Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto. Register file photo.

Church has more work to do, poll shows

  • June 6, 2019

The Church has a major communications problem when it comes to clerical abuse.

That’s the conclusion from communications professionals working for the Church after seeing the results of an Angus Reid Institute poll that said more than three-quarters of Canadians (78 per cent) believe the Catholic Church has done a poor or very poor job of handling the sexual abuse crisis.

“There is a communications problem,” said Torchia Communications managing director Daniel Torchia.

Even a majority of church-going Catholics (52 per cent) thought the Church’s performance on the abuse file was sub-par, despite the policies and protocols put in place by Canadian bishops in dealing with abuse over the past decade. 

“We have to look at this through the eyes of humility, for sure,” Archdiocese of Toronto communications director Neil MacCarthy told The Catholic Register. “We have to look at this and say this is not something that was made up. When we talk about these cases, as horrific as they are, we’re not talking about fiction. We’re talking about things that actually happened. We may take our lumps, so to speak, but there’s real victims who are going to live their entire lives and they’re going to be scarred by what has happened to them. Is it uncomfortable for us? And are we going through a difficult period? Yes.”

But if Christian humility means that the Church must also experience humiliation, that doesn’t mean the Church doesn’t have a story to tell, MacCarthy said.

“We have learned very hard lessons,” he said. “When you look at what resources and the effort it has taken to try to correct those wrongs — and also to establish new norms that are protective and fostering of a safe environment for anyone who interacts with the Church — we’re in a completely different reality in 2019.”

Torchia, whose firm mainly works on corporate communications campaigns but also has taken on Church campaigns, sees some light in the study’s finding that 58 per cent of practising Catholics say that the Church response to clerical sexual abuse has been “effective.” But that majority among church-goers stands in marked contrast to just 23 per cent of Canadians overall who would characterize the Church response as “effective.”

While internal communications seems to be working to some extent, too many bishops treat journalists as the enemy, Torchia said.

“There’s this misunderstanding of what the press is up to,” he said.

Abuse will never be a good-news story, but the Church can’t hide when questions are asked, Torchia said.

“Respond — the key word is respond to the interests of people in our Church,” he said. “

In the Archdiocese of Toronto, Church leaders are not trying to hide, said MacCarthy. The archdiocesan “Safe Environment Policy” is flagged at the bottom of every page of its website at 

“The good thing is that there’s lots of conversations that are taking place around this,” MacCarthy said. “There’s never been a time where we’ve been talking more about abuse in the Church than now.”

Almost unique to the Catholic Church is the challenge of being part of a universal, global institution, said MacCarthy. Every clerical abuse story, whether it’s current or historical, whether it’s American, European or African, is assumed to be a reflection on the Church in Toronto.

Cardinal Thomas Collins, in his 12 years as Archbishop of Toronto, has issued a number of statements on the issue. These have the advantage of presenting a standard, consistent message across the 225 parishes in the Greater Toronto Area, MacCarthy said.

“We have to be honest, first and foremost,” said MacCarthy. “What I try to do in communicating around this issue is recognize that the Church did not have a good track record of how we dealt with abuse historically. There were lots of mistakes that were made,” MacCarthy said. “But I also try to say to people that if we’re looking through the lens of 2019 and trying to apply that to 1970, it’s not realistic…. I also say to people that to suggest that the way things were approached in 1970 is the way things are being approached in 2019 is just not accurate.”

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