The Catholic Church needs to be more proactive in the field of communication and help promote a culture of transparency, openness and co-responsibility, a panel of experts said.
All people yearn for truth and justice, and the church can help with a greater commitment to communication that follows the Gospel way, that is, one marked by listening, dialogue, compassion, tenderness and accompaniment, the speakers said.
The panel discussion at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce in Rome May 26 included: Father Jordi Pujol Soler, a moral theologian and associate professor of media ethics and media law; Father Rolando Montes de Oca, a communications expert in Cuba; and Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta, adjunct secretary of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The discussion was part of the presentation of a new book in Italian, titled "Transparency and Secrecy in the Catholic Church," written by Fathers Pujol and Montes, and with an afterword by Archbishop Scicluna. The book was to be published in English later in the year.
Information and secrecy are both forms of power that can be abused, the authors said in their book. There is a growing desire for greater transparency that puts an end to "absurd and useless secrets," while protecting needed privacy, confidentiality and the sacred sacrament of confession, they wrote.
The book does not focus solely on the problem of the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable people, but it points out how recent safeguarding reforms, laws and procedures are part of a larger call for conversion for the entire church, they wrote.
In fact, the most recent reforms promulgated by Pope Francis regarding safeguarding and greater accountability of church leaders show the important connection between canon law as rights and duties, and the field of communication, they wrote.
The book, they wrote, is part of "a movement that has at its heart justice for all people, as well as the truth of fact and the promotion of a kind of communication that is ever more in line with the identity of the church which walks with those who suffer."
At the presentation, Father Pujol said there are two types of tribunals in the world that must be understood and handled appropriately: courts of justice, which demand facts and evidence to promote justice; and the court of public opinion, which depends on facts, but is also colored and driven by emotions and immediate perceptions.
It can be frustrating to see facts get ignored or distorted in the court of public opinion, he said, but "you need to monitor people's perceptions" and address them in a proactive, constructive way.
Father Montes said the world of media moves and responds quickly to events, but those working in communications for the church also must make sure the need for timeliness is guided by "respect for human dignity, the common good and prudence," which seeks to say the right thing at the right time.
The emergence of an accusation of any kind does not mean "case closed," but it indicates the beginning of a process that must follow proper procedures and uphold the presumption of innocence until one is proven guilty, he said. Catholic communicators can help other reporters in the secular media understand this and the need to use terminology correctly and truthfully, he added.
Catholic communications is not about creating divisions or creating a media circus, Father Pujol said. There is a long history of church teaching to guide communications, which is an integral part of the church's identity as an institution dedicated to the truth and being trustworthy, he added.
"We all agree on the principles: we want a church that is open, that listens, that does not see victims as a threat or a problem, that promotes the laity and women," and fosters co-responsibility, Father Pujol said.
Resistance to change or improvement can come from fear or when people believe they "are perfect" as is, he said. "To be credible and relevant today (the church) has to be itself, to continue to awaken in others the amazement, the astonishment of God and humanity," he said.
Archbishop Scicluna said the mandate Jesus gave Peter is the same for church leaders: "Feed my sheep," which means a good shepherd must give one's life to protect, serve and love one's flock.
One aspect of this pastoral love for one's people is to help them in their quest for justice, he said.
The panel agreed that reports into historic abuse allegations must be done by top experts in a professional, honest, humble and impartial manner in order to understand what really happened.
Archbishop Scicluna said the findings of these reports can be very "unpleasant." The reason for these reports is not to "inflict self-harm," but to learn from the past and grow in a desire to do things better.
The archbishop thanked the authors for their "courage and 'parresia' (boldness)" in writing their book and calling for communication that is more "proactive" in the common pursuit for truth, justice and accountability.
"This difficult field filled with mines" cannot be traversed well without everyone working together, Archbishop Scicluna said. And it has no room for anyone who wants to be "a prima donna, diva, attention-seeker or self-centered narcissist."
Only journeying together in a truly synodal way can the truth be safeguarded and justice be promoted, in a process of gathering information, listening and dialogue in the "Gospel-way" with compassion, tenderness and closeness, Archbishop Scicluna said.