A Tough Year for the Pope Ends With Spokesman’s Resignation

But the resignations did apparently reflect contrasting visions between Mr. Burke and the entrenched Vatican bureaucracy over how a press office will need to operate in 2019.

The Vatican newspaper and radio and other assorted media are oft-ignored outlets for papal speeches and church-focused content, but Mr. Burke and his supporters wanted the press office to have a role in shaping, or at least protecting, the pope’s message on the front lines of social media, international media and global perception. They sought to make clear to Francis and other church leaders that when it comes to how his message plays in the wider world, the pope does not have the benefit of infallibility.

They were apparently ignored.

In October, the pope and his top advisers failed to closely consult with the press office on a decision to give a heroic send-off to Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, when he stepped down. The pope cited the “nobility” of Cardinal Wuerl, who had recently been named in a Pennsylvania grand jury report that accused church leaders of covering up abuse, for volunteering to resign.

The pope with two communication aides, Greg Burke and Paloma García Ovejero, at the Vatican in 2016.CreditL’Osservatore Romano/EPA, via Shutterstock

The pope’s lengthy and gushing letter, which was released directly by the Archdiocese of Washington, reaffirmed for many critics the notion that Francis fundamentally did not understand the damage the sexual abuse scandal posed to the church.

Critics and supporters of Francis say that the pope’s grave missteps in responding to sex abuse have risked eroding his moral authority and, as a result, his political capital on issues dear to him, such as defending migrants and the environment. Observers of the Vatican have pointed out that one need not look far back in the history of the church to find entire papacies derailed by avoidable public-relations accidents.

In 2006, early in his pontificate, Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, delivered a speech in Regensburg, Germany, that offended Muslims, who saw it as an attack on Islam. It was far from an isolated incident, and was followed by a spate of public-relations disasters, including lifting the excommunication of a priest in 2009 who some Vatican officials knew to be a Holocaust denier.

Those missteps deeply handicapped Benedict’s papacy, and in 2012 the Vatican, in a rare acknowledgment of error, hired Mr. Burke from Fox, where he was a Rome correspondent. A devout Catholic, Mr. Burke joined the Vatican’s Secretariat of State as a communications adviser.

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