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Saturday 20 July 2019

Neither Vatican nor bishops have a clue about PR

The most articulate of the passionate representatives of victims of clerical child sex abuse, Amnesty's Colm O'Gorman, has described the visit of the Irish bishops to the Vatican as a cynical PR exercise.

He's wrong. It's much more serious. It's a massive misunderstanding. Neither the Vatican nor the bishops have a clue when it comes to public relations. If they were setting out to damp down the continuing controversy, they clearly did not succeed.

If that was their objective, they could have taken any one of a number of cynical PR actions. They could, for example, have prevented photographers snapping shots of Bishop Drennan kissing the Pope's ring. That photograph immediately generated acres of negative coverage about the body language of the two men.

They could have ensured that the Pope spent some time before the meeting with some survivors of this kind of abuse. But that didn't happen, either.

They could have ensured that the statement which went out, post-meeting, opened with a heartfelt apology to each and every victim. Instead, the statement carried no apology, and was interpreted as inward-looking; the system looking at the system, not at the people brutalised by the system.

If they were trying to do cynical PR, then this episode definitively proves that they're not good at it. Every aspect of the encounter left trailing wires, including the Pontiff's observation that abuse was linked to loss of faith.

Casual observers stopped when they read that bit of the statement and wondered aloud what faith had to do with it, given that the institutional abuse of children, handed over by the state to orphanages and industrial schools, happened in the main at a time when faith in Ireland was universal and unquestioning. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin tried, yesterday, to tie off some of the trailing wires left by the failed initial communication around the visit. He re-interpreted what the Pope had said into a question about the faith of the priests who had committed heinous crimes against children and suggested that the point the Pope was really making was about the formation and training of these men.

Those preparing them in their student days should have been equipped to detect the real reason they wanted to become priests.

The archbishop's re-interpretation made some sense. But good communication is understood first time around, and so the immediate temptation is to question the PR expertise that went into the crafting of the original statement. But the statement emerged from a series of misunderstandings.

The first misunderstanding is that once you've apologised, that's it. You don't have to do it again.

His Holiness had clearly apologised to Irish clerical child sex abuse victims earlier, so it wouldn't have struck those crafting the statement to reiterate that apology. Bad mistake. But, more to the point, a mistake arising from a misunderstanding.

Most injuries heal. The pain goes away. The scar tissue forms. Life goes on. The hurt becomes a memory rather than an ever-present outrage.

It's not like that with child abuse. It's becoming clear that adults subjected to this kind of abuse, repeatedly, during childhood end up with a bottomless pit of pain and need. One apology simply will not serve.

Another misunderstanding was touched on by Archbishop Martin when he said that the Pope has met many victims of child abuse from other countries, but has always done it discreetly, privately and without advance publicity. Makes sense from the Pope's point of view. Not from the point of view of the victims.

The biggest disconnect between the officer class of the Church and the victims is about timing. The hierarchy deal with the present and future and they do it in a context of eternity. The victims deal with the past.

So it wasn't a cynical PR exercise. But it was a communication that comprehensively failed.

And if the Church is to succeed in its long-term objectives, it must radically improve its management of how it is seen and heard.

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