Russell ShawVatican PR

news man bench un Man reading the newspaper / / Roman Kraft on Unsplash

One day back when I was doing media relations for the American bishops' conference, a journalist asked me what my definition of good public relations was. Without giving it much thought, I said, "Do the right thing, and tell people about it."    

I thought of that when the story broke on New Year's Eve that the director and assistant director of the Vatican press office, Greg Burke and Paloma Garcia Ovejero, had resigned. Burke is an old friend, formerly with Time and Fox News, whom I know to be an honest, honorable media professional. Garcia Ovejero I do not know, but from all reports the same is true of her.

Their departure raises unavoidable questions – soon enough to be answered by events – centering on how the Vatican is going to handle the all-important public information side of the so-called summit on clergy sex abuse that Pope Francis has summoned to take place in Rome next month.

Attending this meeting will be the presidents of bishops' conferences from around the world – in the U.S., Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston – together with the heads of Eastern Catholic churches, representatives of superior generals of religious congregations, officials of the Vatican Secretariat of State, and the heads of several Vatican agencies.

The event, let us face it, is probably destined to suffer from having already been oversold by both its organizers and the media. And in a way, that's understandable. The Pope, the bishops, and the Vatican all stand in need of a good meeting after months of buffeting for mishandling the abuse crisis. The journalists for their part need drama and excitement to justify the expenditure of ink and air time already devoted to this gathering.

But there are built-in, preexisting limits on what the meeting can reasonably be expected to accomplish. Time is one – the sessions will run from February 21 to February 24, hardly long enough for such a diverse group to do very much – while cultural differences and differences in the state of the law from place to place further restrict the action options. 

Thus it's reasonable to think the meeting will have few immediate results beyond bringing participants up to speed on the nature and extent of the problem while perhaps moving those who need motivating to take another look at what is being done to deal with the situation within their particular areas of competence. If so, exaggerated expectations that dramatic new on-the-spot initiatives will be forthcoming from this gathering will be disappointed.

That in turn suggests the disturbing possibility that those responsible for shaping public perceptions of the event may be tempted to do something that, I think, Greg Burke would not have been tempted to do – namely, try to create the impression that what took place was more consequential than in fact it was. In this, I might add, they would likely have the ready collaboration of those members of the Vatican press corps whom one might call journalistic cheerleaders.

A serious, sober discussion by top-level Church officials from around the world could in fact be a useful exercise, especially if it takes a realistic, non-hysterical look at the sensitive issue of homosexuality as a causal factor in clerical sex abuse. Such a gathering might not be high drama – and it might be criticized if it's not – but it could be something a great deal more important: a modest but useful step in the right direction. Remember that first law of good public relations, mentioned above: "Do the right thing."

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