TERRY PRONE: Chance to confess and atone lost in Papal communication breakdown

I WOULD love to be communications advisor to the bishops.

Even better would be going over their mitres to become communications advisor to the Pope.

However, any chances I might have in either direction are going to be shot from under me by what you’re about to read.

The favourite prejudice about those in communications consultancy is that they’re in the business of gilding the lily, polishing the putrid, confusing the innocent and finding carpets under which to sweep any inconvenient truth.

In fact, any good communications consultant starts by looking, not at the communication, but at who must be reached or persuaded by it. If the Vatican or the bishops had started there, the end result of last week’s encounter would have been measurably better than it was.

The right questions would have been asked in advance of the meeting. Starting with the gear; the wardrobe; and the outward and visible manifestation of role.

Of course bishops visiting the Pope in the normal course of events would wear the full regalia. But this wasn’t the normal course of events. This was a visit consequent upon a scandal of unprecedented scale and damage within the Irish Church.

This was a visit happening at a time when the eyes of the world were on the Irish bishops. This was an audience occurring when confession, contrition and a firm purpose of amendment were what the bishops needed to display.

It should be clearly stated at this point that not all of the Irish bishops were directly or even indirectly implicated in clerical child sex abuse. Some of them, back when cover-ups happened, were in no position to know or do anything about them, and sticking guilt-by-association on those men is neither fair nor fruitful. But all of them are currently at the top of an organisation which didn’t protect children but did protect the individuals who mauled those children.

All of which presented the Vatican and the Irish bishops with a golden opportunity to do what the Catholic Church has always stressed as fundamental to its code: to confess, to express repentance and to promise to atone. The Papacy has a long history of demanding all three from sinners, and making sure that the repentance was choreographed with memorable symbolism.

The outstanding historical example was when Roman Emperor Henry IV crossed swords with the Pope in 1076, was excommunicated, saw the error of his ways and traversed the Alps barefoot in January to express his penitence at Canossa. The Pope left him outside in the snow for three days. When he was finally let indoors, the emperor was wearing a hair shirt, the traditional garb of the seriously remorseful.

Nobody expected bare feet and hair shirts last week, but less regal garb than was worn might not have led to so many pictures delivering precisely the wrong message, not just to the sceptical but to the faithful.

The serried ranks of senior churchmen lined up with His Holiness in their cassocks and red cummerbunds may have been respectful to the Papacy, but looked weirdly reminiscent of the Orange Order, sans fifes and drums.

They needed to be told that in advance, just as they needed to be told that a photograph of Bishop of Galway Martin Drennan kissing the Pope’s ring was going to cause a raft of negative comment. Of course the bishop should kiss the Pope’s ring, if that’s the tradition he upholds. But the obeisance didn’t have to become part of the outgoing message. It could have been private. Any good consultant would have pointed out that people who will never read the small print of an official statement will pay attention to and develop attitudes to pictures.

No doubt the clerical PR people present raised the issue. But when you’re inside the tent, wearing the uniform, depending on the men you advise for promotion, steeped in the same beliefs, traditions and hierarchical thinking as those you advise, it’s difficult to do the blunt “Whoa, get a grip” intervention which in this case was needed.

Having posed for the photographers, the Irish bishops then got down to business. This involved the Pope telling them to be unified in their response to child abuse. That statement too needed to be interrogated before it was released for public consumption, since it lacked precision.

His Holiness didn’t make it clear if he wanted the rest of the bishops to row in with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s search- and-destroy approach or if he wanted Diarmuid Martin to back off that approach and row in with the rest of them.

If His Holiness wanted them unified, then he might have suggested that the Archbishop of Dublin take a later flight back to Dublin in order to demonstrate the new unity he sought in the press conference following the meeting. Instead, he was noticeably missing and all the reasonable explanations in the world couldn’t counter the impression left by his absence.

The statement issued after the meeting compounded the problem. It failed to apologise to victims or indicate that the Pope would meet them. Those who understand Papal thinking excused the first on the grounds that the Pope had already apologised to Irish adults abused by priests as children. An external communications consultant would have had the cop-on and the courage to tell him that a once-off apology would not and will not serve.

THE reality of victim-hood in Ireland in this context means that media would immediately take the Papal statement to be reacted to by the most prominent of the victims, and that their reactions would create not just the headlines on the next day’s papers, but the lens through which the faithful would come to terms with the story.

Their reactions were predictable and preventable. Any external advisor cognisant of Irish media coverage would have forced the Vatican and the bishops to keep the victims’ needs at the heart of any statement.

Because that didn’t happen, Diarmuid Martin ended up explaining to victims and to the public that the Pope had already met victims groups in other countries (like they cared) but tended to do it in private without fanfare (which was precisely what Irish victims don’t want).

The Archbishop of Dublin met victims when he came back, faithfully reported the outcomes of the Vatican meeting and was immediately told that the victims now regard him as having backed off from commitments he had made to them in advance of that meeting. Directly after that, and directly before two other bishops issued damage-limitation letters yesterday, a cardinal reputedly close to the Pope publicly told the Irish bishops that their priority now was the formation of priests.

They might have thought that their priority was child protection or learning from victims or renewing the faith of the battered faithful, but no. The care and training of a tiny and steadily diminishing number of potential members of the officer class is what matters, according to the cardinal.

At this point, the hierarchy need a topnotch external communications advisor. Not for the delivery of spin. Their predicament is much too serious for spin.


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