This morning, at my home parish, St. Thomas More Catholic Church in a suburb of Denver, Colo., news broke that one of our priests, Rev. Mel Thompson, had been accused this past week of sexual misconduct with a minor. The alleged abuse took place in the 1970s, and the alleged victim is now a grown man. The day after the archdiocese received the allegation, Rev. Thompson was dismissed, an action that has become standard upon receipt of such an allegation following recent scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church. Rev. Thompson maintains his innocence. This is all the information we received on the matter, considering the moral and legal precariousness of this situation, including confidentiality and privacy issues.
On a personal note, this news is shocking and quite painful for me. I knew Rev. Thompson reasonably well, and I always thought of him as a kind, generous, humorous, ethical and good-natured person. I would never suspect him of such heinousness. So, I am now left bewildered. Of course, Rev. Thompson should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Because of the statute of limitations on sexual abuse, there may not be any legal outlet available for the alleged victim, but the other types of repercussions for Rev. Thompson, St. Thomas More parish and the Catholic Church will certainly be powerful and far-reaching.
Since the information broke this morning, my family in Denver tells me that this news has spread like wildfire, dominating local mainstream media such as radio, television and Web sources. I am sure it will land on the front page of the Denver Post tomorrow morning, too, because our parish is one of Colorado’s largest. The news has also taken local blogs by storm. Some of the more balanced, fair media coverage includes parishioners’ commentary and reactions, primarily favorable to Rev. Thompson. However, a lot of the buzz – including comments posted by anonymous news consumers – has vilified Rev. Thompson and, by extension, the Catholic Church. Outside of Colorado, this story has even been covered online by the Boston Herald.
Trained to examine every situation in a public relations context, I couldn’t help but consider the PR implications of this and other related news items facing the Catholic Church. It seems like, every few years, a new series of sexual abuse allegations crop up against the Catholic Church, and we seem to be right in the middle of one such heavy influx. The public relations issues inherent in this type of situation are particularly complex and precarious, and the Church seems to face a lose-lose scenario. There might be a temptation to shift blame or to point out that sexual abuse is prominent in many other religious and educational organizations and to say (with good reason) that the Catholic Church seems to be targeted disproportionately in comparison to other such organizations. However, I believe this approach would only further damage the Catholic Church.
In some instances, the people involved are guilty and certainly have no defense. However, in other instances in which the Church is not culpable, the Church should be able to defend itself and at least offer explanations, but considering the vile nature of the crimes at the center of the allegations, most people would be repulsed by the Church’s attempt to fight back.
The Vatican’s press office has been active and busy lately, trying to handle international allegations of sexual abuse and cover-ups that reach the current pope. (Pope Benedict XVI is being accused of playing a part in a cover-up, not of any sexual misconduct. The Church contests his involvement.) Spokespeople for the Vatican have outspokenly denounced all immoral activity and behavior by the priests who have allegedly committed these crimes against children and those who have helped sweep this under the rug. The Vatican has also issued heartfelt apologies and worked to change proceedings so this never happens again.
In an April 7 Daily Collegian post, columnist Nick Milano provides his unique take on the PR implications of this matter. A Catholic himself, he describes the “bad press” the Catholic Church has received in the past days, weeks and months as breaking his spirit. He describes the need for openness and transparency, and he even calls for a radical shift in the Church’s culture.
Right now, for my parish, it doesn’t matter whether the allegations are entirely true, partly true or fabricated for some reason that may forever elude us. We may never find out for sure whether the abuse took place, considering that it allegedly happened forty years ago. This is the first and only allegation against Rev. Thompson.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of the Archdiocese of Denver issued a statement today, and a letter from Archbishop Chaput was read at every church where Rev. Thompson ever served. Rev. Thompson has not commented publicly on the matter, probably considering the legal constraints, but, again, the archbishop writes in his statement that Rev. Thompson denies the accusations and says he is innocent. A spokeswoman for the archdiocese has also provided some additional, albeit limited for aforementioned reasons, information and comments on the subject.
For additional information and insights, view videos of a CBS news report, “Easter bittersweets for Catholics,” exploring the effects of such allegations, and of legendary journalist Bob Schieffer’s commentary on the Catholic Church’s dilemma.
I would greatly appreciate your input and insights on this complicated subject. From a PR perspective, what do you think the Catholic Church can and should do as it faces sexual-abuse allegations such as these? Since the alleged crimes are typically against children, a special amount of care must be taken. Moving forward, how can the Catholic Church regain credibility and trust, both among Catholics and non-Catholics?
As a Catholic, I can tell you that I view the alleged crimes as independent from my faith and from Catholic teachings, beliefs and values. Of course, these crimes stand in direct violation of Catholic morality. The alleged crimes, including the sexual abuse and the cover-ups, are committed by human beings and not by the Church itself. My faith in God and in Catholicism is strong. My faith in these individuals is not.