A pair of photographs released by the Vatican – one in particular – caused quite a stir on Thursday. The offending image showed members of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops Executive Committee sharing a jocular moment during a meeting with Pope Francis. That in itself is nothing too terribly newsworthy. But the meeting was to discuss the ongoing crisis in the US Church, precipitated by the spectacular fall from grace of one of the hierarchy’s best-known and most influential members: the disgraced former Archbishop of Washington, DC, Theodore Edgar “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. Given that context, people asked how such an image could have been chosen to convey the spirit of the bishops’ response to the crisis.
Officials at the Press Office had not responded to queries from the Catholic Herald as of press time, and responsible figures in the Dicastery for Communication declined to comment on the incident. However, there does appear to have been discussion of the images within the Vatican communications apparatus and an attempt to keep them from being used.
Some Vatican staff only saw the photo once it had been released, and were dismayed. “[We] knew it would horrify people and embarrass the Holy Father and the US bishops,” said one source, who spoke with the Catholic Herald on condition of anonymity. “It’s our job to help get out the message of the Holy Father, and that photograph compromised the message the Holy Father is trying to convey.” By then, however, it was too late.
A series of factors likely contributed to the PR contretemps.
The ongoing reform of the Vatican’s media organs is stalled. The new prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, the experienced layman, Paolo Ruffini, has only been in the job since the beginning of September. Sources say he is not yet fully involved in day-to-day operational decision making.
Then there is the incomplete folding of the once-autonomous outfits – including the newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, which has effective control over the photography of papal events – into the new umbrella Dicastery. Lines of communication between the Press Office and the other offices of the Vatican’s media outfit are not always straightforward, and questions regarding who gets to make which editorial decisions remain imperfectly resolved on the operational level.
The photo became controversial partly because the meeting provided little else that was newsworthy. USCCB President Cardinal Daniel DiNardo issued a statement following the meeting, in which he described the proceedings as “a lengthy, fruitful, and good exchange,” and said, “[Pope Francis] listened very deeply from the heart.” But this followed weeks of waiting – Cardinal DiNardo first announced that he was seeking an audience on August 16 – and there was no mention of any concrete resolution. Cardinal DiNardo is hoping for the Pope to authorise an apostolic visitation, with authority to look into the McCarrick disaster.
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