The Media Crisis: How the Church Failed

Last September, addressing the Religious Newswriters Association, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), criticized media coverage of the sexual-abuse scandals, saying that “the way the story was so obsessively covered resulted in unnecessary damage to the bishops and the entire Catholic community.”

Everyone has his favorite example of media malfeasance on this topic—most would probably choose the fact that the media presented 40 years of sex-abuse cases as if they had all happened last week. Bishop Gregory was correct to call the media to account on that point. However, most of the “communications nightmare” he referred to is of the Church’s own making.

Throughout the sexual-abuse crisis, the pastors of the Church consistently failed in their use of the mass media. This was not only a lack of basic competence in the rudiments of media relations, though it was that to be sure. It also manifested a fundamentally flawed understanding of the mass media as a distraction—or even an obstacle—to preaching the Gospel. The contrary is true; the mass media are the principal, and sometimes only, means available for preaching to society at large. If we fail to use it well, we fail as evangelists.

A Fitting Resignation

A few hours before Bernard Cardinal Law resigned as archbishop of Boston, I was telling my colleagues in the Holy See Press Office that it wasn’t going to happen.

By December 13, 2002, it was obvious to most that Cardinal Law was going to step down. Eleven months after the scandal broke, not a single voice in Rome could be found to defend him on the record. The very mention of his name was enough to silence senior prelates and Curia officials. One such prelate, after meeting with the cardinal, told one of my fellow Vatican reporters, “I’ll talk about anything you want, except for Cardinal Law.”

Yet I still insisted it wouldn’t happen that day. My argument was twofold: first, that Cardinal Law should go back to Boston to face the people he had failed and, second, that even if he decided to resign in Rome, he’d have to speak directly to the Catholics of Boston, which would require a press conference. No such arrangements had been made. It simply didn’t occur to me that the cardinal archbishop of Boston would go into hiding with only a brief written statement for reporters—leaving the parishioners back home with nary a word from their erstwhile shepherd.

Of course, that was exactly what happened. No one spoke to the faithful of Boston (Law’s auxiliary bishops back home were refusing comment). It was suitable, in its own way—a fitting end to a year in which Cardinal Law and some of his brethren spectacularly mismanaged the media, turning a grave scandal into a true crisis.

Don’t Blame the Media

Catholic commentators were quick to say that the media were not at fault for the crisis. Francis Cardinal George of Chicago went so far as to argue that the media exposure— insofar as it was the catalyst for healing and reform—was actually a blessing. At the same time, thoughtful observers, such as Kenneth L. Woodward, pointed out that anti-Catholic bias played a significant role in how the media chose to cover the crisis (see “The Last Respectable Prejudice” in the October 2002 First Things).

Both judgments are true. But what is also true is that the bishops were driven by media pressures. Those bishops who publicly released the names of dead priests accused of abuse were simply angling for media approbation—no other purpose could have been served. The watershed Dallas meeting of June 2002 was clearly designed to portray the shepherds as concerned, contrite, and chastened.

It was a media crisis—if only because absent media attention, many of the bishops wouldn’t have considered it a crisis at all. (This is not to say, of course, that the media caused the scandal—that was the result of the sex abuse alone.)

The Media Environment Is the Environment

While it’s possible to have a real crisis without having a media crisis, there’s simply no such thing as a media crisis that isn’t a real crisis. The media world is the real world.

Is that special pleading from a journalist? I wish it were. Given that the overwhelming majority of Catholics get their news about the Church from the secular, mainstream press, a media crisis is a real crisis. It’s been a long time since media guru—and Catholic convert—Marshal McLuhan taught us that the medium is the message, but it still hasn’t gotten through to those who manage the Church’s media relations. Inept handling on the part of bishops means that Catholics do not have access to their shepherds and, in some cases, the truth. If a bishop were never to preach in his cathedral, that would be widely considered a failure of pastoral leadership. The same is true of a bishop who proves incompetent in using the principal means of mass communication.

Yet it happens all the time, as many bishops continue to think of their relations with the media as something separate from their pastoral work. During the spring of 2002, when Cardinal Law made two secret trips to Rome, his handlers back in Boston boasted to their friends how clever they were in spiriting the cardinal around secretly. But imagine if the thinking had not been “I have eluded the media” but rather “I have eluded my people.” Could even the most loyal functionary take pride in that? The medium is the message. A shepherd on the run is not going to convince anyone— protests to the contrary—that he has the best interests of his flock at heart.

Pedophiles Everywhere

When panic first hit the Boston chancery in January 2002, the main charge that dominated the media was that of a cover-up. Cardinal Law, determined to show that he was no longer hiding anything, decided to release a list of priests who had been accused—going back several decades. Amateurs in handling the media often think that an intense media frenzy is like a hungry dog—if you throw it some meat, it’ll go away. A better analogy comes from Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel about the press, Scoop, in which he uses the phrase “feeding the beast” to express the voracious appetite of the newspapers for copy: Every day, the pages have to be filled. The beast always needs to be fed.

And so you must be careful what you offer the beast. Serving up a long list of those accused of sexual abuse—in the immediate aftermath of John Geoghan’s court proceedings, no less—is simply reckless. Again, this act betrayed a misunderstanding of the media world as separate from the real world. Releasing such a list—without the necessary distinctions and precautions—does save the cardinal from further accusations of covering things up. But that attempt to placate the media world creates new “facts” in the real world.

Consider the effect on the Catholics of Boston and other dioceses where the same approach was used. They were subjected to needless suffering and fear, as suddenly they were confronted with a grotesquely inaccurate picture of what was actually going on. The idea that there were dozens of serial child rapists in the Boston presbyterate in 2002 was a grave injustice—and one for which the Boston chancery deserves the lion’s share of blame.

With a growling beast at the chancery door, it’s easy to get nervous and panic. But given that the secular media are the principal means of communicating with the vast majority of Catholics, why should bishops and their staffs not be prepared for the beast to visit? That they were not is a pastoral failure of the highest order.

Speaking the Church’s Language

There are countless experts who coach clients on how to speak the media’s language—by which they mean how to translate their particular ideas or priorities into a common language accessible on TV or in print. Experts who can do this well are, at best, second-rate. The true media expert does not teach his subject to speak the media’s language but rather how to speak his own language in a media-effective way. The bishops, both at the local and national levels, had second-rate experts.

Consider the mantra of 2002: “The safety of children is our first priority.” Whose language is that? Child Protection Services? Block Parents? Boy Scouts?

“Safety”—even of children—is not the Church’s first priority. Priests don’t rush to accident scenes in order to perform rescues but to anoint the injured. The Church’s first priority is the salvation of souls. No doubt many experts considered that irrelevant to the sexual-abuse crisis. It’s understandable that they might think that; not so for a bishop.

What did the Church lose by refusing to speak her own language? Imagine if her mantra was something like, “As a Church, we have to repent when grave sins are committed, punish justly the offenders, and pray that mercy can heal those who have been hurt.” Or even something a little more robust: “These sins cry to heaven for vengeance.” It would show that churchmen are speaking, not the coroner’s office or the insurance company. The resulting policy changes would then have followed a more Catholic line—punishment for offenders, collective fasting and penance by the Church, compassion for those abused, and conversion for the abusers, even if a return to ministry was forbidden.

Yet all this was lost because it has nothing to do with the “safety of children.” Safety demands that abusers be permanently removed as quickly as possible. In fact, safety demands tough action on suspicions of abuse. Even more, safety is served by an oversight board committed to safety. If other concerns—the authority of bishops or the bishop-priest relationship or even due process—have to be sacrificed, so be it. Because safety is first, last, and everything. The bishops said so, repeatedly.

Helping the Church Explain Herself

Should only media-savvy priests be made bishops? Obviously not, but every bishop does need to be media-savvy. That’s presumably why every chancery hires a public relations expert; the USCCB has a rather well-staffed office for this purpose. Indeed, the bishop’s communication officer may well be the most important person in the chancery after the bishop himself; if he fails, the bishop is fatally disabled in his job of preaching the Gospel. The crisis of 2002 demonstrated that these offices—with some exceptions—are worse than useless. Their incompetence causes active harm.

During the April 2002 “cardinals’ summit” in Rome, hundreds of hungry journalists were on hand. John Allen from the National Catholic Reporter and I spent a good portion of our time explaining to our secular colleagues very basic stuff—from what the “successor of St. Peter” means to what “particular law” is. Why did we have to do that? Because the USCCB’s communications team had not. They were courteous in arranging interviews and in choosing questioners at press conferences, but they were unable or unwilling to do any of the elementary work of a Church media spokesman—to help the Church explain herself. There were no helpful backgrounders of key terms, chronologies of past action, lay friendly explanations of canonical terms, helpful data from past studies—nothing.

Even at the Dallas meeting in June 2002 (six months after the scandal broke), major newspapers were confusing “removal from ministry” and “dismissal from the clerical state”—a distinction at the heart of any disciplinary policy. A half-page backgrounder handed to every journalist could have solved this problem months before. But such elementary steps proved beyond the capacity of the Church’s communications officers.

A Failure of Imagination

The Catholic Church should know a thing or two about communication through public images. She has been at it a long time in her liturgy, art, and architecture. It’s not so difficult to imagine how this might be done in the television and Internet age.

During the Great Jubilee of 2000, Pope John Paul II decided that he would lead the Church in asking forgiveness from God for the sins of the past. It was easily one of the biggest stories of the Holy Year, both from a theological and news perspective. The setting chosen was the Mass for the First Sunday of Lent, and the image of the Holy Father embracing the cross in a gesture of repentance was carried around the world. The Church was speaking her language— repentance for sin and forgiveness—in a distinctly Catholic way. It worked. The Gospel was preached.

Where’s the corresponding image of the sorrow and repentance of the American bishops? There isn’t one. A weak attempt was made at a national day of penance, but it petered out into a common resolution to do a little private fasting. Did the collective pastoral imagination of the American episcopate strain to find anything more compelling than having bishops in suits sitting in hotel ballrooms being admonished by the editors of Catholic periodicals? Did nobody think that perhaps the bishops could gather in a church to ask for forgiveness publicly? Did it not occur to anyone that the Church already has powerful gestures of humility—the washing of feet comes to mind—that could be adapted to the needs of a national crisis?

To ask the questions is to answer them—or rather, it’s to understand that these questions were neither asked nor answered by those responsible for the Church’s use of the media. That’s bad enough. Worse is that it wasn’t a unique failure in the face of an unprecedented challenge… It’s a chronic failure. The Church suffered for it in 2002. The Gospel suffers for it still.

  • Rev. Raymond J. de Souza

    Rev. Raymond J. de Souza was the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register from 1998 to 2003. A frequent contributor to Canada's National Post, he serves as a curate at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Kingston, Ontario, and as a chaplain at Newman House at Queen's University.

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