, with special attention to their sexual histories.
10. Reporters will immediately question the reasons for any reassignments of priests that seem unusual.
It is going to be uncomfortable at best, miserable at worst, to be a bishop. Those who have reassigned abusers, lied to prosecutors or covered up unsavory actions will perhaps wish they had retired to monasteries.
Part of the problem is that reporters do not see those church leaders who have been the most heavily implicated in the scandals responding in the way American business and political leaders are expected to do in such circumstances: by publicly apologizing and resigning.
Sure, a few bishops have quit, but not Cardinal Law. And even if Cardinal Law resigns, the media’s glare will remain on all the bishops. (His departure would remove the scandal’s poster child.) Reporters, by the way, just will not buy the idea that a person who is implicated in covering up the scandal can resolve it. That does not wash in politics and business, and it will not wash in the church either.
And do not try to distract the media with comments about social issues, especially anything involving sexual morality. The bishops have totally demolished their moral credibility in this field for years to come. Any righteous condemnation of the sins of others (even when justified) will be greeted with media derision.
So if the church came to me for P.R. advice, what would I say?
1. Continue confessing sins and errors and make a sincere effort to correct them, including doing everything possible to heal the victims.
2. Involve the people of God far more in setting and implementing church policy, and let lay people and women religious become more prominent as the public face of the church. They have not been implicated in the scandals and are far more likely to be believed.
3. Get used to operating in a new and far more transparent environment. It will not be comfortable, but in the long run it will pay off.
Also, it is highly doubtful that the ability to communicate empathically with the laity has ever been high on the list of qualifications to become a bishop. But from now on it must be. Lay people and the media need to see bishops who:
act like they care deeply about and understand children and make protecting them their priority, just as parents would (we cannot afford any more corporate executives in miters to whom children seem to be almost an abstraction);
are personally compassionate dealing with the sick and suffering;
seem comfortable dealing with women as friends and colleagues;
have a clue about what family life is like, including the difficulties that can lead to divorce or the pressures that might cause a woman to get an abortionwithout condoning either.
The church needs leaders who live out Gospel values and joyfully communicate them to their flocks and the world at large. These leaders must come completely clean about the sins and mistakes of the past, especially their own, and then communicate honestly about reconciliation and rebuilding trust. Ultimately this is the only kind of P.R. that will see the church through the next painful decade.