2019 will be ‘most dramatic’ of Pope Francis’ pontificate

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Pope Francis is pictured with Greg Burke, former Vatican spokesman, as he answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Tallinn, Estonia, to Rome Sept. 25, 2018. Burke and Paloma Garcia Ovejero, the vice director of the Vatican press office, resigned Dec. 31. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — This year looks to be the most dramatic yet of the Francis pontificate, with the first quarter of the year seeing a Vatican summit on clerical sexual abuse, the first papal visit to the Arabian peninsula and World Youth Day in Panama.

The year began with the resignations of the director and deputy director of the Holy See Press Office.

Given the hostility facing the pope in some quarters of the Catholic media, and the relentless pressure the abuse scandals place on the church’s credibility, the decision by Vatican press officers Greg Burke and Paloma Garcia Ovejero to quit caught many by surprise. It has left the impression of an “embattled” papacy, struggling to frame its message to the world’s media.

First, some context: Both Burke and Garcia Ovejero had been hired following a reform of Vatican communications with the aim of presenting an international, multi-lingual face of a global church.

Burke, 59, is a former Fox News correspondent and the first American to hold the Vatican spokesman position, while Garcia Ovejero, 47, was a female Spanish journalist and the first woman to be appointed to the No. 2 role.

They set about trying to modernize Holy See communications, and succeeded in making the Vatican more user-friendly for journalists. The pair were well-liked and their efforts appreciated by reporters.

Their sudden resignations are largely seen as down to internal differences about the best way to respond to the abuse crisis, while others have suggested that Burke was not given sufficient access to the pope to help frame the message.

But Burke’s role was never that of “papal spokesman,” nor is the press office the corporate communications arm of the papacy. In a world where people mistrust spin, and with a pope who likes direct communication with people, the spokesman role was difficult to define, and some have questioned whether it was a good fit for Burke, and vice versa.  

Days before the resignations, Andrea Tornielli, a respected Vatican reporter, was named editorial director at the Holy See’s Dicastery for Communication. He had been the coordinator of the Turin-based La Stampa newspaper’s website Vatican Insider, which was an authoritative church news source. Tornielli, 54, knew Francis when he was cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires and has a good relationship with the pope.

Francis has often praised journalism, urging reporters to get to the facts, and verify them while warning against fake news. Rather than spinning or filtering his message, the pope wants Vatican media to offer reliable information about the church and the papacy, and a Holy See spokesman who buys into and can explain his message.

For the time being, the interim Holy See spokesman is Alessandro Gisotti, 44, an experienced reporter for Vatican News who has been overseeing social media.

A communications team firing on all cylinders will be important for the forthcoming summit on abuse in Rome, Feb. 21-24, due to be attended by the leaders of bishops’ conferences from across the world. It is the first time a pope has called such a gathering. The aim is to end piecemeal, localized responses to the abuse scandal, and to find a coordinated, international response.

Expectations for the four-day summit are high, but it is likely the event will be the start of an ongoing process to ensure the church across the world has adequate and robust child-protection measures.

It seems likely that before the summit takes place, the church disciplinary process the pope initiated against Archbishop Theodore McCarrick will have concluded. The ex-cardinal, who has been accused of sexually abusing teenage boys and engaging in misconduct with seminarians, could have his case heard in Rome very soon, and it is possible that he will be returned to the lay state.

He would be the highest-ranking prelate to be censured this way during the abuse crises, which would mark a decisive shift in the way cases of senior churchmen are handled.

When Austrian Cardinal Hans Herman Groer, former archbishop of Vienna, was accused of sexually abusing young boys in 1995, he faced no canonical sanctions and remained a cardinal. Groer instead resigned his position as archbishop, renounced the privileges associated with being a cardinal and retreated from public life to live in a monastery. 





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