If the Catholic Church truly wants to save its reputation, it must undo PR damage caused not only by the recent scandal, but by decades of secrecy as well.
Last month's gathering of Catholic bishops in Dallas drew international press attention as the church unveiled new policies regarding sex offenders in the priesthood, and began an effort to publicly polish its tarnished image. Under the watchful eyes of more than 300 media members and twice as many protesters, church officials embraced the slow process of reform by crafting the Charter For the Protection of Children and Young People, their first cohesive plan of action to deal with the dozens of abuse charges that have left some comparing the institution's moral shortcomings to the period before the Protestant Reformation, when salvation was sold to the highest bidder.
But both activists and church communications staff agree that the meeting was only the first step toward ending the scandal, and future actions will be key in changing public perception. And despite its long time in coming, that first step may have been the easiest.
"Many people have commented that they think the bishops have rounded a corner, says William Ryan, deputy director of communications for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). "Most of the editorial comment has been pretty favorable. But despite recent coverage of the church's plan, Ryan is quick to add this caveat: "We're going to see more and more of that as long as (the bishops) stick with it. The new policy has to be implemented."
The church, however, has never been an institution that embraces public scrutiny or new methods, as its attempts to handle the scandal in the past have shown that tradition of impunity has created an image of entrenched corruption, and a prideful resistance to accountability. Whether that perception is fair or not, the coming months are likely to be an uncomfortable test of just how committed the church is to entering a new era of openness and oversight, as it fights to change a reputation crafted by years of neglect.
"Historically, the words have always been nice, points out David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a group that has worked to help victims of abuse for more than a decade. "(The church) always apologized and expressed concern very eloquently, but the follow-through has been lacking."
Dealing with the critics
Clohessy is not alone in his distrust of church rhetoric. It is a sentiment echoed by dozens of activist organizations that have been beating the reform drum for years with little notice. Now that they finally have the media and the church's attention, they are unsurprisingly determined to hold on to the spotlight to further their causes.
"We're going to be vigilant in following the bishops in terms of implementing policies, promises Mary Louise Cervone, head of Dignity/USA, a group that works to integrate the gay community into the church. "We're going to ask how far beyond the minimum standard are they wiling to go to protect our children and make restitution to adult survivors?"
Perhaps the church's biggest PR challenge stems from the way it deals with, and has historically dealt with, activists and protesters such as Dignity/USA and SNAP. When it comes to dissidents, the church has turned its back, often refusing to have a dialogue. That has lead to anger and stubbornness on both sides, and a lack of communication that has played out in the press.
While certain organizations, such as SNAP, did get to meet with bishops at the conference, the negotiations for the face time were terse and full of acrimony, and represented the first time in over a decade that the church would even consider a meeting, according to Clohessy. At one point, the church cancelled the proposed encounter due to SNAP's involvement with an upcoming lawsuit against the church. Only after SNAP withdrew from that litigation was the meeting rescheduled.
That type of obstinacy is also addressed in the new charter, with a call for more channels of communication.
"In the past, too much time was spent in shouting matches, wrote LA Archdiocese head Cardinal Roger Mahoney and abuse survivor Richard Kirby in a joint letter to the LA Times. "After Dallas, there is a new openness - not just to talk, but to take real action together. It is not only imperative that every possible step be taken to prevent even one case of child abuse by a clergyman; there must also be a new partnership for healing, reconciliation, and change."
But finding new and productive ways to cope with dissenters, whose power is at its apex in terms of public opinion, may prove one of the most important and difficult tasks in the coming months - especially with groups like Dignity/USA, whose views collide with church doctrine on volatile issues such as homosexuality. But with the media more than eager to hear from these groups, the church must address their concerns if they truly want to change public opinion.
Slowly making progress
Despite having a long way to go with critics, the flurry of public mea culpas and concrete actions is making an impact with everyday Catholics.
A recent poll by Le Moyne College/Zogby International found that 79% of US Catholics support the new charter, and a Washington Post poll found that about 67% of Catholics said they trust the church to deal with this issue in the future.
That confidence stems in part from the bishops' quick turnaround from resolution to action after the Dallas meeting. Dioceses across the US formed oversight committees on sexual abuse staffed by laypersons. Accused priests were banned from saying mass in public, and in some cases from presenting themselves as priests. To help publicize the new doctrine, the Bishop's Council also provided bishops with pamphlets explaining the rules and answers to FAQs that can be passed out to parishioners nationwide.
A national oversight board was also created, headed by Gov. Frank Keating (R-OK), and many bishops made public apologies and promised their commitment to the new "zero tolerance policy. News of those actions was spread both by grassroots efforts in churches and local parishes, as well as the national press.
Still, both church defenders and protesters point out that the church thinks in terms of centuries, not the minute-by-minute public perception that governs corporations and governments. While it's had its ugly periods of history, the church endures through stability and structure. And certainly, no mass exodus is on the horizon. In fact, the Le Moyne/Zogby poll found that 75% of Catholics would be very unlikely to leave the church over the sex scandals. Individual priests or even bishops may suffer (96% of those polled said the Pope should sanction bishops who transferred accused priests), but if change comes, it must be because the church believes it erred and wants to make amends, not because it fears for its reputation. And the church knows better than anyone that that kind of redemption is a path of years, filled with many purposeful steps.
DALLAS BISHOPS' CONFERENCE HOST HANDLES MEDIA ONSLAUGHT
As clergy and abuse victims grappled with punishment and forgiveness, Cooksey Communications toiled to prevent tarnish from rubbing off on the hotel that hosted the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
The Fairmont called in Cooksey, its PR agency of five years, when it became clear the meeting would be controversial, says principal Gail Cooksey.
"Even though we weren't the story, we were the site of the story," Cooksey said. "We did not want to be the center of attention."
Cooksey's activities before the conference included media training for some 70 hotel employees, and developing a communications briefing book that included background information and floor plans indicating where reporters would and wouldn't be allowed. Cooksey staff also successfully pitched Fairmont GM Frank Naboulsi to local and national reporters as a source for stories on conference preparation.
During the conference, Cooksey helped USCCB staff shepherd more than 700 credentialed journalists while keeping those without press cards at bay, and bending the rules slightly for local press who had been unaware of the credentialing process. Meanwhile, the firm's employees helped keep protest groups who conducted ad hoc press conferences in the hotel lobby from disturbing guests. "That got a little bit out of control at one point, Cooksey recalls. "The fire marshal came ... We had to move that part of it outside onto the sidewalk."
She feels her firm's efforts were successful, since most of the 200-plus broadcast and uncounted print references to the hotel were neutral or positive. "What we really wanted to do was showcase that we could handle any type of event, Cooksey summarizes. - Sherri Deatherage Green.