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Monday, June 25, 2012

US journalist to help scandal-hit Vatican clean up its image

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Fox News journalist US Greg Burke,
poses in Rome on June 25, 2012. AFP
ROME : A scandal-hit Vatican, struggling to combat years of bad press, has hired American Fox News correspondent Greg Burke to modernise a communications strategy tainted by serious blunders in the past.Burke told AFP he has been hired "primarily as a strategist" to "simplify the Vatican's message (and) improve communications," though Vatican watchers have said his appointment fails to tackle the real issues within the Holy See. One of his main tasks, Burke says, will be "avoiding too many surprises."Such damaging "surprises" have included Pope Benedict XVI's move in 2009 to welcome back into the fold a Holocaust-denying bishop and the Vatican's controversial reaction to the child abuse scandal gripping the Church. 

"Clearly there are various things that the pope himself has said that could have been better expressed. I covered the sex abuse scandal from the beginning, there's been a big communication problem, no doubt about it," Burke said.Benedict has seemingly been let down time and again by advisers who appear to have failed to warn him about taking back the ill-favoured Bishop Richard Williamson or over an inflammatory speech he gave in Regensburg, Germany on Muslims."The Williamson thing could have been handled better. The pope admitted the strategy in that case did not work," said Burke. "I also plan to try and avoid too many surprises, like the Regensburg speech," which outraged the Muslim world.

"Language can be a big problem, because those who are on the inside often find it difficult to make themselves understood on the outside," Burke added.Hopes that the reporter, who has written for Time Magazine, may overhaul public relations in the secret-clad corridors of the Holy See were tempered by the news that Burke is a member of the conservative Catholic Opus Dei movement, which has been accused of being secretive and elitist.Vatican expert Marco Politi told AFP Burke's appointment could help the Holy See work on having a more transparent relationship with the public, but said the Vatican was side-stepping the real issues at its core.

"The so-called errors in communication are in truth problems with the method of governance," he said."Benedict was warned hours before he gave the speech in Regensburg that the Mohammed phrase would have sparked reactions, but he gave the speech all the same. The problem lies in governance, not rapport with the media," he added.Burke's appointment comes as the Vatican battles with yet another scandal -- this time an apparent whistleblowers' plot to unseat the powerful Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, allegedly considered too big for his boots.

The scandal has seen reams of secret papal documents hit the newspapers, sending the Holy See's communications system into overdrive as it rushes to find the leak's source and stave off rumours of deep-seated internal malaise.Burke -- appointed by Bertone -- said he does not think his assignment is linked to either the "Vatileaks" drama or another scandal surrounding the Vatican's bank, which has been freshly mired in allegations of corruption.Part of his job, however, will be "making sure that everybody inside the Vatican remains on message" -- no easy task when some close to the pope are leaking documents which undermine the Church and its spiritual leader.

As far as Politi is concerned, "once more the Vatican is confusing problems of substance with problems of communication."The documents published have shed light on concrete conflicts over the management of the Curia by the Secretary of State Bertone," he said."Members of the public right now don't want to know if there is a communication strategy at the Vatican, but if the Vatican bank is using transparency measures or not."Burke, a seasoned journalist who is officially taking up the post in July, says he will help coordinate strategy by integrating communications issues into the Vatican's state secretariat and working with the tiny state's press office.

He said his role will be similar to "that of White House communications advisers," while the Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi will stay on. "It took me a while to find the courage to say yes. It's a challenge. I knew I was taking a big risk but I decided, in the end, to take it," he said. – AFP


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