Tea leaves in Rome: That timely Vatican press office shake-up is causing a lot of chatter

I realize that it’s rare for me to run a think piece during the week. But let’s face it, the Paul Moses essay at Commonweal must be discussed — as journalists try to figure out what’s happening in, well, the Loggia.

We are talking about some very important tea leaves linked to the biggest religion-news story in the world, which is the Vatican’s ongoing efforts to handle interlinked scandals linked to clergy sexual abuse of some children, lots of teens and significant numbers of seminarians.

When watching the action unfold, I suggest that journalists keep asking this question: What would that great Catholic politico — Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick — do in this situation?

The Commonweal headline references one of those stories that religion-beat pros just know is important, but it’s hard to explain to editors WHY it’s so important.

‘Like Cleaning a Sphinx with a Toothbrush’

Greg Burke Resigns from the Holy See Press Office

Before we get to Moses and the tea leaves, here is a typical statement of the basic news, care of the National Catholic Reporter, on the left side of Catholic media.

ROME — The director and vice-director of the Vatican's press office have resigned together, in a move that appears to indicate sharp tensions at the top of the city-state's complicated communications structure.

The resignations of American Greg Burke and Spaniard Paloma García Ovejero seemed to catch their supervisor, Italian Paolo Ruffini, by surprise. In a statement, Ruffini said he had "learned" of the decision, and called it a "free and autonomous choice." …

Burke and García's resignations were announced with a short note in the Vatican's daily bulletin Dec. 31. Pope Francis appointed Alessandro Gisotti, an Italian who had been serving as the head of social media for the communications dicastery, as new interim director of the press office.

No reasons were given for the shake-up.

Click here for a similar story on the other side of the Catholic news world, care of the Catholic News Agency. This Burke quote jumped out at me:

“I joined the Vatican in 2012. The experience has been fascinating, to say the least,” he continued.

Now, over to Moses, who opens with this take on the situation:

The abrupt resignation of Greg Burke as director of the Holy See Press Office is one more disturbing sign that the Vatican is not up to the task of responding to the Catholic Church’s crisis over clergy sexual abuse and its cover-up.

Burke, a St. Louis native and an alumnus of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, brought an American way of doing business to a press office that not so long ago closed for the day at 1 o’clock p.m. He helped build what became an impressive presence for the church on social media, adapt the media operation to a twenty-four-hour news cycle, and create a positive image for a new pope. But the veteran newsman could not push the Vatican bureaucracy into responding quickly and forthrightly to developments in the clergy sexual-abuse scandal, and this clearly frustrated him through much of his tenure as the press office’s director.

Let’s jump down a few lines:

“Fascinating” is a gentlemanly usage to describe what it was like to be the public face for the Vatican bureaucracy’s agonizing, incomplete response to fast-breaking international news on the cover-up of clergy sexual abuse. As a former Rome correspondent for Time and Fox News, Burke knows as well as any media professional that it’s important to respond right away to such a damaging situation. Clearly, his hands were often tied.

Take, for example, the Vatican Press Office’s response to the August 14 release of the Pennsylvania grand-jury report on clergy sexual abuse last summer. For two days, it was “no comment.” A word from the pope was called for — in fact, the Pennsylvania attorney general had written to Francis about the investigation in advance of the report’s release.

“Why is the pope still silent on damning sex abuse report?” CNN asked in an August 16 headline. Finally, late that evening, a statement was issued in Burke’s name. “Victims should know that the Pope is on their side,” he was quoted as saying: “Those who have suffered are his priority, and the Church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent.” Burke was often put in the position of having to play catch-up.

The bottom line?

The sudden departures of Burke and Ovejero are being dissected through the usual anti-Francis ideological monocle used to view Vatican developments, especially since Burke’s role as a numerary member of Opus Dei gives him cred as a Catholic conservative. But I would look at it through a different lens: as an American, Burke was an outsider in an insider’s job, fluent in Italian but not necessarily in the level of nuance employed in Vatican-speak. The Vatican’s culture of caution and cover-up did not suit him.

As always, when dealing with Catholic publications to the left of center, I found it interesting that these two words did not appear in this Commonweal essay — “seminarians” and “McCarrick.” But that’s just me, I guess.

Oh, and what about the Sphinx and that toothbrush?

Read it all. There are a few important Catholic news stories coming up in the next few days, weeks or even hours.

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