CAMPAIGNS: Church tries to restore its public image - Crisis Management

Client: Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales
PR Team: In-house
Campaign: The Catholic Church and Paedophile Priests
Timescale: Ongoing from November
Budget: In-house costs

The Roman Catholic Church is the subject of an ongoing media onslaught over the worldwide scandal of paedophile priests.

While the issue has generated screaming headlines in the UK, US and Ireland, the Church had not successfully explained its position and had failed to quash accusations of secrecy and the payment of hush-money to victims.

For the Catholic Church in England and Wales the situation is all the more acute, given media claims surrounding the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.

Two year's ago, the BBC accused the Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, while Bishop of Arundel and Brighton in the 1980s, of covering up the activities of paedophile priest Michael Hill. Hill was jailed for five years in 1997 and freed on parole in 2000.

Last month, however, on 21 November, these accusations came back to haunt the Cardinal when Hill was sentenced again to five years, on further charges of indecent assault against three boys.

Faced with a media crisis, including calls for Murphy-O'Connor to resign, the PR team needed to present the Cardinal and the Catholic Church in a responsible light.


To ensure all information in the public domain was based on fact. There were problems with this as certain details from the Hill case, which dated back 20 years, were subject to the Data Protection Act.

Mindful of its moral obligations to abuse victims, the Church was keen to acknowledge its problems.

To be transparent with the media. To present its position to those who identify themselves as Catholic, and the approximately 6,000 Catholic priests in England and Wales.

Strategy and Plan

The first step was to establish a crisis committee, which included Catholic Communications Service director of comms Mark Morley, Bishops' Conference general secretary Andrew Summersgill and COPCA (Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and vulnerable Adults) chairman Archbishop Nichols.

Chaired by head of public affairs for the Cardinal's office at Archbishop's House Tim Livesey, this group met daily to respond to media claims and decide at what point Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor should talk to the media.

Central to dealings with journalists was communicating the Catholic Church's effort to establish procedures which protect children from paedophiles, as recommended by the Nolan report.

However, many of the harsher accusations, including allegations of further cover-ups by the Cardinal and claims of hush money payments for victims, emanated from the BBC and The Times.

In something of a knee-jerk reaction, on 21 November Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor wrote a letter to The Times apologising for the Hill affair, but attacking the media for a 'welter of accusation, allegation and innuendo'.

He also outlined that money paid to abuse victims by the Church was not a gag, but 'compensation' agreed between lawyers.

In a Newsnight interview last week Murphy-O'Connor admitted the Catholic Church in England and Wales had failed to show 'sufficient compassion' to child abuse victims.

This week, two priests were suspended in Murphy-O'Connor's own archdiocese amid claims of child abuse.

Measurement and Evaluation

The Catholic Communications Service has measured message delivery through its retained evaluation agency Media Monitoring.

However, according to Morley, it is the informal network of broadcast and print journalists that have proved really critical in this crisis: 'We've had day-to-day contact with all the major newsdesks and some of those have provided invaluable feed-back.'

Victims' groups, such as the Ministry and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors group, continue to claim the Cardinal has failed to show sufficient compassion.


Since the Michael Hill affair began in 2000, the Catholic Church has reviewed and revamped its communications.

Yet a general reticence from Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor on the issues marked his initial reaction. As PRWeek went to press, the Cardinal had only conducted one interview, on Newsnight, two weeks after the crisis began.

According to Morley this initial silence was not a sign of complacency: 'We want to make a sensible response. Timing is everything and we need to place the Cardinal in a responsible media vehicle.'

Some journalists have questioned the wisdom of writing to The Times. And it remains unclear whether this move was made independently or under the advice of the crisis committee.

This crisis is far from over. While working to ensure that mistakes made in the 1980s can never happen again, the Catholic Church is still seeking to shake off the perception that it is more interested in rescuing its own name than in showing compassion to its victims.

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