It happens every day. People in public life try to grab hold of and change the public narrative about themselves, those they represent or lead. For most of the second half of last year, the Prime Minister had charge of the public narrative, leaving the Opposition Leader flat footed as he tried to capitalize on the Coalition’s lead in the opinion polls.
He failed. Julia Gillard made a policy announcement here, called a Royal Commission there, published a report on anything from disability insurance to the place of Australia in the Asian Century.
The PM looked in command and to be driving the agenda. Tony Abbott was playing catch-up all the time as he weathered the storm of attacks on his alleged “misogyny” and said no with ever less effect to everything.
In recent weeks I’ve been developing a media and communications strategy for the Catholic Church’s two national agencies dealing with sexual abuse – the Professional Standards Committee that engages with victims of abuse and the newly established Council set to interface on behalf of the Church with the Royal Commission on sex abuse.
A desultory task you may say. I agree. I was asked to get involved by the bishop responsible for Professional Standards and on the newly established Council. Why. Simply because these agencies, one of which has been running for 15 years, has no media and communications strategy or protocols. Little wonder that the Church has been and been seen to be like Tony Abbott vis a vis Julia Gillard.
And the Catholic Church has a special problem: the fact is the Church is a verbal metaphor with no legal or effective operational coherence. It is the antithesis of a “command and control”, centralized authority structure as it is often perceived to be. It’s in excess of 200 separately incorporated entities who choose to cooperate or don’t.
Back to the public narrative. There’s really only one way the Catholic Church is going to get beyond the mess it’s in over sexual abuse – a particularly destructive own goal that has developed through a combination of ignorance and cowardice on the part of Church leadership and mendacity and diabolical cunning on the part of a criminal element incubated in the institution.
That way is transparency, accountability and the confession of failure and the seeking of forgiveness.
But only actions will have any effect in this public narrative of ecclesiastical failure. Anything in the way of actions that vindicate suspicions of cover-up will just send the narrative into a downward spiral.
Actions like opening all records to access, welcoming an independent audit of current child protection procedures in the Church or providing visible evidence that Church institutions have amended their ways – such as offering a national 1800 number for victims to use or for the general public make complaints or offer suggestions – will not only display good faith but allow the public narrative to move beyond recriminations and mistrust.
Guest blogger: Fr Michael Kelly S.J.