By Richard Owen
The London Times
A papal trip to Malta would not normally attract world attention, but these are not normal times in the Vatican. The Pope’s first overseas engagement since the sex abuse scandal embroiled the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy will take place in the full glare of the media — the same media that some of his supporters accuse of waging a campaign against him and their religion.
The blame game — the Vatican has also attributed its woes to homosexuals, the Holocaust, the Irish, even the Devil, and one bishop blamed it on the Jews — speaks to a wider problem in the Church’s handling of accusations that it conspired to cover up paedophilia committed by its clergy. Only in the past few days have Vatican officials scrambled to find a coherent strategy to try to control a scandal that has inflicted immeasurable damage on the institution.
“The problem is not that the Vatican line over the crisis has had unfortunate consequences,” said Andrea Tornielli, the biographer of Pope Benedict XVI and other modern pontiffs. “The problem is that there is no line.”
Even as the Pope faced accusations that he had covered up instances of clerical abuse while Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982, and later as head of doctrine at the Vatican for 24 years, there was no co-ordinated rebuttal. In the corporate world, the response to such a public relations disaster would be crisis management, but the Vatican’s ancient bureaucracy, and a centuries-old culture of secrecy is ill equipped to meet the demands of communications strategies.
“We are not a multinational,” Father Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s spokesman, said recently. The Holy See, he said, “does not believe it is necessary to respond to every single document taken out of context”.
Asked during a rare briefing for reporters whether there had been urgent meetings in the Vatican over the abuse scandal, he looked baffled. Didn’t he feel that the Vatican was under siege? “No. We issue clarifications when necessary,” he replied, pointing to the publication on the Vatican website of church rules on abuse, making it clear for the first time that bishops must go to the police.
The reality, however, is that new abuse stories have appeared almost daily, and Father Lombardi, 68, a genial and mild-mannered Jesuit from Piedmont, northern Italy, has struggled without any apparent strategy or guidance from higher up in the Church.
Instead, stories involving abuse at the hands of priests have been dismissed as “petty gossip” or “idle chatter”. Contentious remarks by cardinals and bishops — blaming the stories on a Jewish conspiracy, for instance — have added to the furore.
The publication on the internet this week of new Vatican rules setting out a requirement to report suspected paedophiles to civic authorities, and intended to mark a new start, was almost immediately overshadowed by yet another gaffe, this time from the Pope’s deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who, on a visit to Chile, linked child abuse in the Church to homosexuality.
Vatican officials have repeatedly claimed that 2001 regulations issued by the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope — which imposed papal confidentiality on abuse cases, were meant to speed up inquiries, not bury them, and that abusive priests were primarily the responsibility of local bishops.
Ambiguous at best, the guidelines look to many like an attempt to put the reputation of the Church above the suffering of victims. Indeed, cardinals are on record as saying that bishops were “not obliged” to go to the police.
The Pope’s call on Thursday for “penance” — the closest he has yet come to a mea culpa — may mark the start of a more coherent fightback.Father Lombardi has hinted that new initiatives are in the offing, including more papal meetings with victims as well as a “deepening of the measures of prevention and response” to abuse.
It may not be enough. This week Giovanni Maria Vian, the editor of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, admitted that the Vatican had communication problems, adding: “We could do better.”
When appointed as spokesman for the Pope, Father Lombardi, said: “I don’t think my role is to explain the Pope’s thinking or explain the things that he already states in an extraordinarily clear and rich way.”
This relaxed approach looks dangerously inadequate. Father Lombardi has faced one public relations disaster after another under a Pope who, during his five years in office, has offended Muslims, Jews and Anglicans.
He has admitted that he does not talk to the Pope about the abuse issue, but to Cardinal Bertone.
The Pope, moreover, is not a natural communicator, as was his predecessor, John Paul II, nor did he start out as a parish priest, with contact with daily life. His style is remote and professorial, he listens to few advisers and he does not have people from all walks of life to lunch or dinner, as John Paul did.
In Germany, where the numbers of the faithful are in decline, Der Spiegel magazine has already written off his pontificate as a failure, describing “the tragedy of a man who had set out to write books and only near the end of his life was summoned to assume the Herculean office at the Vatican”.
After Malta, more challenging trips to Portugal, Cyprus, Britain and Spain await. Some doubt that the Pope, who at his appointment described himself as “a humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord”, can rise to the challenge that his Church now faces.
His former friend and fellow theologian Hans Kung does not believe that the Vatican is capable of the reform required. “We cannot hide the fact that the system of hiding [abuse] was led by the Congregation of Faith of Cardinal Ratzinger, in which they kept cases under strict secrecy,” he wrote this week. “The consequences of these scandals for the Catholic Church are devastating. Dear bishops, ask yourselves how we are going to deal with this in the future? Do not be silent – silence makes us complicit. Send demands to Rome for reform.”
See Related: CATHOLIC CHURCH SEXUAL ABUSE OF CHILDREN ARCHIVE