This past week Pope Francis visited the United States and did two things that stand out: a) he did what no Republican candidate has managed to do – take Donald Trump off the front pages, and b) underscore his virtues of humility and his belief that the Church stands for love and hope, not for chastising or punishing.
His message was one of love – love for each other and respect for the other.
Many of his speeches were well crafted, yet he went off-line quite a few times to inject momentary inspiration, to the applause of many. All in all, a very credible approach of living his messages, and taking the Church away from the image of being a punitive institution to that of a loving and caring one.
Yet despite best efforts, and the man’s acute sensitivity to the problems of others, he did make one mistake.
In crisis communications, your mantra should always be “I suffer with the victims and feel their pain”. Such a message must be delivered at the earliest possible time to set the mood for subsequent encounters. It should not make the spokesperson (in this case the Pope) or his representatives (the clergy) the center of concern, especially when a few bishops have had a history of shuffling off child molesters from one diocese to another.
Rather than address the victims of pedophile priests at the first opportunity (in front of the senior clergy who mishandled this issue for so long), he chose to avoid mentioning the victims while telling Bishops on Thursday in Washington that he was “conscious of the courage with which you have faced difficult moments in the history of the Church…I realize how much the pain of recent years has weighed upon you…”
By appearing to treat the Bishops as the victims, he missed a vital opportunity of placing the victims of abuse first, and focus on them as the true victims.
This he only did on Sunday in Philadelphia. To be sure, his words of contrition were strong and profound and underscored how he feels about pedophiles in his ranks. The public who are demanding full accountability on the part of the Church will welcome this.
But the timing was way off, and left a sense of emptiness among Catholics for three days. Indeed, the perception of many was that the clergy had gone through a tough time, forsaking the real victims, many of whom have suffered the consequences of molestation for years and decades.
In communications timing is everything.
The Pope should have begun his visit with his otherwise excellent and moving act of contrition before the world, and saved his comments to the bishops for another occasion.
In this case, Pope Francis did the right thing but at the wrong time.
And now, back to Trump!
Eduardo del Buey
Crosshairs Communications Ltd.