With all eyes on the U.S. bishops meeting this week in Dallas, the Roman Catholic Church could use a better PR strategy. Over the last six months, news coverage of the holy sex crimes has escalated to a frenzy, but the church is stuck in an antiquarian form of spin control, issuing pat apologies and half-baked correctives while silencing the victims and likening the media circus to an inquisition. But platitudes and censorship cannot deliver the church from this dark night of the soul. The crimes of the pedophiles are real, and they call for divine damage control.
First mistake: blaming the messenger for bad publicity. On June 1, the Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica, whose contents are approved by the Vatican, published an article blasting the U.S. media for their “morbid and scandalous curiosity” about the pedophile priests. The author, an Italian cardinal, blamed anti-Catholic bias for the TV satellite trucks that descended on St. Peter’s Square in March and the front-page stories that have turned priests into the “monster of the day.” As a result, he wrote, the church has been subjected to a “crossfire of suspicions, violent accusations, recriminations, and demands for million-dollar settlements.”
Last week, another cardinal came out swinging in an Italian magazine, accusing The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe of political persecution and likening their so-called fury to that of “Diocletian and Nero and more recently, Stalin and Hitler.”
No doubt some irreverent wags are flogging this story because it sells. And as Carl M. Cannon recently noted in the American Journalism Review, the fourth estate could have pursued church pedophiles more aggressively in the 1980s. News judgment is not always perfect. But demonizing the media will not solve the crisis, only inflame it. In 1992, when the Globe exposed a sexually abusing priest, Boston’s Cardinal Law accused the paper of sensationalism, saying, “We call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe.”
In return, the media called down their power on Cardinal Law. The first blow came in March 2001, when The Boston Phoenix exposed local priest John Geoghan as a serial child molester who was being sued by his victims. Capitalizing on its competitor’s scoop, the Globe challenged a confidentiality order in the Geoghan case, seeking to obtain thousands of pages of discovery material. The result: This past January, the Globe revealed that Cardinal Law had known about scores of abuse claims against Geoghan, but looked the other way while the dirty priest was reassigned from one parish to another.
After that, the media’s herd instinct kicked in. The scandal has turned out to be a huge story involving an estimated 1500 priests, thousands of victims, and millions of dollars in settlements nationwide. Media subjects now include Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, who sent known pedophiles to distant parishes, and the archbishop of Milwaukee, who resigned in May after admitting he had paid $450,000 to settle a claim that he sexually assaulted a man 20 years ago. When asked if the pope knew of the Milwaukee charges, Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls said, “He reads the newspapers.” The implication seems to be that the scandals would cease to exist if the media would just stop reporting on them.
That wasn’t the first time Navarro-Valls said something stupid. Back in March, he suggested that the crisis could be solved if gays were banned from the priesthood. But reporters and gay priests are not the root of the problem. As Jason Berry, a journalist who first covered this beat in the 1980s, recently argued in a New York Times op-ed, pedophilia is not caused by homosexuality. The problem, according to Berry, is the church’s institutional secrecy, which has led celibate priests to seek out sex partners who can be coerced into silence. As collateral damage to the sex-abuse victims, the church’s secrecy fetish continues to force them to remain silent. (For the victim’s point of view, see Berry’s excellent story in the current Rolling Stone.)
As another example of Vatican paranoia, no one is allowed to talk to the press about the meetings of the bishops in Rome, known as synods. When Newsweek‘s Robert Blair Kaiser recently challenged that policy, a Belgian cardinal explained that the bishops are “accountable to no one but the Holy Father, and the Holy Father accountable to no one but Jesus. The Coca-Cola corporation doesn’t invite the press into its board meetings.”
Meanwhile, Navarro-Valls resembles nothing more than a capitalist flack. He has forbidden anyone in the Vatican to speak to the press about anything without his approval, a policy that seems to have been extended to the American clergy. In preparation for this week’s meeting in Dallas, some journalists were denied press passes, while others were told that all interviews with bishops must be requested in advance. No spontaneous chats at the bar or in the elevator, either!
So what does the church have to hide? First, there is Pope John Paul II, a powerful brand name whose face appears on six-inch lollipops sold as Vatican souvenirs. In reality, he is old, frail, and little more than a figurehead controlled by his secretary and a band of cardinals behind the scenes, as Time reported last week. The poor man has so much trouble walking that the Vatican has promised to deliver him to fans in Mexico and Canada this summer on a wheelchair or “stretcher,” if necessary.
Another man the church may want to protect is President Bush, who seems more interested in Catholic voters these days than in Catholic victims. When Bush went to Rome last month, he brought along a Virgin Mary medallion for the pope, but did not publicly insist that U.S. bishops comply with sex crime prosecutors. Nor did he repeat his spurned invitation for the pope to visit Ground Zero (God forbid John Paul should have to face a crowd of angry American sex-abuse victims).
More than anything, the church seems to want to hide the scope and value of its institutional power. Even corporations are subject to scrutiny by board members and the SEC, but the pope enjoys a kind of autonomy that American CEOs would die for. Since 1929, the Vatican has been recognized as a sovereign nation, which means the pope and his circle are immune from legal claims filed in this country. (So far, anyway.) As further protection, the U.S. Catholic Church has set up parishes as individual corporations, which prevents dioceses from being sued. Civiltà Cattolica recently put forth the argument that bishops are not morally or legally responsible for the crimes of the priests who report to them. With all these built-in dodges, how can the new Dallas policy be anything but a simulacrum of accountability?
If the U.S. bishops want better PR, their first step should be to stop demonizing the media. Then, tell the truth about the abusive priests and let the victims do the same. Finally, start looking for a new pope who will give priests more sexual freedom and end the culture of secrecy. As Jesus said, “The truth will set you free.”