Wednesday, July 21, 2010

UK -- Vatican’s public relations break down as ‘own goals’ clatter in

Vatican’s public relations break down as ‘own goals’ clatter in

By Ron Ferguson

Published: 20/07/2010

IF I WERE a Roman Catholic, I think I'd be sitting with my head in my hands right now. I don't know who is responsible for public relations in the Vatican, but the Catholic Church has had a terrible year as far as publicity is concerned. There will be people who are enjoying the public discomfiture of the Church, and will be making the most of it. I'm certainly not. The current crisis is damaging for all Churches, and no one has entirely clean hands.

The Catholic Church has been blundering from one bad headline to another. Last week, incredibly, it contrived to make a bad situation even worse. We’ll come back to that in a minute.

Some clerics blame the press and enemies of the Church for the terrible image of the Vatican. There may be a measure of truth in this; there undoubtedly are people who are hostile to Christianity and to the Roman Catholic Church in particular. But the undeniable truth is that so many of the wounds are self-inflicted.

The paedophile scandal is a catastrophe not just for the children involved, but for the Catholic Church, both in terms of substance and image. The evidence which has emerged – with particularly devastating effects in Ireland – has shown that not only were minors abused by paedophile clergy, but that offending priests were moved on to other parishes where they continued to have access to children.

It is now beyond doubt that some bishops put the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church ahead of protection of the innocents.

These cases have been damaging not just for the children involved, but also for the overwhelming majority of priests who have done nothing wrong.

Good priests, who serve their parishioners faithfully, have been verbally abused in the streets. The sins of the wayward Fathers have been visited upon them.

It's important to get this into proportion. There are millions of Roman Catholics around the world. The number of priests shown to have been involved in paedophile activities is a tiny percentage of the total.

Almost all big institutions involved in the care of children have had to face their own day of reckoning on this issue. Court cases, involving offences going back many years, have established that this is far from being exclusively a Church problem.

Nevertheless, the crisis has exposed a devastating culture of secrecy and lack of proper accountability within the Catholic Church. This needs to be addressed with urgency. The Catholic Church needs a 21st-century reformation, one with transparency at its heart.

How was it possible for “hush” payments to be made to victims? How was it that no such payments appeared in diocesan accounts? Are lay people involved in processes of accountability? Where are the forums in which hurting and embarrassed Catholic lay people can raise issues which concern them? The image of the Roman Catholic Church has been tainted further by some clerics who have reacted as if all of the criticism came from people who had their own agenda against the Catholic Church.

You would think some lessons would have been learned by now. The memory of the Good Friday service this year, at which the preacher of the papal household compared the world’s outrage at sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church to the persecution of the Jews, is still fresh.

It's no wonder that there were angry responses from victims’ advocates, as well as consternation from Jewish groups.

Good and faithful priests and lay people deserve better from their leaders. Bishops and priests who have reacted with anger against journalists asking questions about cover-ups need a reality check.

In Scotland, Cardinal Keith O'Brien has been impeccable in this matter. “Crimes against children have, indeed, been committed and any Catholics who were aware of such crimes, and did not act to report them, bring shame on us all,” he said.

“We realise we have not been as alert as we should have been to the evils being perpetrated around us, whatever our particular position . . . The past weeks and months have not been easy for any one of us – and I share with you the shame of so many others in our Church, near at home and far afield.”

Given the sensitivities around this issue, there was astonishment last week when a statement was issued by the Vatican on the subject of tightening the rules about dealing with priests guilty of sexual abuse of minors.

The new norms streamline the procedures for dealing with the most urgent and serious cases, enabling bishops to defrock priests without a long, costly trial.

The most important change is to extend the period during which a clergyman can be tried by a church court from 10 to 20 years, dating from the 18th birthday of his victim. Many people who were abused by priests are unable to summon up the courage to come forward until well into adulthood.

These changes are welcome. What caused big controversy was the inclusion within the same document of a provision that made the “attempted ordination" of women one of the gravest crimes in ecclesiastical law.

The Roman Catholic Church has set its face against the ordination of women. Pope John Paul II sought to ban discussion of the issue within official Church circles.

By issuing the strictures against priests taking part in a ceremony for the ordination of women in the same document as the new rules about the sexual abuse of minors, the Vatican scored a spectacular “own goal”.

Like it or not, the impression was given that the ordination of women was a “crime” of the same order as the abuse of children.

Anyone with the slightest clue about public relations would have had a red light flashing in their brain when they saw the document before it went out. The savvy Catholic press office in Scotland would have picked up the implications of this right away.

All Churches are facing their problems at the moment. The Vatican, it seems, could run a masterclass on the subject of throwing petrol on a roaring bonfire.


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