Diocese Employs Strategy of Silence over Bishop Crisis

By Tom Zoellner
The Arizona Republic [Phoenix AZ]
June 18, 2003

Priests, teachers, social workers and even cemetery groundskeepers in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix have received instructions to make no public statements about the hit-and-run case involving Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien.

"No one should speak to the media except Kim Sue Lia Perkes, or those designated by the bishop or (Monsignor Richard) Moyer," said an e-mail from Perkes, diocese spokeswoman.

As Catholic dioceses around the nation have struggled to cope with revelations of sexual abuse by priests and official cover-ups, many have adopted the "silent strategy" with varying levels of success.

The Vatican policy has no specific policies toward managing a public relations crisis, with each diocese left to make its decisions on how far to open the doors.

"There is no dogma on how to deal with the media and they don't teach PR in seminary," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, the editor of the Jesuit magazine America and an expert on church affairs.

He described the case in Phoenix as a "train wreck" and said dioceses under siege often are paralyzed by "advisers giving all kinds of contradictory advice."

"This is not uniquely Catholic - it's uniquely corporate," said Eric Dezenhall, who runs a Washington, D.C., firm for "crisis public relations."

"Classic PR 101 is that when you're under attack, you need to 'fess up and disclose," Dezenhall said. "But it is organic nature to shut down and do the hedgehog routine. It's the nature of an organization. Silence is not a good option, but sometimes it is the best of your bad options if you are convinced that you're not going to get a fair shake no matter what you say."

Still, honesty and openness is the best policy, said Larry Drivon, an attorney handling most of the cases in California brought by victims of sexual abuse by priests.

"Is God impressing his or her hand in this matter? I don't know. . . . But I don't have any trouble saying that the tragedy of the situation continues to express itself in ways that none of us understand," he said.


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