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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.”

Two cardinals likewise indicated in 2002 that they believed “that the sexual abuse scandal was a creation of a news media feeding frenzy.”

While good PR includes not bringing forth messages which would undermine your organization, this does not justify the institutional Church’s silence and cover-ups as these abuses were exposed. An honest and transparent Catholic Church that dealt with the abuses forthrightly and appropriately would have improved its moral leadership across the world. Such actions would have also halted the growing rot in the Church.

The Church’s terrible responses to the abuse scandal didn’t end in 2002. Cardinal Bernard Law, whose Boston diocese was at the center of the 2002 scandal, was allowed to resign, work in Rome, and then oversee one of Saint John Paul II’s funeral Masses.

Since then, the crisis seemed to be under control. The Dallas Charter established firm rules for the American Church, including reporting accusations of priest abuse to civil authorities. Pope Benedict XVI laicized 800 priests. He and Pope Francis met with victims and asked them for forgiveness. And abuse takes place less frequently, at least in the U.S.

Alas, 2018 shows that the Church has learned nothing about effectively and honestly communicating to its flock. Pope Francis lied about knowledge of the Chilean abuse crisis. Each of the last three popes’ administrations have been exposed as failing to deal with former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s well-known sexual grooming and pursuit of seminarians. A former U.S. Nuncio credibly accused Pope Francis and a number of leading cardinals of hiding criminal abuses and clerical homosexual pursuits that violated Church teachings and vows of celibacy.

And just as happened in 2002, the world only learned about widespread U.S. abuse thanks to secular sources. In 2002, it was The Boston Globe. In 2018, it was a grand jury in Pennsylvania.

Yet the tone-deafness continues at the Vatican. Pope Francis’ denunciation of clericalism this summer was contradicted by his claim that Satan is leading laity and clergy to criticize bishops’ actions on abuse. Francis has also refused to respond to the Nuncio’s claims, and Chicago Cardinal Blasé Cupich said Pope Francis has “a bigger agenda” focused on “the environment and protecting migrants” than “to get into each and every one of those aspects” of the Nuncio’s accusations.

These and other actions make the Church look corrupt and clueless. How can the Church save souls – its primary mission – while senior Vatican officials cover up abuse and convey an attitude that ending abuse is a secondary concern? The Vatican’s bone-headed PR team released a photo of Pope Francis and senior U.S. clergy laughing during a meeting about the abuse crisis, and Cardinal Wuerl flew to Rome last month to urge Pope Francis to accept his resignation. Meanwhile, the Vatican’s major meeting to address abuse won’t take place until 2019.

Satan couldn’t pay for these kinds of results.

A return to basics on ethics and communications.

It may take a generation for the Church to earn back the trust of its struggling flock. To do so will require several steps.

The first ones must be done simultaneously. Immediate defrocking of abusive priests, mass resignations of bishops who participated in cover-ups, reports to civil authorities of anyone illegally involved in abuse or its cover-up, and en masse apologies and repentance from the institutional Church.

This latter point is especially important. No more mealy-mouthed promises of “reform.” Just plain sack cloths, fasting, and prayer, as King David did after repenting his murder of Uriah and his seduction of Bathsheba.

The Church must also re-establish its leadership on the issue of homosexual conduct. Clear explanations of Church teaching – reinforced by natural law, Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and medical research – will help the Western world get a grip on this important issue and help the Church deal with what is clearly a main issue underlying the abuses and their cover-ups.

Part of that communication is to be uncompromising on God-guided teachings on chastity and celibacy, including for the priesthood. The rest is showing how that firmness is rooted in a desire to better humanity.

Finally, the laity must lead through prayer, withholding of donations until the Church is sorted out, and solidarity. No longer should liberal Catholics deny the problem of homosexuality in the Church, and conservative Catholics should acknowledge Saint John Paul II’s errors.

These principled stands also come with a mission: to really follow Christ’s mission for the Church by praying frequently and sincerely for all bishops and priests – including those who are corrupt and/or abusive. It was He who was sent to heal sinners, and if the laity – abused, manipulated, and slandered by many Church leaders – can forgive and hold accountable, as Christ did with the adulterer, the world and Rome will see the true light that the Church is supposed to be.

Dustin Siggins is founder of Proven Media Solutions, a former journalist, and a widely published Catholic commentator. Ryan Moy is a senior communications strategist for a D.C.-based public affairs firm and a former Communications Director on Capitol Hill.