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VATICAN LETTER Apr-30-2010 (1,000 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Self-examination: Catholic communicators look to address scandal

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- With workshops such as "Benedict XVI, sexual abuse and The New York Times" on the program, it wasn't surprising that a conference of Catholic communicators in Rome provoked more interest than usual this year.

But those expecting a round of media-bashing were disappointed. Most of the April 26-28 discussion focused on how the church itself should be more transparent, more proactive in communicating and more journalist-friendly if it wants to get its message out on clerical sex abuse.

Sponsored by the Opus Dei-run Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, the conference over the years has become a regular networking event for hundreds of church communications personnel, including diocesan spokespersons.

The new round of disclosures on priestly sex abuse, which has taken the Vatican by storm, has also impacted these local Catholic media professionals, most of whom are lay people.

One might have expected the workshop on The New York Times to have served up a welcome scapegoat. The newspaper's recent reporting on the sex abuse cases has been criticized as unfair by several high church officials.

Instead, Diego Contreras, the dean of the Holy Cross university's communications faculty, began the session by saying that overall, the press has had a positive role in bringing sex abuse to light and helping make it a priority issue for the church.

He then offered a "just the facts" presentation. Over the past seven weeks, he said, The New York Times has run 65 news reports on the church and sex abuse in its print edition -- including 10 on page one -- as well as 12 op-ed pieces, one editorial, one interview and 29 letters.

His statistical analysis found that the most common "message" communicated through text or headline was that this scandal directly affects Pope Benedict. The impression, without always being explicitly stated, was that the pope knew about sex abuse cases and yet said or did nothing, he said.

Contreras concluded by saying The New York Times had clearly made a major effort to provide information on the crisis. The problems arose, he said, in journalistic interpretation, and in what he termed an excessive reliance on the narrative provided by the lawyers involved in sex abuse cases.

Rachel Donadio, The New York Times' Rome correspondent, afterward chatted with Contreras and told him that while people sometimes complain that the lawyers are driving this story, it's very hard to get an alternative narrative from the Vatican.

Donadio addressed the conference the previous day, saying that covering the Vatican was the hardest thing she'd ever done in her life. The Vatican, she said, in many ways remains a "hermetic culture that doesn't want to be known or explained."

Covering the sex abuse scandal has been especially difficult, and sometimes she has felt like a translator between different cultures, she said.

"For a while, I felt like I was trying to explain to American readers that the pope's not the head of Toyota. He's not going to give a press conference and apologize for brake failure. This is not how the Vatican works," she said.

At the same time, she said, she had to explain to some people in the Roman Curia that "the problem of sex abuse in the church ... is not a problem invented by The New York Times or by anybody in the press."

"This is an issue within the Catholic Church, not just the press versus the church," she said.

Some of the most challenging comments at the conference came from the Catholic communicators on the program.

Pia de Solenni, a U.S. Catholic theologian and writer, said she was disturbed that some church officials seemed to exhibit "a sort of tone-deafness" in their defensive comments on sex abuse. She said it doesn't really help the church to describe itself as persecuted, or to say that because only a small percentage of priests commit abuse, "we're just about the same as others."

She said the church's message should focus on several key elements: asking forgiveness from the victims, accountability for those who have made mistakes and transparency in how cases have been handled. There are good models for this, including in the United States, but they need to be implemented in every diocese around the world, she said.

The church also needs to get its good news out, including the very low numbers of new sex abuse cases being reported, de Solenni said. Above all, she said, the church needs to be proactive, going to media with its information and not "waiting for the story to come and get us."

What hurts the communications effort on sex abuse are "conflicting and uncoordinated statements," especially when they involve red herrings like homosexuality or "cultural landmines" like the Holocaust, she said.

Although de Solenni didn't name names, many at the conference thought some recent and apparently unvetted statements from Vatican officials on those very topics had only made their jobs harder.

As close followers of the Vatican's communications strategy, they sympathize with the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, who they correctly believe has had to overcome some internal pressures in his campaign to publish more detailed and timely information on sex abuse cases and policies.

On the conference's final day, Father Lombardi met with participants at the Vatican and told them his overall strategy is based on a simple principle: that the Vatican should provide as much information as possible in order to "reduce the widespread impression that we have a culture of secrecy or are trying to hide something."

He also said responding to the sex abuse scandal must go beyond answering accusations by critics or the media. One fundamental task -- in which local Catholic communicators can take the lead -- is to provide concrete examples that illustrate how the church is today a model environment for child safety, he said.

The Vatican spokesman received something from this audience that he hasn't heard in a while: a big round of applause.


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