If there is one thing on which even the most ardent Catholic Church supporters must agree, it is that its leaders have done an appalling job of handling the current child-abuse crisis. So it was disturbing to see a column appear in Newsday last week, authored by a former church PR exec, headlined "Diocese should tell truth, without PR spin."The article blasts the Diocese of Rockville Centre for hiring PR firm Rubenstein Associates, "one of the most high-powered (and high-priced) spin doctors in the world.
Says columnist Dick Ryan, who writes for the American Catholic, "It is obvious that (Bishop Murphy) is trying to manipulate, instead of communicate, in fixing the enormous credibility gap that now exists in the church because of the tidal wave of cover-ups, corruption, and deceit of a few cardinals and bishops."
Oddly, Ryan never explains why this is obvious. It's as if he thinks the very act of hiring a PR firm - particularly a high-powered one - indicates a desire to manipulate or spin. That is a common contention when groups hire PR firms, of course, but it's alarming for such a canard to be repeated by one who claims to have been a practitioner.
The fact is that the church needs professional PR counsel not because it needs help to dissemble - it has been doing that quite well on its own - but because it needs help telling the truth.
It is particularly telling that Ryan's column appeared just a few days after a prominent Catholic attorney advised that the church should not report abuse to the civil authorities, and after The Washington Post wrote that the church was adopting "an aggressive legal strategy." Clearly, we are dealing with an entity that has not yet grasped the importance of coming completely clean.
The role of PR people in such a situation is to argue that trust between the church and its constituents can only be established by greater openness and by very public recognition of its past failings. Rubenstein is surely counseling the diocese to reconnect with its members, to listen to their concerns, and to make sure its actions in this case speak as loud as its words.
Sometimes an outside firm - particularly a high-powered one - can make that argument more effectively than an organization's in-house PR staff, particularly when the in-house staff in question has proven so ineffective.
Ryan claims, "During the 35 years in which I handled PR in the Catholic Church ... the idea was simply to tell the story.
That would be laugh-out-loud funny if the truth were not so tragic. The church has been hiding the story, not telling it, for all those years and more.
If its in-house PR people were capable of persuading the church to tell the truth, candidly and without spin, we would have heard the truth years - perhaps even decades - ago.