Aug. 16, 2018 — As a crisis communicator, I often watch news conferences to see how leaders respond to highly sensitive issues. As a crisis communicator and a Catholic living in Pittsburgh, I watched with special interest as Bishop David Zubik addressed reporters when a grand jury report accused more than 300 priests of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children at six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania since the 1960s.
I give Bishop Zubik credit. The leader of the Pittsburgh diocese stood in front of the cameras and microphones and addressed the issue head on. As a practical matter, this news was too big to issue a carefully crafted statement. Surely, Bishop Zubik would have been followed everywhere by reporters and photo journalists until he made an on-camera response about the grand jury report. Also, it wouldn’t have been fair to issue comments from the safety of his diocese email account when his brother priests would face parishioners at mass in the following days.
Nonetheless, Bishop Zubik demonstrated contrition and sincerity during the news conference. His apology was unqualified. Moreover, his remarks were poignant. For example, when referring to the grand jury report as the voice of victims, Bishop Zubik said, “We hear you, the church hears … I hear you.”
In addition, Bishop Zubik announced the diocese is taking additional steps to prevent abuse, such as hiring an expert in the prevention and prosecution of child sexual abuse to review diocese policies and practices. This is the type of leadership that is necessary to restore the trust and confidence in times of crisis.
The use of a chart, however, to illustrate the dramatic reduction since the 1980s in sexual abuse cases left what I’m sure was an unintended but nonetheless unfortunate message. Bishop Zubik should have said that even one reported instance of sexual abuse is one too many.
Beginning the news conference with a prayer seemed awkward at first. Then it got more awkward. The news conference was conducted on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, which is the Roman Catholic celebration of Virgin Mary’s ascension to heaven. During his prayer, Bishop Zubik mentioned the feast and Mary’s untangling of knots, which is a reference to how her life was devoted to undoing the “knot” created when Eve sinned by eating the forbidden fruit. If you’re not familiar with the devotion to the “Undoer of Knots,” then you were left to think Bishop Zubik was equating “tangled knots” with a grand jury alleging massive criminal behavior.
The decision to publish on the diocese website a list of diocesan priests accused of sexual abuse was a positive development. Additionally, Bishop Zubik said the church no longer requires confidentiality when settling sexual abuse cases. That’s good because transparency is critical element of any successful crisis communications plan. It’s interesting, however, that church leadership got the religion just as the grand jury was preparing to publish its report.