Kudos: Media Finally Reports That Catholic Church Has a PR Problem With Sex Abuse

Mitchell Landsberg Los Angeles Times

Kudos: The Los Angeles Times' Mitchell Landsberg

While covering the recent bishops' spring conference in Atlanta, a lot of reporters simply saw an opportunity to phone it in and rehash the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church to advance a political agenda.

The Los Angeles Times' Mitchell Landsberg, however, reported a story that has needed to be told for a long time: When it comes to sex abuse and the Catholic Church, the bishops have a serious public relations problem.

Landsberg reported from the conference:

On Thursday, the bishops said they've had enough. It is time, they said, to beef up their public relations arsenal.

"We need more help and sophistication in our messaging," said Boston's Cardinal Séan O'Malley …

[He] observed ruefully that when John Jay College released a landmark study last year of the causes and handling of the church's sex-abuse crisis, it "should have been a good moment for the church, and yet it was another black eye."

Indeed, while a mere seven Catholic priests were even "credibly accused" of contemporaneously abusing a minor in all of 2011, much of the the public still has the false impression that abuse is still rampant in the Church today – thanks largely to poor journalism and media hysteria.

In addition, with annual audits, diocesan review boards, abuse awareness trainings, and intensifies screening processes, the Catholic Church has implemented measures that are unsurpassed anywhere – making the Catholic Church the safest environment for children today.

But is the public aware of all of this?

How will the bishops respond to their need to inform people? Hire a national spokesperson? Implement a "social network" of bishops?

At least the first step has been made: The problem has been acknowledged, and now it is time for the bishops to improve their public relations.

Kudos to the Times' Landsberg for reporting it.


  1. Julie says:

    Finally a reporter who isn't a biased, useful idiot, like Laurie Goodstein is.

  2. Recovered cathlick says:

    Seriously? They need a PR campaign? About the balls to assist the victims who come forward? Jeesh. A PR campaign only furthers their own agenda, keeps the sheeple believing there is no problem and intimidates victims to not come forward.

    • Charlene says:

      Are victims content to remain being victims?  You mean the milliions of dollars the "victims" are rolling around in hasn't removed them from the status of being "victims"?  Gee, I would have thought they want to get over being "victims" unless they think there is some more money to be gotten from the Catholic Church.  As long as SNAP or VOTF are their advisors, they will remain "victims."  However, less and less support is coming their way.  
      Yes, the bishops do need help in a PR campaign to show what the Church has done and continues to do to protect children.  How about a bit of support for wrongly imprisoned priests such as Fr. Gordon J. MacRae whose innocense is about to be proven? How about showing some piety for the priests who have been tossed out of their parishes solely on the word of an individual (s) seeking money? The bishops have got to realize that money has been at the root of the Church's problem.  Public schools, Jewish rabbis, coaches,etc. are constantly being accused, but they don't make the news.  Why? They don't have the deep pockets that the Catholic Church has.  Plus, the bishops don't ask for proof.  The attorneys for "victims" have become millionaires because the bishops just pay them and hope they'll go away. I wonder when the bishops will realize that their haste to pay without demanding proof of a crime is the reason people are coming out of the woodwork.  And they will continue to do so until the bishops call a halt to such nonsense!
      It's time for one bishop to stand up and tell the others, "It's time to stop handing out money like it's candy! We need to stop throwing our priests out,  and at least be present to the guilty as well as the innocent ones. We will never know who is innocent if we continue to treat them all as guilty.  An accusation does not mean automatic guilt, and we bishops have got to recognize that as a start!"
      When will we hear those words??

  3. Publion says:

    The bishops most certainly do need a PR campaign.
    Think of Audi 30-plus years ago: they had a fine product, but it had some difficulties when put on the American market (the pedals and controls were small and tight, designed for Europeans used to driving a ‘grand touring sedan’) and there were some odd accidents. The media played it up as a defective ‘death vehicle’ although the car had no such problems in Europe. Alterations were made to the vehicle to make it more compatible with American drivers (and the brand has gone on to a very respectable career over here).
    But it was still a matter of PR to get the car competitive again. Given the highly skewed and very selective and often inaccurate media coverage, public opinion had been turned by the ‘reporting’ about the car and the incidents involving it.
    There are two uses of ‘PR’: one is old-fashioned ‘advertising’, where you bring your product to the attention of possible buyers. If it’s good, fine; if it had problems and was fixed, then you want to demonstrate its capabilities in its reworked form.
    The second use is to keep people buying what you know is a deficient product. To do this you have to use PR manipulatively and dishonestly, in order to fool the public.
    From everything we know about the Church before 2002 there was indeed some – I emphasize ‘some’ – level of repair necessary. From every reliable study we have since then, and clearly in an increasing arc of improvement steadily maintained throughout this past 10 year period, the Church has made the necessary repairs. (Let’s not even get into the fact that the vast majority of allegations have not ever involved rape, of adults or of children.)
    So if the bishops have been advised that they now – at this juncture – need some serious PR work, then I could see what is meant by that: they need some of the Audi-type PR. But they precisely do not need to – and I doubt they are trying to start up – the second type of PR program.
    I will go further: their ‘competitors’ – those who want to see the Church cease all operations in this country – have for many years been pushing the type of PR that emphasizes the defects of the product, and – I  think it is very fair to say – have twisted and exaggerated at every opportunity to keep that ‘vision’ before the public. In this they have been aided and abetted by significant portions of the media which, for whatever reasons, have widely amplified this scheme.
    The type of ploys that have been used to achieve this are clear to any reader of the comments-section of this site (or, if you have gone to it, the Philadelphia trial site), where the comments that appear against the Church cover an almost text-book list of claims, objections, assertions and even fantasies.
    And I’ll follow up on that thought in a comment I’ll put up very shortly.

  4. Julie says:

    "Recovered Cathlick," Even though your comment is wrong and illogical, you do have the right to speak your mind. :)

  5. Publion says:

    As I said in my prior comment here, you have only to look at the negative comments that appear here or on – say – the Philadelphia trial site, or for that matter the NCR site – to see examples of the menu of strategies devised and deployed to keep the Church being seen in a grossly negative light.
    Let me use some of the ones I’ve noticed during the course of my reading on these sites, to make some typical ‘come-backs’ to my own comment above. I will put the hypothetical objections in quotation marks and then make my own response immediately after, without quotation marks.
    First: ‘Sexual-abuse is not an automobile so this is an irrelevant and/or minimizing example.’ But what I am trying to get at is the dynamic of how a ‘narrative’ is framed or spun.
    Second: ‘There has been the same type of trouble for the Church in Europe so your example just goes to prove our point.’ But I would say that what we are now seeing in Europe is just a replay of what we have already seen in this country: allegations – most often for acts claimed to have been committed decades ago, where the priest involved is often deceased – made, with some real expectation of significant financial gain, and given the current accuser-friendly state of laws (at least when it comes to allegations against the Church) a real expectation that for civil cases very little ‘evidence’ will be required and very little investigation will be done. (In this regard, I note that in the Philadelphia criminal trial, the prosecution went to very great and public lengths to discover any other possible ‘victim’ of one of the priest-defendants, and yet no other such ‘victim’ could be located after extensive and highly-publicized search by the State and police.)
    Third: ‘Everybody knows that priests rape and that there have been thousands or hundreds of thousands of rapes by priests.’ But when we look at all the available public records and allegations, few involve rape and there have been increasingly fewer made in the past decade, since the reforms were instituted. So I would say that Everybody doesn’t really know much about the real state of affairs at all.
    Fourth: ‘There have been huge numbers of unreported rapes because the victims are afraid to come forward because it’s embarrassing.’ But the presumption that there have been huge numbers of unreported-rapes is baseless, derived from simply imagining such huge numbers. And if claimants making allegations might have been embarrassed twenty or more years ago, that is surely not the case now, after many years of claimant-friendly publicity and ‘valorization’ (they are ‘courageous heroes’). And I ask whether it takes more ‘courage’ to admit you are an alcoholic or that you were ‘raped’ – at least in the latter instance, you were not to blame whereas the alcoholic or drug addict has to admit that s/he is to some extent actively responsible for his/her condition and situation.
    Fifth: ‘The Church is so powerful that it has managed to squash criminal process and keep itself from being involved with the legal system.’ But that clearly is not true: in civil cases, the Church itself took the (to me, highly ill-advised) path of caving in to large-group civil settlements. And in criminal cases, some very very high-profile cases have been brought (including the Philadelphia case, still at bar).
    Sixth: ‘Everybody who has been involved in prosecuting the Church has been gutless, incompetent, or somehow ‘reached’ – including police, prosecutors, judges, juries, and parents.’ This is a variation of the last-ditch defense of the Iraq War: it was a great concept but was poorly executed and we should blame those who implemented it, not the idea itself. You can see it now over on the Philadelphia site where – since that highly-fraught case is now running into serious overtime due to a clearly dubious jury – commenters have already begun blaming just about everybody involved (who at the outset of the trial were the heroic prosecutors and heroic victims and so on and so forth).
    Seventh: ‘Facts and trials don’t make any difference – everybody knows how rotten and pedophile the Church is and always has been.’ Once again, this is a variant of the Everybody-knows attack. Even the Philadelphia trial judge got herself enmeshed in it by making a public statement to that effect before the trial proper began.
    Eighth: ‘We should ignore distracting stuff about the law and just believe-the-victims and their stories, because those stories are so horrific that they have to be true.’ This is a variation of the assertions made by prosecutors and advocates in the old Satanic Ritual Child Abuse Day-Care trials of the early 1980s: forget what your mind tells you and just Believe The Children. Those trials all collapsed as children testified to dragons and fantastic creatures and  huge complexes of underground tunnels and rooms under day-care centers where pedophile teachers and care-providers conducted sex-rituals. (Some jurisdictions actually started excavating beneath day-care centers looking for those tunnel-complexes and rooms.)
    Ninth: ‘If evidence is getting in the way of justice for these horrific acts, then obviously any concern for evidence is just a way of defending pedophiles.’ I cannot begin to plumb the depths of the active threat to any constitutional rule of law that such a belief poses. The consequences of insisting To Heck With Evidence are stupefyingly profound to any system of Western justice and actually constitute a monstrous regression to the law – such as it was – of the Dark Ages
    Tenth: ‘You are obviously a [fill in the blank].’ This one needs little discussion. The only variable in this approach is the conclusion that the commenter will draw: either a) “and God will be vicious to you” (somebody actually wrote that) or b) ‘your delusion is so sad’.
    Well, that’s just a quick list off the top of my head. But in support of my thoughts I invite any reader to go over the comments on any of the sites I mentioned. And feel free to add other such types as may occur to you.

  6. Kay4Justice says:

    The Catholic church has a problem with sex abuse.  Yes, that they do.  The problem is that priest and nun predators committed crimes against children and eventually got caught.  Then their superiors either re-victimized the victims with intimidation or tried to buy them off, all while denying that they had/have a problem.  Leadership in this cult does not know the meaning of the words truth and/or justice.  The only PR they need is to come forward, admit to what they have done (which is no mystery), spend some time in jail for the laws they have broken and start over.  That's not going to happen.  Better to walk away and not risk even one more child.

  7. davince says:

    Oh poor bishops. They brought this trouble down upon themselves by their gross failure to stop criminals who sexually abused children. The trials are still goin on around the world. It is not an American problem, as first publicized by the Vatican. It is not an Irish problem as it then became the domain of  English speaking countries, which included Canada, United States, Ireland and Australia. It is a global problem that encompasses over 40 countries around the world.
    If any corporation had this problem they would have been branded and international supporter of child abuse. No PR country in the world is going to fix what the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has done to protect criminals, move them and keep them from justice.
    If they would have acted like normal human beings and called the police, there wouldn't be a clergy sex abuse scandal.

  8. Vern says:

    Great post. 
    Now it's the bishops turn.

  9. Publion says:

    In regard to this bit about 'if only the bishops had called the police': this has now become one of the comebacks to be added to  my list above.
    But it's part of the Correct dogma that nobody anywhere paid attention to this type of claim until victim-advocacies started their agitation. So there's a question as to just what might – and might not – have happened if the bishops 'called the police'. Or if the parents or anybody else called the police.
    Also, since anybody can now 'call the police', then shouldn't we be seeing a huge uptick in calls to the police? And yet by all extant numbers we are seeing exactly the opposite.
    And even when cases are brought – and there have been comparatively very few – the cases demonstrate all the difficulties of such sex-abuse type cases: there is an evidence problem and in the case of claimants and accusers a credibility problem. Look at the current Philadelphia case on that site and read through the reporter's daily analyses, especially the recent ones now that the jury appears unable to reach a decision in this hugely-publicized trial.
    I think folks should spend more time looking at what's happening in the actual trials and not on the horror stories – and until they are proven they are just that, 'stories' – that fill the minds of many commenters.

  10. Pat says:

    Thank God someone sees that the bishops have a PR problem.

  11. Ronnie B. says:

    If the Church would not have paid people without an accused priest being found guilty first, the damage would have been far less. Whether those payments were made to sweep the problem under the rug, or if they were made in the spirit of compassion, to spare a victim further trauma by not forcing them to prove in open court , their claims, who can say? No matter, the strategy backfired.

  12. Fitasafiddle says:

    It is not a PR problem that these bishops have. It is a Conscience problem. They don't have any. All the PR in the world won't change that.
    I find it comical some of the comments here condeming SNAP.   Without the success of SNAP, the pedophile priests, too many to count, and their cowardly enabling bishops, too many to count, would still be having a heyday with our children and our money. No one can make a priest out of a pedophile, not the "onotologically" changed ecclestiastics, not even the pope himself.  And no one can make a priest out of a pedophile enabling bishop. The real question is this: What are these roman collared men who are either pedophile priests and bishops or their enablers, doing on altars?
    And how does roman catholic ritual written by and performed by pedophiles and their enablers affect the innocent of the earth?
    Just wondering.

    • kmc says:

      The good news is that they are " willing to admit " a need for a new PR strategy.  If you or your organization had ever been under constant attack you may get caught in a rut of "only" defending and apologizing.  This admission is a sign of humility and strength.
       Hopefully, the new media professional from Fox @ the Vatican will work out.  It would not be easy to balance the two simultaneous  tasks of continuing to offer healing and compassion for abuse victims, and, maintaining a positive momentum for a better future.