Authentic Communications

Communicating outward to fellow Catholics is becoming a critical element in facing the ongoing crisis of abuse and accusations in the Church – and in the world.

What is to be done when go-to models for communication have been tainted by a history of complicity in “minimizing impact” on the institution of the Church or of managing an organizational message rather than speaking truth among family?

Historical junctures where communications were subservient to public relations over truth ultimately pitched the two against each other in the mind of the public – regardless of the integrity with which some professionals still aspire to do their work serving the Church as people, not as distinct players with different needs and goals.

Now, it’s almost impossible to gain sufficient attention from Catholics and others to describe what, In the U.S. Church, is going well. Child protection has become a premier program, with a continuous improvement and auditing mechanism. Catholics in the pews lack knowledge about what the Church has done right, such as this program, and about the impact of the actual, operational impact of the most recent reforms such as Vos estes lux mundi.

With so much reasonable anger that’s been generalized to the whole Church and her entire leadership, it’s a good step in the right direction for the very needed critics and watchdogs to figure out what may actually be working. Anger can have a much more constructive and lasting impact if focused on identifying and correcting what is not working. For example, in most parishes where I go to speak, parishioners are unaware of the extensive detail of the child protection program and how it has affected everything from the construction or renovation of office space to the presence of visitors in the rectory.

Another unknown? Contrary to popular belief, lay Catholics have – and have had for a very long time – active roles in addressing abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church.* Do they have sufficient roles? I don’t know, but I do know it helps to understand aspects of reform within the US Church that have given lay people significant visibility into how abuse is handled and how abusers (whom the law cannot punish due to the statute of limitations) are managed, too.

One of the most somber and trying roles is to serve as a member of a diocesan review board as defined by the Dallas Charter in 2002 to review allegations of abuse by clergy.

Communications people express frustration that they make the information available or that its easily found on the USCCB website. These facts are true, but it seems the standard approaches haven’t worked over the past 10 to 15 years. The press (reasonably) distrusts the Church too much to cover details such as these, and Catholics distrust Church communications at this point – and find nothing in the general press.

Diverse voices are what offer healing. There’s scholarship on everything from individual recovery to organizational change to journalistic reporting to policy that shows first-person experience is most credible and provides needed expertise. All of that is represented on review boards across the United States – not globally, but here in the US.

If you love the Church but don’t trust Church communications, it’s understandable, but there is information you need to find. Think about it: what are ways you might be able to plan and host opportunities for your parish or area to invite a direct briefing or panel of the appropriate diocesan staff and volunteers?

Has anyone started to rethink how the diocesan paper can support all these voices – and some of the needed informational steps? This involves going beyond the press-release-sounding feature article and into a more reflective, authentic coverage. Indeed, some bishops have done so, reporting on their steps to deal with this problem in full. A few even report to the people in their own voice and words only.

Don’t give up finding out the full story. St. John Neumann of Virginia and other parishes went on fact-finding processes – and learned a lot. Parishes and Catholic groups can activate and learn together what other sources are no longer trusted to provide.

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