Friday, April 09, 2010

The ministry of communications

Normally you don't have to look very far to find examples of people who don't communicate very well. Or worse, seem to have no clue how their public statements will be taken by people. But frankly, I expected much better lately from Pope Benedict and the Vatican.

First of all, I am no Pope-basher. I am, in fact, a devout Catholic who grew up wanting to become a priest, albeit open-minded enough to respect everyone's faith and support things like gay rights. And it is from exactly this position as both a Catholic and a communications skills expert that I find myself increasingly gritting my teeth: Catholicism has been taking a beating in the public eye lately.

Which leads us to the latest issue to rock the Church - its response to how it handled pedophile priests decades ago, often shuffling these child abusers to other parishes to keep molesting children, and bottling up these cases for years at the Vatican. As more details come to light, and as they circle closer to the Pope's own past, the Vatican has been issuing a raft of heated denials as well as condemnation of the press.

However you feel on this difficult and sensitive issue, from a communications skills perspective we are simply hearing too much about the Pope and not enough about the children. The Pope is not just the CEO of some big spiritual corporation. He is the Vicar of Christ. And as Christ's representative on earth, he is supposed to at least try to sound less defensive than your Aunt Mabel from Yonkers. Think about how some of the recent headlines about the Vatican might sound if Christ had uttered them:

"Christ decries press conspiracy against Him"
"Christ claims subordinates shielded abusers, not Him"
"Christ silent about abuse crisis during Easter Week"
"Christ calls accusations 'absolutely groundless'"

Not exactly what you would expect to hear from someone who willingly gave Himself up on a cross, right? While I can't speak for Him, I picture Him weeping for the children. I see Him doing everything He could to tend to them. Above all I see Him following His signature trait from the New Testament, which is doing the right thing, whatever the cost, and not caring a whit about how people judged Him personally. So for starters, if Christ is your boss, we expect you to sound a lot more Christ-like. Especially when we are talking about children who were sexually abused.

So what would I say in a situation like this? Here is how I might advise the Pope, not that he is asking me. First, man up and take ownership of what happened. If, as we are learning, US bishops begged your office to defrock child abusers and there was no action taken for years, then as Ricky Ricardo would say, you have some 'splainin to do. Do it. Second, stop blaming other people: it is not the press's fault this is an issue, nor can you lay this at the feet of some vast anti-Catholic conspiracy. It is ultimately your problem to deal with, and hopefully learn from.

Finally, and most importantly, don't just sit on your throne and ignore the rest of us. We are talking about abused children here, not to mention people leaving the Church in droves. Unless you want to risk going down in history as the Pope who made Catholicism irrelevant in the 21st century, you need to show remorse, humility, and a genuine horror at whatever you were part of, and then learn from it. Not just the "this is bad and we wish it hadn't happened" apologies issued to date, and the ecclesiastical butt-covering that has followed. That's a little like me trashing your car and then saying, "we understand the horror of damaged cars."

Ultimately, I feel that this crisis will end the same way that apartheid, the Holocaust, and so many other atrocities ended: when the victims forgive us. That will ultimately depend on the words and actions of the people at the top. For this to happen, their communications need to be a little more Divinely inspired, or at least pass muster with any lay corporate communicator. Good luck and God bless.

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