Bill Heaney: Bishop says it’s time Catholic Church became more pro-active in promoting its image

THE Catholic Church in Scotland feels it is being seriously got at by some sections of the media.

This became clear in an interview given to Brian Morton in the current issue of The Tablet, a national Catholic journal, by the Right Rev Stephen Robson, the newly-ordained Bishop of Dunkeld.

Bishop Robson had to pick up the pieces when Cardinal Keith O’Brien left Edinburgh in a hurry and cancelled his journey to the Vatican for the conclave which elected Pope Francis last year.

The Bishop, who was auxiliary to O’Brien in St Andrews and Edinburgh and whose new remit covers the cities of Dundee and Perth, answered in the affirmative when Morton asked him if he felt “the media (print, television, internet) are over-determining how the general public sees the Catholic Church”.

The Edinburgh-based writer and broadcaster said non-Catholics now probably know more about the Church now than they did 15 years ago – “but only in the rather negative sense of knowing what BBC Scotland, The Scotsman and others have said about the Church and its problems, and not through any form of ecumenical or straightforward social and intellectual contact”.

He asked Bishop Robson: “Is it time for the Church to take charge of its own ‘image’ in a more forthright and proactive way?”

His answers are an eye-opener which reveals that the Catholic Church is still very much hurting from its dealings with the media in the past five years.

During this time, there has been a Papal Visit to Scotland in 2010, which was heavily criticised before it took place in light of worldwide clerical child abuse scandals.

Closer to home, O’Brien was sent into exile in disgrace and BBC Scotland uncovered allegations of child abuse at Fort Augustus Abbey School.

During a period when priest numbers have been tumbling, there have even been ‘Jenny Geddes-type’ incidences in Motherwell and Ayrshire, with angry parishioners storming out of churches in protest at the treatment of their priests by bishops.

Bishop Robson said: “I do feel that there is a section of the media which is now out to expose our every flaw to the public. And maybe we’ve deserved it.

“But scandals have always been a feature of the Church in its public persona and we are still here. I think the sins and scandals of the past were huge compared to many of our scandals today.

“However, we have never been under so much scrutiny as we are today. I think the truths of the Faith are now so out of kilter with the ‘mores of the world’ that … we stick out like sore thumbs.”

Maybe it had to be this way since the Church was ‘counter cultural’.

He said that instead of confronting its critics and accommodating hard questions from the media, there are some who think the Church should simply retreat from the media spotlight.

Bishop Robson said: “Perhaps we need to batten down the hatches for a while.

“As a Church we also need to strengthen our media profile – nationally and internationally – to use all the expertise we can muster to present the Faith in a positive light.

“The biggest criticism we face today in the light of recent happenings in the Scottish Catholic Church is hypocrisy…

“Where we are guilty we must put our hands up and acknowledge wrongdoing; where we are being criticised unjustifiably, we must defend ourselves.

“We must practice what we preach and admit our failures and face them when they happen. And learn from them, most importantly.”

Meanwhile, Bishop Robson, who was a colleague of Cardinal O’Brien for 35 years, said that not to forgive him now would be “gravely wrong” and that “hypocrisy” was the greatest criticism facing the Church.

Asked by Brian Morton if he believed the Catholic Church in Scotland had become too easy a target for media attack, Bishop Robson said: “There is a section of the media which is now out to expose our every flaw to the public. And maybe we’ve deserved it.”

Bill Heaney is an award-winning journalist who edited the Lennox Herald for many years and was a special adviser, on the regional Press, at Holyrood and a media adviser at Westminster. He is now retired but continues to operate as a columnist with the Lennox Herald and a pro bono media consultant to a number of churches and charities.