By Ruben Rosario
Note: This op-ed was first published October 26, 2013 by the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
"Hide the truth and you hide Christ" – A popular Greek saying.
It was 2002. A publicly embarrassing clergy child sex-abuse scandal was unfolding in a large city on the East Coast. Take a wild guess which one.
It wasn't long before Jonathan Bernstein's phone rang. Bernstein is a successful Los Angeles County-based crisis-management expert. The folks at the other end of the conference call included the archbishop, his spokesperson and a church lawyer.
They expressed interest in hiring his firm but first wanted his general advice on how best to snuff out the inferno of bad publicity.
"I told them that they needed to do three basic things – total candor, total transparency and total humility," Bernstein told me last week. "They said, 'Thank you very much,' hung up, and I never heard from them again."
His advice went unheeded. The scandal got worse in ensuing months. The classic definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, as Bernstein reminded me during our chat.
Same could be said for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, once again knee-deep in scandal. We've seen this debacle played out numerous times here and elsewhere. Alleged mishandling or cover-up of years-old and ongoing clergy sexual misconduct and abuse cases has prompted a police probe and the creation of an "independent" review panel. It has led to the resignations of Archbishop John Nienstedt's second in command, as well as a former archbishop and a vicar general from the University of St. Thomas Board of Trustees following allegations that a clergyman professor had inappropriate contact with an underage girl years ago.
Meanwhile, there are increasing calls for Nienstedt to perhaps step down in favor of new leadership. A beloved religious institution whose main mission is saving souls may need a little saving of its own.
So what to do?
Well, if doing the right thing hasn't been too obvious by now, do what large and smart corporations do: swallow hard and hire a crisis-management team like Bernstein's. Reports are that the archdiocese is shopping for such a firm to repair its bruised reputation. One name tossed about is Rasky Baerlein, which won a public relations industry award for organizing a meeting between Boston church officials and sex-abuse victims a few years ago.
I don't know what else they did, but I bet they pocketed a lot of collection plate donations for the job. The Twin Cities archdiocese has also reportedly looked into bankruptcy as an option to protect itself from loss of revenue and lawsuits that may come.
Well, given that many parishioners I know are concerned that their donations are going to pay lawyers instead of caring for the poor and vulnerable, I persuaded Bernstein to give local church leaders some advice off the cuff. That means free.
He obliged once again. Archdioceses, he told me, keep making the same errors in part because of arrogance and self-denial.
"Those are critical barriers that also play out in large corporations," Bernstein said. "In this instance, the attitude is that only the church can decide what is wrong, and if the church can hide it, they will hide it. Withholding information from the police, much less the public, is not good and it's clear, based on what I've read, that they did that."
'You need a human face'
The local dustup came after a Minnesota Public Radio investigation, assisted largely by a former archdiocese canonical affairs lawyer turned whistle-blower, disclosed that Nienstedt and other top church officials failed to warn parishioners of one priest's sexual addiction. The priest, the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, former pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church on St. Paul's East Side, was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for sexually abusing two children and possessing child pornography.
In other publicized cases, the archdiocese kept secret what Nienstedt described in an unsent letter as "borderline illegal" pornography found on the computer of another priest allowed to continue with public ministry. It also provided bonus payments to another priest who retired after a civil jury found he had molested a boy.
The letter never sent to the Vatican from Nienstedt focused squarely on concerns that the mishandlings could expose the archbishop to criminal prosecution. Given the larger-scale pedophile and church cover-up scandals in San Diego and Los Angeles, which led to unprecedented nine-figure settlements, Bernstein said the local cases are small potatoes by comparison but no less alarming.
He guessed correctly that "I'm sure by 99 percent that top church officials are not giving (media) interviews because their lawyers have told them not to."
Other than prepared mea-culpa boilerplate press-release statements or generic replies via email to questions submitted in advance by local media, Nienstedt has not made himself available to local TV or print media for a frank, face-to-face chat.
Bernstein, who categorizes such arm's-length statements as more spin than substantial action, believes that is a huge mistake.
"You need a human face out there representing the church," he said. "They don't understand that the court of public opinion can destroy you quicker than the court of law."
Still, Nienstedt appears to have taken a small step in owning the crisis last week.
In a column published Thursday in the Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper, he said an outside legal firm will review clergy files and pledged a commitment to "honesty and transparency" from now on.
"As the head of this local Church, I know that the ultimate responsibility here is mine," he wrote. "My heart is heavy with the agony that these errors have caused."
Nienstedt's call for an outside review mirrors what whistle-blower Jennifer Haselberger implored him to do in her resignation letter more than seven months ago. Haselberger asked Nienstedt to "take his responsibilities towards the protection of the young and the vulnerable seriously."
She also recommended that he remove from ministry and make public a list of clergy "who have been determined to have engaged in acts of sexual misconduct, as well as those whom could reasonably be assumed to pose a threat to children and young people."
"Until this occurs, I do not believe that it can be said that the Archdiocese is honoring its promise to protect," Haselberger wrote.
Not surprisingly, Nienstedt's column was panned the same day it appeared by David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"He does one thing today – he promises hiring more lawyers," said Clohessy, who, along with a brother, was molested by a priest when he was a teen. "None of Nienstedt's words today protect one kid, expose one predator, discipline one enabler, uncover one cover-up or deter one crime."
But will they do it?
Taking Nienstedt's comments at face value, Bernstein believes the column is by far "the most effective piece of crisis communications issued by the archdiocese since the current issues surfaced." But he cautions that similar remarks have been made before without much change.
He cites the demise of Arthur Andersen, once one of the nation's major accounting firms, as an example of what not to do.
Arthur Andersen folded after it was linked to a massive $100 billion fraud tied to the Enron Corp. Bernstein served as a consultant early on and gave them the same advice he gave church officials 11 years ago.
"They had the same mentality," he said. "We can't do anything wrong, and if we do, we'll just cover it up."
He believes the status quo will drive away parishioners and erode trust in the church hierarchy.
"They have to change their behavior," he said. "Unless the pope, and forgive my language, essentially says de facto, 'Cut this (expletive) out,' they are not going to do it and will continue making the same mistakes."
Great advice. And it's free, to boot.
Ruben Rosario can be reached at 651-228-5454 or email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/nycrican.