Why the Vatican media strategy is failing

Vatican City - The Vatican's handling of child abuse allegations has been called into question, following a senior cardinal's suggestion of a link between homosexuality and paedophilia.

Gerard O'Connell of the British Catholic newspaper The Universe says the Church's attempts to defend itself often just cause more damage.

Where is the Vatican's media strategy going wrong?

Pope Benedict XVI has been caught in the eye of the cyclone for several weeks, battered by accusations from lawyers and victims in Germany, the USA and elsewhere that he and senior Vatican officials have badly mismanaged or sought to cover up serious cases of abuse, and protected abuser priests.

These accusations - if not fully answered or firmly rebutted in timely fashion - are particularly damaging to the Catholic Church's credibility and image, as well as to the moral authority of the Pope and of the Holy See on the world stage.

But the Vatican has struggled to defend him from the daily drip-drip of damaging revelations, and many questioned its communications strategy.

'Shooting the messenger'

When I asked John L Allen, the American Catholic commentator on the Vatican, why its media strategy was failing, he responded:

"As soon as I see that they have a strategy, I will answer you! The fact is, they don't have one, and that is where they are going wrong."

Indeed, the absence of a coherent media strategy is evident, as a variety of Vatican personalities take it upon themselves to respond publicly to the accusations.

They often do it in a defensive or denial mode, shooting the messenger, or denouncing a conspiracy against the Pope and the Catholic Church because of its moral stances on life, the family and bioethics.

Over recent weeks, the Vatican has often resembled a fire brigade as it dashed to quench a fire in one place only to find another has broken out elsewhere, and never knowing where the next might blaze up.

It was caught completely off guard on several occasions, before and after Easter, when its own people started fires right inside the Vatican.

Jews and gays

On Good Friday, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, preaching in St Peter's Basilica, sparked tensions with Jews by quoting a letter from a Jewish friend that suggested a comparison between the attacks against Pope Benedict with anti-Semitic attacks on Jews.

On Easter Sunday in St Peter's Square, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, dismissed as "idle chatter" the accusations against the Pope, thereby offending victims' organisations.

On April 13, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Secretary of State enraged the worldwide gay community by asserting that studies show a link between homosexuality and paedophilia.

The Vatican press office had to quench that fire too.

Commenting on these missteps that fanned rather than moderated the media frenzy, Andrea Tornielli, a leading Italian commentator on the Vatican, said "all this makes it difficult to understand what is the Vatican's strategy and line of response".

The Holy See's press office is headed by an Italian Jesuit, Fr Federico Lombardi, a journalist who is also in charge of the Vatican's radio and TV stations.

But whereas in any modern government's communication strategy the chief spokesman is in on all the major discussions about key issues as was, for example, Alistair Campbell during the Blair government, the same is not true of Fr Lombardi.


He has not once spoken with Pope Benedict about the abuse crisis since it first blew up in Germany last February.

Fr Lombardi describes himself as "a spokesman who is dependent on the Vatican's Secretariat of State, from whom I get directions".

"It is the Secretariat of State that decides the line, and I try to communicate that as best I can," he said.

He does not consider himself as co-ordinator of the Vatican's media strategy. "No-one has ever given me that mandate," he told me.

He realises the need to rebut accusations quickly when there is no solid basis to them, and to provide answers to questions.

Fr Lombardi's patent sincerity is an advantage and he is doing as well as he can under the circumstances. But he is being undermined when everyone in the Vatican feels they are in a position to comment too.

Missing strategy

Fr Lombardi has collaborated closely, during the crisis, with the heads of the other Vatican media operations: L'Osservatore Romano - the official Vatican daily paper, the Council for Social Communications, and the website.

This has led to the publication on the website of a layman's guide explaining how the Vatican deals with allegations of sex abuse of children and priest offenders.

While all this is a welcome development, it is far from being the centrally co-ordinated media strategy the Vatican needs if it wishes to defend its moral credibility and authority in an increasingly sceptical world.

One senior Western diplomat told me he wished "the Vatican could get its act together" because "there is no justification for the accusation that Pope Benedict has taken a soft line on child abuse".

"I do believe they have a good story to tell", he said, "but they are just not getting it through."