When the presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world meet in Rome this week to address the abuse crisis in the Church they may think they face a challenge greater than anyone has faced before.
It may feel that way. And, certainly, expectations are high for Church leadership to do something. Expectations also are high for openness, transparency, and listening to the voices of victims and the laity in general.
In reality, the path the bishops will travel is not entirely untrod. In fact, someone has written a book about the importance of clear, open communications to the success of the Church.
Comunicar y participar: La comunicación institucional en la Iglesia y su relación con la tutela y promoción del bien común (Communicate and participate: Institutional communication in the Church and its relationship with the tutelage and promotion of the common good), has just been published in Spanish, with an English translation being considered.
The author, Fr. Benjamin Clariond, LC, is principal at Cumbres Alpes Querétaro in Mexico. He grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, where he attended the Irish Institute, a highly regarded school operated by the Legionaries of Christ. He received his calling to the priesthood in the 7th grade, what he describes as a clear invitation from God. (However, he admits to trying to convince God that his younger brother would make a better priest.) He was ordained to the priesthood in 2004 and has served in several roles.
In 2012, he was working in Mexico and was asked to help with media work and translations for the Vatican Press Office during the Visit of Pope Benedict XVI. It seems he did a remarkable job because he soon was on his way to Rome to head the Legion’s communications office.
And as a Legionary priest who spent five years heading the congregation’s communications office, he has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of institutional communications.
Beset with a sexual and financial scandal involving its founder, the Legion spent the better part of the past decade working through a Vatican-directed “renewal” process. Fr. Benjamin doesn’t claim the congregation is done with the process – but is certainly headed in the right direction. And an important factor has been the shift from closed communications to greater transparency. There may be lessons the bishops can apply.
“In any crisis – and what the bishops face certainly is a crisis – the first step is to decide what action to take,” according to Fr. Benjamin. “Of course, then you have to communicate about what you are doing. These two decisions are closely related.”
Father suggests that in determining action and communications, too often the organization takes too narrow a view. In fact, the primary goal often is simply to protect the organization. And in the case of the Church, that could seem like the virtuous thing to do. After all, we’re talking about the Church Christ founded.
“But I would suggest that virtuous action isn’t truly virtuous unless it has as its goal the common good,” Fr. Benjamin contends. “Protecting the reputation of a priest is a good thing. But if it means denying others information about abuse committed by the priest and more abuse occurs, protecting the individual’s reputation goes against the common good. And that is an area in which the Church has frequently failed.”
“Another problem with keeping an abuser a secret it that there can’t be outreach to other possible victims. We obviously want the Church to have a good reputation, but the pursuit of the common good demands that we strive to set up the conditions so that all members of society may achieve their own perfection, and in the face of the need of healing of survivors, the Church should own up to its mistakes and reach out to those who have been hurt.”
Fr. Benjamin points out that the failure of the Church to provide information openly has denied people information they have the right and need to know. He says Pope Francis has pointed to this problem as a component of clericalism that denies the ability of the laity to build up the Church.
Father uses the analogy of a family that has a child in college. College is expensive. And let’s say the family breadwinner loses his job and the family is facing real financial hardship. In some families, the decision might be taken to shelter the college student from the fear and worry of the situation, to let him focus on his studies with an uncluttered mind. If things deteriorate, there will eventually be a call to the student telling him he has to come home because the parents have no money for tuition. This will be a great shock and the student may well wonder why he wasn’t told of the problem; perhaps he could have gotten a parttime job, cut his expenses or transferred to a less expensive school. But now the situation is a disaster.
“Like the college student, laity today ask Church leaders why they didn’t tell them of the problem of abuse,” Fr. Benjamin continues. “Why did you hide all of this? Why didn’t you lay out the problem and get help?”
This is a time for the leaders of the Church to shift the paradigm, to embrace a more open approach, Fr. Benjamin insists. For those gathered this week in Rome, that means getting to the truth, knowing what actually happened. As Father points out: “Jesus was the way, the truth, and the light. The Church must be about pursuing truth and healing.”
He agrees with efforts to show care and concern for the victims. But he urges Church leaders to engage in greater cooperation with the public, even the media. See them as cooperators rather than the enemy.
While the idea of greater transparency about the operation of the Church and more lay involvement may seem like a new idea, Father points out that it isn’t. In fact, it is discussed in strong terms in two key Church documents published half a century ago: “Communio et Progressio” and “Lumen Gentium.” Both documents stress the importance of what today would be called “transparency”:
Fr. Benjamin points to #119 of Communio et Progressio: Since the development of public opinion within the Church is essential, individual Catholics have the right to all the information they need to play their active role in the life of the Church. In practice, this means that communications media must be available for the task. These should not only exist in sufficient number but also reach all the People of God. Where necessary, they may even be owned by the Church as long as they truly fulfill their purpose
And he cites from #37 of Lumen Gentium: 37. The laity have the right, as do all Christians, to receive in abundance from their spiritual shepherds the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the assistance of the word of God and of the sacraments (6*). They should openly reveal to them their needs and desires with that freedom and confidence which is fitting for children of God and brothers in Christ. They are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church (7*). When occasions arise, let this be done through the organs erected by the Church for this purpose. Let it always be done in truth, in courage, and in prudence, with reverence and charity toward those who by reason of their sacred office represent the person of Christ.
Fr. Benjamin also addresses the question that might be on the mind of many who pick up his book: why listen to the advice of someone from the congregation that could be the “poster child” for the scandal of a founder?
“That’s a fair question,” Father admits. “And I believe the answer is that because we learned so many painful lessons, others can learn from our experience. This book isn’t the end of the discussion; I hope it moves the Church toward a more open approach to communications that will benefit the common good – and the Church is part of that.”