Jun 22, 2012

The Ongoing Problem of Catholic PR -- (Plus Breaking News from Philly)

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

For Breaking news on the Philadelphia case, scroll down.

A while ago I posted something about the Vatican's inability to spin the sex abuse crisis in a manner that makes them look good. The public relations problems for the Catholic Church are only getting worse, apparently. Where to begin? Let's see... How about a banking scandal bizarrely linked to a dead girl who may be buried with a mob boss in a Vatican cemetery and a prominent Church exorcist who claims she was kidnapped by a Vatican sex ring... I mean Dan Brown on his best, most florid prose writing day, couldn't make this stuff up. Yet, the Vatican's response has been to blame Dan Brown and all the other word jockeys out there who keep making the Church look bad by reporting what they do. Then there's the fact that they've been dissed by one of the most Catholic countries in the world. And, for good measure, we could throw in the Legionaries of Christ who, with the help of Pope John Paul II, concealed its leader's mistresses, children, and rampant sexual abuse, for decades. A good write-up on new revelations about that fiasco can be found here.

To say the Church has a PR problem is like saying there just isn't a tube of lipstick big enough for a pig that size. And constantly blaming the press corps for doing its job... Not helpful. But America's Roman Catholic Bishops have decided getting better flacks just might help, so they're gonna give that a whirl.

There's no doubt that America's Roman Catholic bishops have had their share of what might quaintly be called bad press. The priest sex-abuse scandal, a Vatican crackdown on nuns, a head-knocking fight with the president of the United States over contraceptive coverage -- none of these would qualify as good news.

. . .

"We need more help and sophistication in our messaging," said Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, who decried the "latest debacle" of bad PR over the treatment of American nuns (which involves an investigation by the Vatican, not the American bishops).

O'Malley observed ruefully that when John Jay College released a landmark study last year of the causes and handling of the church's sex-abuse crisis, it "should have been a good moment for the church, and yet it was another black eye."

Yeah, the John Jay study... Funny that. You'd think buying the research results you want would translate into buying the coverage you want. But it turns out it's not that simple. A study almost entirely paid for by Catholic organizations and relying on Church data that exempted the Church of responsibility and blamed society should have worked. But it kind of backfired. The scholarship was nothing short of atrocious. I discussed the inconsistencies, logical fallacies, and seemingly deliberate distortions of that study in two posts here and here.

Meanwhile, the American Bishops' push-back against Obama's birth control mandate does seem to be getting them lots of press coverage. Some of it has even been very positive and supportive. Their stance on this issue caters to a very particular political base and that base has been well-mobilized. It's not entirely clear if it plays well with rank and file Catholics, however, the vast majority of whom use birth control in flagrant disregard of Church doctrine. But the Church is calling on its membership to participate in a two week event, which may or may not shore up support among the faithful, as well as society at large.

Nearly half of the nation's 195 dioceses have announced events from prayer breakfasts to town-hall-style meetings to readings of the Constitution. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is providing resources including a dramatic special prayer for strength and courage.

They have dubbed this a "Fortnight for Freedom," set to stretch from the feast day of two saints, martyrs who were murdered for refusing to bend Roman Catholic doctrine to meet a king's demands, to Independence Day.

. . .

Meanwhile, said Reese, Catholics, he says are "voting with their cars" by driving off to a church where they're not "harangued" on issues that make them uncomfortable.

Most Catholics (57%), like most Americans (68%), don't buy the bishops' case that the right of religious liberty is under threat, according to a March survey of 1,007 adults by the Public Religion Research Institute.

So time will tell if the bishops are winning more than they're losing, in terms of hearts and minds, with their battle of conscience against the evils of birth control. But a larger problem with choosing such a politically polarizing issue around which to define themselves, is that they may be running afoul of tax laws based on the very separation of Church and State they claim to be defending -- the same laws that grant the Church and its charities tax exempt status.

With rallies, marches, lectures and special publications, the U.S. Catholic Bishop’s Fortnight for Freedom campaign will seek to galvanize Catholic opposition to President Obama’s proposed mandate to require employers — including religious institutions — to provide free contraception insurance coverage to employees.

But while Catholic leaders frame the events as a fight for religious liberty, critics see signs of political partisanship and electioneering. Questions over the financing of the bishops’ campaign have caused those suspicions to multiply.

“The activities around the Fortnight for Freedom cost money,” said Steve Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington. “What groups are paying for this, and what’s the accountability for that money?”

So all of this will present unusual challenges for even the best publicists. It's not a job I would ever have wanted. Maybe they can get Ari Fleischer. He'll flack anything. Honey badger doesn't give a shit.

Breaking News: Monsignor William Lynn was just convicted for his role in protecting sexually abusive priests in Philadelphia. It's a landmark case -- the first to legally penalize the cover-up, rather than the crime of sexual abuse. Lynn has been convicted of child endangerment.

Monsignor William Lynn is the first U.S. church official convicted of a crime for how he handled sex-abuse accusations.

The judge revoked Lynn's bail and ordered him taken into custody after he was convicted of one count of endangerment. Lynn was acquitted of another endangerment count and a conspiracy charge.

. . . 

Monsignor William Lynn helped the archdiocese keep predators in ministry, and the public in the dark, by telling parishes their priests were being removed for health reasons and then sending the men to unsuspecting churches, prosecutors said.

Now spin that!

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