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The Catholic Church: Sex and Public Relations

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In 2002, The Boston Globe published a searing series about criminal prosecution of Catholic priests for sexual abuse of minors. Two members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met with me and David Finn of the Ruder Finn public relation firm. We recommended the three cardinal rules of crisis management: tell the truth, get out all information, and do not attack the media. At our meeting, a bishop speculated that the issue may only be confined to a few dioceses and was not a problem in other countries. We recommended that they not trivialize or deny.

Five priests from the Archdiocese of Boston were convicted and jailed. Cardinal Law resigned, and settlements were estimated to be $100 million. The pedophilia scandal spread throughout the country, with widespread media coverage.

In 2002, Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, told The Washington Post that the scandal was media-driven and that the media were having a "hey-day." Since then, media critics include Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal and Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, both Catholic.

During the last month, the scandal has become bigger than ever before. In March, Bishop Walter Mixa of Germany was accused by five former pupils at a Catholic orphanage of beating them in the 1970s and 1980s. Bishop Mixa denied the charges and said that the socially sexual revolution was partly to blame in Germany and elsewhere.

On March 31, the Vatican defended Pope Benedict XVI and criticized the media, notably The New York Times, for coverage "deficient by any reasonable standards of fairness." PR rule number four: Avoid criticisms of the media.

On April 2, at a Good Friday service at the Vatican, Rev. Ranciero Cantalamessa compared the coverage of the sexual abuse scandals in many countries to the persecution of the Jews. Good Friday traditionally has been a sensitive day in Catholic-Jewish relations. Outrage about Rev. Cantalamessa's remarks came from Jews and Christians, including those who remembered that in January 2009 Pope Benedict had revoked the excommunication of a bishop who had denied the scope of the Holocaust.

On April 4, at Easter Sunday mass in the Vatican, Angelo Cardinal Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, prayed that people "do not let themselves be influenced by the petty gossip of the moment." The words were repeated around the world.

My brain has a Google that is alert to the word "gossip." The reason is that during last three years, I have been writing a book about gossip. Social scientists define gossip as spoken or written communication about the lives of other people that usually has a factual basis. So if by "gossip" Cardinal Sodano meant that the charges were idle talk or untrue, he was wrong. And certainly the gossip wasn't petty. Priests who are familiar with Latin should know that the origin of the word "gossip" is godsipp or godparent.

On April 12, during a visit to Chile, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of state of the Vatican, exacerbated the controversy by linking sexual abuse by priests to homosexuality. Of course, the remarks were widely condemned by gay rights groups and also government officials in Chile and France. Another rule: Be very careful with remarks about homosexuality.

On April 18, Pope Benedict traveled to Malta, where he met with abuse victims. According to a Vatican statement, he "assured them that the church is doing, and will continue to do, all in its power to investigate allegations, to bring to justice those responsible for abuse and to implement effective measures designed to safeguard young people in the future."

Progress.

More than one billion people are members of the Roman Catholic Church. The sex scandal probably will result in changes in the Church.

Richard Weiner, a public relations consultant, is the author of 23 books, including "Webster's New World Dictionary of Media and Communications."