[Sigh] Here we go again. [Deep breath] Damian has put up an eloquent lament on the terminal inability of the Holy See Press Office to get its point across to the media, which I wholeheartedly agree with, but as usual, that’s not going to stop me expanding on the matter.
This is all apropos of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issuing new norms for the handling of graviora delicta, the serious offences reserved to the CDF under canon law. These are mostly matters relating to doctrine and the integrity of the sacraments, but since 2001 the CDF has also had oversight of clerical sexual abuse of minors. The latter, of course, what the media cares about in this situation.
So the CDF has announced measures to expedite the trials of accused priests; raising the statute of limitations from 10 years to 20 following the complainant’s eighteenth birthday (in line with existing practice, where the statute of limitations is normally waived on request); adding possession of child pornography to the list of graviora delicta; allowing for certain extreme cases to be resolved summarily by the Pope issuing decrees of dismissal from the clerical state; and extending provisions for offences against minors to offences against mentally disabled adults. To which I can only say good, and about time too – mostly, this is a codification of reforms that were brought in haphazardly some years ago, but it can’t hurt. If you want to know more, have a look at John Allen’s typically fair-minded analysis. But is this a positive news story? Nooo, of course it isn’t.
Because of course this was a blockbuster statement containing other norms issued on reserved delicts that aren’t as interesting to the media, such as desecration of the Eucharist, abuse of the sacrament of penance, heresy, schism and – the kicker here – sham ordinations of priestesses. So the line taken by those media outlets – such as the Guardian and Channel 4 – which appear to have decided that Popery, not climate change, is the major threat to the human race, is that the Vatican is equating child abuse with those nice ladies who just want to be priests. The fact that in the press conference Fr Lombardi and Mgr Scicluna explicitly said they weren’t doing so is irrelevant in a climate where media discussions of matters Catholic don’t need to be constrained by anything as trivial as the facts. However, while stupidity and malice in some quarters can be taken for granted, was it really beyond the wit of the press office to issue two separate press releases, one on the abuse issue and one on the doctrinal and sacramental issues? Your enemy may shoot you anyway, but there is no moral obligation to hand him a loaded gun first.
So why do they keep on doing it? At this point I’d like to midrash on Damo, who is correct in the essentials. The stories he tells about the Holy See Press Office – it only opens for about five minutes a week, anything dicasteries have dumped on the desk is issued without proofing, there’s nobody there who speaks English – are only slightly exaggerated. But there are reasons why it’s ineffectual. Conspiracy theorists may not credit this, but the “enormous Vatican spin machine” is basically Fr Federico Lombardi SJ with a modicum of admin support and however much espresso it takes to keep him going. To expand further, Lombardi always insists that he isn’t the Pope’s spokesman – if the Pope wants to say something, he does so himself – but the Vatican spokesman. He doesn’t have the access to, let alone influence over, Benedict that we would associate with the relationship between Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, or Andy Coulson and David Cameron. Lombardi answers to the Secretariat of State, which means that Vice-Pope Tarcisio Bertone gives him some broad guidelines and leaves him to his own devices. Needless to say, he doesn’t have any authority in dicasteries other than State, and is completely unable to stop Curia bigwigs from going off message.
These are all organisational constraints. This is before we even get onto talking about whether or not Lombardi gets the secular media (doubtful) or about the press office suffering from institutional lethargy as well as having a deaf ear for the Anglophone media.
Anyway, let’s bring it closer to home. Some of you may be aware of HardTalk, an extended interview show that News 24 runs for the benefit of insomniacs. You tend to see it when you’ve been gazing dreamily into Martine Croxall’s big blue eyes on the late night news, then you wake up and realise to your shame that for the last ten minutes you’ve been gazing dreamily at Stephen Sackur. I mention HardTalk because a couple of months back Bishop Malcolm McMahon was on talking about the sex abuse crisis, and more recently Archbishop Nichols was on talking more generally. Did the hierarchs perform well? Despite Sackur being very poorly briefed, not really.
Stephen Sackur is a graduate of the Paxman school of interviewing, whose main strategy is to ask a really stupid question in a really aggressive way, then repeat ad nauseam in the hope of making the interviewee look shifty. He didn’t manage to lay a finger on +Malcy, but that’s because arguing with +Malcy is like wrestling a blancmange. Evidently Bishop McMahon had been told beforehand to smile and nod a lot, use buzzwords like “reform” and “transparency”, and not to argue with Sackur about the facts no matter how wrong he was. The result was not very edifying. +Vincent did a bit better, being less of a moving target, but he was terribly wishy-washy in terms of defending Church teaching, and really if you wanted some sparks to fly then Keith O’Brien would have been your man.
Which leads me to the problem of CCN as the press arm of the Bishops’ Conference, and it occurs to me that there’s a sort of double-sided self-deception going on here. CCN like to believe that the bishops don’t need minding, when it should be obvious that at least some bishops shouldn’t be allowed out in public without some Catholic equivalent of Malcolm Tucker breathing down their necks. Meanwhile, the bishops like to kid themselves that they’ve got a professional press operation.
It’s not just that Alexander DesForges is not Malcolm Tucker. (Actually, he’s much more reminiscent of Laurence Llewellyn Bowen.) It’s not just that Alexander seems far too preoccupied with this obscure feud he’s got going with Peter Jennings. It’s not just that CCN spends most of its time on internal comms, when a professional organisation would have a separate desk for internal comms. No, I think the most annoying thing about CCN is that it puts out these stupefyingly awful press releases that are just a miasma of vagueness. They will tell you, for instance, that “around 35” people took part in some event, when apparently it would be much too vulgar to say 34 or 37. Some day I expect to see a CCN press release giving attendance at an event as “somewhere between five and a million”. And then, if you ask them for clarification, you find yourself transported into that sequence from The Twelve Tasks of Asterix where Asterix and Obelix have to enter the Madhouse of Bureaucracy.
Wait til I tell you, the Peppermint Spinster can be as sniffy as she likes about “web-logs”, but when the official comms are so shockingly bad you can’t blame anyone for resorting to unofficial methods.
This also leaves the door open for freelance media operations such as that currently being run by the wheeler-dealer from Catalunya and his diminutive tracksuit-clad sidekick. As it happens, this last weekend the dweebs volunteers were up at Worth Abbey for their intensive media training. Why Worth? Well, Abbot Chris Jamison has his finger in nearly as many pies as Jack Valero, and is co-patronising the project along with Dan Brennan. My spies are silent on whether advanced pedagogical methods such as Lego and the Rubik’s Cube were deployed. However, in the video above you can see Dr Ivereigh demonstrating the use of such up-to-the-moment tools as the whiteboard and the dry-wipe marker; he also has an uncanny grasp of Mr Tony Blair’s hand gestures and interview mannerisms, such as that slightly constipated look that conveys sincerity to the teevee viewer.
You may well snicker, but the bar is set so low that you don’t need to have Peter Mandelson on the payroll to get some value added. If you handed Alexander DesForges a dry-wipe marker, would he know what to do with it? My guess is that he’d just stare at it in bemusement, like those ape-men in 2001 when the black monolith appears.
Maybe a slick press operation is too much to hope for, given the creaky foundations and the Catholic Church’s unparallelled ability to reward incompetence. But a functional press operation would be a start, and bishops who aren’t an outright menace in front of a microphone would be even better. The Caitlin Morans or Johann Haris of this world we shall always have with us; there’s really no need to do the bastards’ job for them.