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The Catholic Church’s Sex Abuse Cover-Up: PR Without Ethics

Editor's Note: Communications consultant Ryan Moy is a co-author of this piece.

The Catholic Church’s extensive sex abuse rot has become a worldwide scandal. Reports this year alone in Germany, Honduras, Chile, Ireland, and the U.S. show that thousands of people were sexually abused by clerics over the last half-century – and other clerics covered it up.

This worldwide scandal exists because Church leaders were unwilling and/or unable to address a growing problem over a period of decades. As Catholics, they failed morally. As influencers of public opinion, they fell into the trap of putting spin ahead of ethics, truth, and trust.

While the sex abuse scandal is first and foremost a failure of morality, it is also a disaster of incompetent public relations. This piece examines how the Church’s failure to communicate effectively took a disaster of ethics and competence … and made it magnitudes worse.

From JPII to Francis – error after error.

Ethics and competence matter in public relations. Without them, you have a house of cards waiting to collapse.

For the Catholic Church, failures of competence took place from the 1980s onward at the top levels of Vatican leadership. As outlined by The New York Times in 2010, bishops from the U.S., Australia, Ireland, and elsewhere reported abuses to the Vatican for decades. Yet key Vatican officials – including then-Pope John Paul II and future Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – were slow to understand the gravity of the abuse.

Abuse prevention procedures were already in place – but sometimes ignored. The Vatican created confusion instead of clarity by promulgating new rules in the 1980s which contradicted 1922 procedures. It took until the late 1990s for Cardinal Ratzinger – who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 – to appear to understand the depths to which his office needed to take action.

The ethical failures are well-known by now. Priests and bishops abused, bishops covered things up, and at times unknowing laity were funding abusive priests’ retirements even as priests were shuffled into new parishes.

Botched communications make things worse

In the last half-century, the Church failed to engage in three basic steps to solve what has become a worldwide crisis: a) stop abuse through its existing processes, b) enact reforms such as those put in place by the American bishops in 2002, and c) communicate effectively to laypeople and the media.

These moral and prudential errors were exacerbated by wildly offensive remarks from senior clergy. As the New York Times reported about a 2000 Vatican meeting, “Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, then the head of the Congregation for the Clergy, set the tone, playing down sexual abuse as an unavoidable fact of life, and complaining that lawyers and the media were unfairly focused on it.”