A PR plan for the Catholic Church.

A PR plan for the Catholic Church.

A PR plan for the Catholic Church.

Dubious and far-fetched ideas.
April 11 2002 7:11 PM

Dick Morris' Plan To Save the Catholic Church

... As told to Art Levine.

Memorandum

From: Dick Morris
To: Bishop William Gregory, president, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Re: PR/Media Strategy

Dear Bill:

Thanks for asking for my views on this project. Right now, things may seem a little bleak for the churchand that latest flap about the Boston priest who helped found the North American Man-Boy Love Association certainly doesn't help. But all the damage isn't so serious that it can't be repaired with a media make-over and a few high-visibility actions. Why let 2,000 years of tradition go down the drain over a sex scandal?

The church has a family-oriented, positive story to tell, and I'm just the person to help you get back on message. I and my clients (e.g., Bill Clinton) know what it's like to be the target of an unfair media onslaught over sexual peccadillos and if we can overcome, so can you.

First, let's tell the Good News about the church. My media team is thinking of a nostalgia-driven campaign that tugs at the heartstrings. We'll start with a montage of warm-and-fuzzy clips of movie priestsSpencer Tracy, Karl Malden, Bing, etc.and end with a photo op of the pope surrounded by smiling African kids during one of his tours. The tag line: "God's family is there for you." The ad also reminds people once again just why Catholicism is the world's greatest religion!

Equally important, it's vital that all church leaders in the nation's 178 dioceses offer a unified response to new cases of sexual wrongdoing. To that end, I've crafted a sample press release that could be used by church officials across the country whenever a new incident occurs:

CHURCH RESPONDS TO NEW SEXUAL ABUSE CHARGE

The cardinal of YOUR DIOCESE HERE released this statement in response to the latest allegations:

"I am shocked and saddened to learn about the charges against Father/Monsignor/Bishop NAME HERE involving the alleged sexual abuse/fondling/rape of NUMBER HERE young parishioners under his pastoral care. These actions are immoral and reprehensible and can never be tolerated. As Pope John Paul II has stated, this 'mystery of evil' will be stamped out. Today, we are suspending NAME OF OFFENDER and are referring the case to the appropriate authorities for investigation.

[If applicable, add:]

"We were not aware of the full scope of the problem when we reassigned NAME OF OFFENDER to NUMBER HERE parishes over the last NUMBER years. We relied on the professional advice of psychiatrists and counselors and deeply regret the harm we may have caused any families and children who looked to the church for support and guidance. I am praying for healing for all those who were harmed, and we are taking steps to make sure that this never happens again."

Moreover, the need for quick, decisive action by the Conference of Catholic Bishops at your meeting in June is underscored by some of the internal polling you asked me to do. The results are disturbing. For instance, we asked a random sampling of Boston-area Catholics what statement best reflected their views on how the controversy over Cardinal Bernard Law's reassigning pedophile priests should be handled:

Cardinal Law did nothing wrong: 10 percent
Cardinal Law erred and should apologize: 20 percent
Cardinal Law should resign but not face prosecution: 40 percent
Cardinal Law should go to prison and become the "bitch" of a cellmate named Bubba: 30 percent

The only way to quiet such anger is a forceful response when the Catholic bishops meet this June to formulate a new policy. In the short run, certain key steps need to be taken to send a dramatic signal of a church willing to change. Among them:

Celibacy-Optional Fridays
Just as corporate culture has changed to allow for "casual Fridays," the American church, at least, should consider modifying its celibacy rule with a once-a-month "sex holiday" that would allow priests to indulge their pent-up sexual urges with adults of their choice. Then they could return to a life of celibacy, refreshed and renewed to serve their flock. The number of applicants to seminaries would skyrocket.

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Sell Churches to Child Welfare Agencies
Since the church needs cash to pay for lawsuits and the public is demanding the involvement of civil authorities in abuse investigations, this solution neatly addresses both concerns. By having state child abuse investigators conveniently located in churches, it could save on bureaucratic red tape and reassure the public that there will be swift responses to the mounting tide of new allegations against Catholic clergy. As you know, however, inept child welfare agencies take years to work through their backlogs. This would spare suspended priests damaging footage of them being arrested and paraded in handcuffs in a "perp walk."

A Merger
Right now, the Arthur Andersen accounting firm is scrambling to merge its crumbling worldwide empire with other accounting firms but having trouble finding takers. Don't let that happen to the glorious Catholic Church by waiting too long to take needed action. Episcopalians, a dwindling upper-crust denomination that shares the church's fondness for ritual, would surely welcome the infusion of members, energy, and assets a merger with Catholicism would bring. The merger in turn could preserve the jobs and reputations of priests, nuns, bishops, and cardinals while improving the access of lower-income Catholic immigrants to swank country clubs and the nation's elite universities and professions.

Or, a Name Change
Sometimes, when a corporation's name is so besmirched with scandal, it has no other choice but to change its name. ValuJet, for instance,  

changed its name to AirTran after the 1996 plane crash caused by the company's negligence. Now the name of the Catholic Church is linked in the public mind with sexual abuse and scandal. The church needs above all to "brand" itself as a family-friendly institution, steeped in a tradition of love and forgiveness, in which all children are welcome and safe.

My staff and I have come up with some re-branding monikers worth considering and could poll in selected markets to see how they fly. Among the choices:

Kids "R" Us
Mother Mary's Church
The Many Paths to God Family Learning Center
The One True Church for Children of All Ages

Instead of all that, of course, there's one final, drastic PR gambit that only the pope himself could do: modernize and overhaul the church. But if he ended celibacy, fired all bishops and cardinals who covered up abuse, and opened files on alleged molesters worldwide to prosecutors, it would be the Catholic Church in name only, he believes. And what good could that do anyone?

Let's have lunch—on me—to talk this over.

Sincerely,
Dick

Art Levine is a reporter at City Link, a South Florida weekly, and a contributing editor of the WashingtonMonthly.