|If Only the Catholic Church Did Pr
By Ann Widdecombe
September 7, 2010
Alastair Campbell once famously said that the Blair government did not do God. Equally true, but perhaps less generally recognised, is that the church does not do PR. If only it did then much of the controversy around the papal visit would fade into insignificance. But unfortunately for the modern media, there are some quite specific divine injunctions forbidding it.
The notorious Foreign Office memorandum mocking the visit suggested the pope should open an Aids clinic. "Don't they realise the church runs more Aids clinics across the world than any single nation?" wailed one prominent Catholic when I met him by chance.
"Does it?" I answered.
That simple exchange demonstrates the difference between the church and the secular world. The Vatican does not publish endless reports of the church's work, accompanied by boastful advertising hoardings and party political broadcasts. It doesn't even make a fuss when its missionaries and aid workers die in the cause.
Indeed, when I wanted facts and figures on the church's overseas aid for a debate, I had to search hard. Christ said, "do not your good deeds to be seen before men", so the church dutifully hides them or at least refrains from ostentatiously displaying them. The same applies to its rescuing thousands of Jews during the second world war (many of them hid in the pope's own summer residence).
One of the biggest propaganda coups against the Catholic church in recent years has been to portray it as riddled with paedophiles whose vile activities it has sought to cover up. Apart from the occasional defensive flash when a senior churchman is wrongly accused of inaction, the church has merely apologised and asked for forgiveness.
Well, so it should. One child abused would be one too many; but it is frustrating that the church does so little to put its role in proportion. Meek and mild may be good, but leaving the ordinary members of the flock bleating in bewilderment as the wolves of Fleet Street snarl around them, jaws foaming with allegations, is not so good.
After all the dust had settled in America, 98% of priests were untouched by allegations, let alone convictions. We do not yet know the final figures for Ireland but what we do know is that there is nothing unique to the Catholic church about child abuse. Teachers, care home workers and scout masters are just a few other examples, while the biggest category of abuse is, horrifically, within families. The church of course would never seek to compare its own sins with those of others, so this point is never made.
The same applies to the allegations of cover-ups. In the 1970s the National Council of Civil Liberties, an eminently respectable body staffed by eminently respectable people like Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman, actually allowed affiliation with the Paedophile Information Exchange, so little was the nature of paedophilia understood.
Cases were often dealt with by magistrates and sentences could be light. In the 1980s I was doing Samaritan training and, far from reporting cases, we treated child abuse no less confidentially than any other crime. It was the mid 1990s before we had a sex offenders' register in this country. Why would the Catholic church be expected to know what the rest of the world did not?
However, there is no explanation for the church's feeble response to the allegation that the pope had said ordaining a woman is as bad as abusing a child. Everybody understands the categorisation of offences in America into misdemeanours and felonies. The church does the same with sin and grave sin. Just as the inclusion of burglary and murder in felonies does not imply an equivalence of seriousness, so the inclusion of female ordination and child abuse in grave sin does not imply equivalence. Wakey, wakey.
So, yes, this visit will be controversial and many of the allegations will go unchallenged. For those of us who do both God and PR, that will be as frustrating as it is heartbreaking.
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