Crisis Leads to More Media Savvy
Specialists See Improvement in Bishops' Dealings with Press since Height of Abuse Scandal

By Tom Carney
National Catholic Reporter [United States]
July 14, 2006

Years of running the media gauntlet brought on by the church's clergy sex abuse scandal has made more bishops more media savvy, according to media specialists who advise the bishops and journalists who cover the church. As a result, coverage of the church is better -- though not necessarily more positive, they say.

"I see a real change," said Barry McLoughlin, a consultant who conducts voluntary media training for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Unlike a decade ago, bishops are turning in "a solid performance" when dealing with the press.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, who was president of the U.S. bishops' conference during the height of bad publicity surrounding the abuse crisis, said bishops have improved in their dealings with the media, but the improvement hasn't been uniform.

"There are 300 bishops," he said. "Some are very good, others have improved, others are less frightened than before."

The director of communications for the bishops' conference, Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, agrees.

"It's very variable," he said, "both among the media and their knowledge of religion, and the bishops' comfort and experience with the media."

Maniscalco sees an improvement in the skill with which bishops deal with the media with what he describes as the second round in the current clergy abuse scandal. In the era of revelations about the abuse of children by priests from 1992 to 1994, nobody seemed to know how to handle the media, he said, because no organized church body was willing to deal with it.

After that, he said, there was a lull in publicity about abuse cases that lasted until The Boston Globe's revelations about abuse in Boston in 2002. By that time, media coverage was more intense -- including 24/7 coverage by organizations such as CNN. But this time the bishops' conference was ready.

"Their spokesmen did a good job," Maniscalco said, and since then, he believes the overall grade for bishops and their dealings with the media has improved at least 50 percent.

This improvement, as well as its lack of uniformity, is illustrated in two areas of the country that have had more than their share of church-related scandal.

In Phoenix in May 2003, the Maricopa County attorney concluded a yearlong investigation that resulted in six priests being indicted in child sex abuse cases and "turned up evidence that then-Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien failed to protect the victims of criminal sexual misconduct." O'Brien struck a deal with the county attorney to avoid persecution. But less than a year later, O'Brien was convicted of the hit-and-run death of a pedestrian. He resigned and was succeeded as bishop by Thomas Olmsted.

Before and during much of O'Brien's troubles, said Mike Clancy, religion writer at The Arizona Republic newspaper, the bishop was generally available and willing to talk with the public. His successor is less inclined to do so.

"The sense is that this bishop was brought in to clean house," said Clancy, who complained about lack of access to Olmsted. In more than two years since his appointment as bishop, "I can count on one hand the number of times he's met with the media," Clancy said.

Olmsted communicates through the diocesan newspaper, he said, and when there's a particularly newsworthy event involving the diocese, he "sends his lieutenants" to deal with it, "but he's not reaching out beyond that."

Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., on the other hand, is much more accessible and skillful with the media, said Clancy.

Mary Jo West, director of communications for the Phoenix diocese and former anchor for a Phoenix television station, has a different take on the subject.

"There's been a huge improvement" since she took the job in the midst of the fallout from the O'Brien scandal, she said.

"Bishop Olmsted understands the importance of the media. He sees it as a method of evangelization," she said.

West, who will soon leave her job for personal reasons, said she has worked to help diocesan staff, including lawyers, understand the importance of working well with the media.

"I've tried to tell diocesan officials that the media is not the enemy," she said, "and I feel there's been a huge improvement."

Apart from the question of her bishop's media performance, West also believes American bishops in general have improved in the wake of the abuse scandal.

"The bishops now realize the impact the media has on the church, and that they have to work on that," she said.

"It may have caused some bishops to have more fear," she added, "but they are listening more to their communications directors as much as in the past they were listening to their lawyers."

Another high-profile diocese is Chicago, where two reports released in March were highly critical of the way the archdiocese and Cardinal Francis George handled sexual abuse cases.

One report is on the archdiocese's failure to remove from ministry two priests accused of abuse. The other takes a sometimes critical look at the archdiocese's system for monitoring priests who have been accused of such behavior.

In a statement to the media on March 20, George took responsibility for his role in the mishandling of such cases and apologized. He pledged the archdiocese to "full disclosure of the facts and to the implementation of deliberate, meaningful changes to do all in our power to ensure that such events never happen again."

Cathleen Falsani, who has covered the archdiocese for 10 years, the last six years for the Chicago Sun-Times, admires the cardinal and the way the archdiocese handles the media, contrasting it with the nearby Joliet, Ill., diocese, which she also covers.

Former Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch and diocesan officials were "very reticent -- and those are kind words -- to interact with the media," Falsani said. Imesch saw "the media in an adversarial way and would really rather not talk." Imesch was succeeded June 27 by Bishop J. Peter Sartain.

Chicago's George, on the other hand, took up where Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, his popular predecessor, left off, being "extremely accessible. He doesn't view us as adversaries," she said.

This is occurring even though Bernadin was a "hard act to follow," Falsani said, and though she thinks George is "naturally shy." Falsani said she continues to have a good relationship with the cardinal and archdiocesan communications people despite the "hard things we have printed" about the church in Chicago.

She uses the release of the recent critical reports as an example of the way the archdiocese handles bad news. It went public with statements and interviews and even made the rounds of newspaper editorial boards to make the cardinal's position and that of the archdiocese clear to the public.

Falsani also believes American bishops have learned from the abuse crisis.

"The scandal has made them more conscious of how to deal with the media," she said. "They have adapted well."

Besides the effect of the abuse scandal, said Frank DeRosa, who has been a spokesman for the Brooklyn, N.Y., diocese since 1970, the current generation of bishops, having "watched TV as youngsters," are naturally more skillful in dealing with the media.

"Lots of newer bishops are media savvy," he said.

Laurie Goodstein, national religion correspondent for The New York Times, is less sure that the abuse scandal has made much of a difference.

"I have found there is no 'typical bishop approach' to the media," she said. "Some bishops have been surprisingly accessible, returning calls quickly and staying on the line for hard questions. But other bishops are perennially unavailable, and let their spokesmen do the talking."

As a result of the abuse crisis, she said, "some dioceses seem to have beefed up their public relations operations. If they know a sensitive story is about to break, they are more likely now to have a statement from the bishop ready to go or statistics on hand."

"It doesn't always mean they shed more light," she said. "Sometimes it just means they're more slick."

Some Catholics may believe media training is designed to do just that -- copy business techniques meant more to put a happy face on reality than to tell the truth. But McLoughlin, the bishops' media trainer, says that's not what the training for the bishops is designed to do.

"That's an outmoded attitude," he said. "I can't think of a sector in society that doesn't want to encourage constructive media relations. And it's especially important when bad news about the church, in the form of revelations about abuse by priests, is pervasive.

"The message I'm giving them is, I expect the bishop and the church to do the right thing in response to the wrong thing being done." And the right thing, in McLoughlin's view, is to be open in messages through the media.

Atlanta's Archbishop Gregory said he learned much of what he knows about dealing with the media as an auxiliary bishop under Bernadin in Chicago, where he brought media people together with church leaders. But his first exposure to media training was as a deacon in 1972 when he attended a three-week symposium on the subject in New Orleans.

The training and experience served him well after his election as bishops' conference president in 2001.

"It was not the typical presidency," he said, referring to the media frenzy surrounding the flurry of allegations of clergy child abuse. Sometimes, he received four or five calls from the same media in the same day.

Refusing to talk with the media doesn't mean a story is going to go away, he said. "It just creates a void, and someone else is going to fill it."

Gregory believes the problem is not all on one side, however, observing that many people in the secular media are ill-equipped to cover religion.

"No media organization is going to hire a sports writer who doesn't know the difference between the NFL and the NBA," he said, "but some media have the idea that anyone can cover religion."

That's why it's important for bishops and diocesan communications people to help the media understand "the complexity of religion," he said. "It's time well spent."

Gregory believes bishops should establish good relationships with the media and be accessible even though "you don't always get what you want."

"I don't know how, as pastors, we can be effective without dealing with the media," he said.

Tom Carney is a former reporter for The Des Moines Register.


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