Church’s Pr Strategy: Deny, Duck, Dodge and Distance Yourself, by SNAP
Hamilton and Griffin on Rights
April 6, 2016
I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I can’t help it: Sometimes, I feel sorry for the public relations professionals who advise church officials on how to deal with clergy sex crimes and cover ups.
How do you defend the indefensible? You may be the smartest PR person in town. But how do you “spin” widely-documented and clearly devastating decades of deliberate deceit? Decades of callousness and recklessness that have caused horrific harm to more than 100,000 children (according to estimates by Catholic “experts” themselves)?
Well, these PR folks have settled on a standard formula they’re convinced works. It can be summed up as “Deny, duck, dodge and distance yourself.”
And it’s pretty clearly that church officials LOVE this approach.
It’s evident in how quickly bishops shout “He’s not our guy!” when a Franciscan or Marianist is caught molesting in their diocese. It’s evident in how quickly Jesuit staff say “He’s not one of us!” when a diocesan priest is arrested for abusing a child at a Jesuit facility.
It’s evident in how often bishops point out how long ago abuse reportedly happened.
And it’s getting more and more evident as Catholic officials get increasingly more creative about splitting hairs about child molesting clerics.
–Last month, for instance, Austin Bishop Joe S. Vasquez was sued because of repeated child sex crimes by Fr. Milton “Milty” Eggerling, who worked in six states (TX, SD, ND, MN, CA, MA and Peru).
Bishop Vasquez, through his PR man, Christian Gonzalez, claims Fr. Eggerling “worked for the state of Texas” and (according to the Austin American Statesman) “didn’t work for the Austin Diocese.”
That’s plain and simple deceit, as victims’ attorney Tahira Merritt pointed out. A Catholic bishop is responsible for the safety of his flock, period. That’s according to church law, custom and practice. A single cleric who wants to work in the Austin diocese must get the approval of the Austin bishop.
Even if he was a chaplain at a state hospital or prison, Fr. Eggerling almost certainly was also getting paid by Austin church officials.
–Days ago, Springfield Massachusetts Bishop Mitchell Rozanski – through his PR man Mark DuPont – “made a point to note that (the accused, Fr. Paul Archambault) knew the victim and his family long before the priest was ordained.”
Huh? What possible benefit comes from disclosing this information. . . except if Rozanski wants to suggest “Don’t blame us for this. The perp knew the kid long ago. It’s not our fault.”
(Of course, the more a bishop reveals about an abuse victim, the more frightened other victims become and the less likely they are to report their perpetrator, which almost guarantees that more children are assaulted.)
–Bishops in Missouri, New Mexico, Connecticut, Maryland and elsewhere let church-run centers operate in their dioceses and house proven, admitted and credibly accused predator priests.
But when one of these predators acts irresponsibly, the local bishop pretends to be powerless. For example, then-Davenport Bishop William Franklin sent Fr. William Wiebler, a credibly accused serial child predator, to Vianney Renewal Center in Missouri. Months later, Fr. Wiebler reportedly walked away from the center and got an apartment near an elementary school. He sat on his front porch and offered candy to kids walking by. Yet then-Archbishop Raymond Burke refused to do anything to warn anyone about Fr. Wiebler.
Bishops don’t just distance themselves from the individual predators. They distance themselves from the entire crisis. Hundreds of times, we’ve seen Catholic officials call it “a deluge” or a “tsunami.”
Pope Benedict, for instance, compared the crisis to a volcano.
Of course, it’s not a volcano, deluge or tsunami. These analogies are flawed because they imply that church staff are passive victims of forces beyond their control when, in fact, this crisis is caused by church staff themselves.
Sexual violence and hiding that violence are not inexplicable, unpredictable acts of God or nature. They are the clear and direct and predictable results of repeated decisions by bishops – careful, deliberate, reckless and callous decisions – to put their comfort and careers at the top of their priority list and put the safety of kids and healing of victims at or near the bottom.
The most recent example of this type of generic distancing came last month, again thanks to Springfield Bishop Rozanski. He called the crisis a “terrible plague upon our church.” Notice that in his view, the church is the real victim – this “plague” isn’t visited on little boys and girls, or their once trusting and devout families, but “upon the church.”
Often, bishops’ efforts to distance themselves from predator priests morphs into subtle victim-blaming.
Rozanski and Dupont also revealed that “In 2007, (Fr. Archambault) was spotted in public at a Vermont spiritual setting massaging the victim’s neck and back. At least one parent (of the victim) was present when this incident was observed.”
Ask yourself “What possible benefit could come to anyone from this disclosure – that a victim’s parent was supposedly in the room or on the grounds when a priest massaged a child’s neck and back?” Again, more distancing. And victim-blaming.
It’s in the actual courts too, not just “the court of public opinion,” where church officials distance themselves.
In Missouri, Catholic bishops have repeatedly denied victims justice by relying on what’s called the “premises” argument – the claim that because the actual crimes did not take place on church property, church officials can’t be held responsible.
This “distancing” tendency goes right to the top. The third highest-ranking Catholic official on earth is Cardinal George Pell of Australia. Just last year, he shamelessly tried to distance himself and his complicit colleagues from mean-spirited and selfish legal tactics by blaming attorneys: “Whatever position was taken by the lawyers during the litigation, or by lawyers or individuals within the archdiocese following the litigation. . .”
That’s of course deceitful. The lawyers didn’t make these decisions to attack victims in court. Callous church officials like Pell did.
Ready for some comic relief at this point? Pell’s not the only prelate to distance himself from his lawyers. Consider a case from Oregon.
A priest was hauled into court because he wasn’t paying child support to Stephanie Collopy, the mother of his child. The cleric’s supervisor, through church lawyers, argued that Catholic officials owed nothing to the mom or child for several reasons. Among them: the woman should have used birth control which, of course, violates Catholic doctrine.
Here’s the twist: the church official who made this claim – that mom should have used birth control – was later put in charge of enforcing church doctrine worldwide. He’s Cardinal William Levada, who retired years later from his post as the highest Ranking US prelate at the Vatican and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
But long time Portland archdiocesan PR man Bud Bunce rode to the rescue, expressing “doubts that Levada was closely involved,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
“We understand that the attorney handling the case did not speak with Archbishop Levada on this issue,” Bunce claimed.
The strategy of “Deny, duck, dodge and distance yourself” often works for bishops. But sometimes, it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, the irony is sometimes rich.