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The Pope's PR Problem

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"The Papacy is not other than the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof." -- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

The problem lies with the Vatican's public relations office. The Pope was doing fine until the buck, as it were, landed in his collection plate.

On October 28, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI was in Ireland and had occasion to address the sex abuse scandal that had engulfed the Church in that country. He asked the Bishops of Ireland to come to terms with and explain the cause of the sexual abuse.

In April 2008 he visited the United States and met with a small group of people who had been sexually abused as children by members of the clergy. In one of his homilies while visiting, he said, "No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse."

In July 2008 he visited Australia. Speaking at a mass attended by seminarians and bishops, the Pope acknowledged the "shame that we have all felt as a result of the sexual abuse of minors by some clergy" in Australia. He said, "Those responsible for these evils must be brought to justice."

He returned to the Irish problem in November 2009 when the Murphy Report, which examined more than 300 abuse claims in the Archdiocese of Dublin between 1975 and 2004, was released. (The Murphy after whom it was named was not the same Murphy who, we learned in March 2010, abused more than 200 deaf children in Wisconsin.) The Murphy report said that instead of being concerned for the victims of abuse, the Church was more concerned about "the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church and the preservation of its assets." Responding to the report the Pope said he shared the "outrage, betrayal and shame felt by the faithful in Ireland." He promised to write a pastoral letter addressing the issue.

The pastoral letter was slow in coming. That's probably because a pastoral letter is not the kind of letter you sit down and write when you are having trouble sleeping. It took the Pope almost four months to figure out exactly what to say to the Irish faithful. In the final letter he said:

"I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them. ... For my part, considering the gravity of these offences, and the often inadequate response to them ... I have decided to write this Pastoral Letter to express my closeness to you and to propose a path of healing, renewal and reparation."

The pastoral letter was coincidentally sent on March 19, 2010, at almost the same time as new tales of sexual abuse of children poured forth from Germany, Wisconsin, the Netherlands, and France. Those occurrences took place under Benedict's closed, if not blind, eye while he served in 1980 as archbishop of Munich and Freising and later as leader of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Many think that in both of those capacities, he knew or should have known what was going on.

The compassion button has now been turned off and the PR people appear to have gone on holiday as the Vatican responds to these allegations. Since these acts occurred on his watch, Benedict cannot write yet another pastoral letter expressing "outrage, betrayal and shame felt by the faithful," because he would probably have to acknowledge responsibility as well. It is also good that he did not ask the Irish bishops, who similarly overlooked such conduct, to resign (as some had expected he would), because had he done so, that standard could have been applied to him the same demand might now be made of him.

Statements of contrition and shame have been replaced with attacks on the press. Stretching reason beyond the breaking point, Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, said in his Good Friday sermon that the press' criticism of the Catholic Church's behavior in the sex abuse scandal can be likened to the collective violence to which the Jews were subjected during the Holocaust. Although his sermon was disavowed by some, the attacks on the press continue. The days of papal apologies and expressions of contrition and shame have come and gone. The shoe being on the papal foot, the Church now lays blame on the reporters -- not on the perpetrators and those who overlooked their transgressions. Of such stuff is moral courage made.

Christopher Brauchli can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu. For political commentary, see his web page at humanraceandothersports.com.