Does Pope Benedict need a PR firm in the U.S? Just as important, would a major international PR firm work for the Pope, who is knee-deep in the sex abuse scandal that is rocking Europe and the U.S.? Maybe. Maybe not
This blogger remembers the beating that Hill & Knowlton received during the 1990s when it took on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and that group’s campaign against abortion. It wasn’t a pretty sight. The PR campaign triggered a revolt led by female staffers that rocked H&K’s New York office. That representation, combined with H&K’s work on behalf of Citizens for a Free Kuwait—the phony group of rich exiled Kuwaitis who agitated for war against Saddam Hussein paving the way for the Persian Gulf War—led to some lean years at H&K.
Today’s bishops are in dire need of PR help. “Exhibit A” is the letter released by the Conference yesterday, praising Benedict for “leadership in dealing with the sin and crime of child sexual abuse.” The bishops claim to “know from our experience how Pope Benedict is deeply concerned for those who have been harmed by sexual abuse.” The letter’s “trust us” tone just doesn’t cut it. In fact, it insults. The proverbial “people in the pews” have no idea of the leadership that the bishops attribute to Benedict. That is where a small and agile crisis PR firm could earn its keep.
The U.S. Church is already being devastated by changing demographics that are forcing the shutdown of churches and schools throughout the nation. My Brooklyn diocese, which shuttered schools a few years back, is in the midst of another round of consolidation. Churches are the main target in this go-around. Sunday sermons and weekly bulletins desperately beg people to register as a member of their individual parish so it is deemed viable by Bishop Nicolas DiMarzio and his bean-counters. The last thing the Church needs is for parents to think twice about enrolling their kids in Catholic schools or participating in parish activities because of the specter of abuse.
A crisis PR firm, of course, is not going to end the Church’s woes. Action is required. Bishops must be held accountable and punished for moving abusive priests from parish to parish as if they were pieces on a clerical chess board. Imagine the reputational boost for the Church if 20 or 30 bishops in the 200-member Conference were forced to resign. Legal charges should be pursued against suspected molester priests.
A Kentucky court probing sexual abuse may request an appearance by Benedict. As head of a sovereign state recognized by the U.S., there is no way the Vatican is going to allow Benedict to be hauled before a court. Papal underlings however are fair game, and could be deposed as part of the discovery process. The Associated Press reports the Vatican’s legal team is spearheaded by the “reclusive” Jeffrey Lena. That’s very bad news. Secrecy is part of the reason the Church is in such a mess. Its image comeback may be led by a crisis PR firm working the Bluegrass State of all places.