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Why is Pope Benedict like a Toyota?

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My friends:

As everybody knows by now, Toyota and their sticky gas pedals has become an even stickier mess for the giant automaker.

The company -- at first -- tried to manage their recall nightmare through the press, which, of course, was a complete disaster. They were eaten alive. A one-minute TV interview with some poor soul whose accelerator had stuck made a bigger impression on the public than their forest of press releases.

That the problem existed at all was bad enough. Their attempts to manage the intertwined, massive publicity problem made it look like their brains were stuck, too.

Finally, whatever public relations or advertising company Toyota uses grabbed the wheel before the whole company accelerated off a cliff. They unleashed a barrage of ads and commercials that, while a bit late in this game, will probably rescue the Toyota name.

It's happened before. A day or two after news reports about tampered Tylenol hit the airwaves, the company slickly went on the offensive. The message was the same:

1) You have always trusted us, and we have worked for decades to earn your trust.

2) There's a problem. Here's exactly what we're doing about it. We are not making any excuses, and we will not make any. This is our problem.

3) There is nothing we will not do to solve the problem, and to again make you a believer in us.

It worked for Tylenol. It worked when the great Irish-American business visionary, Don Keough, took over Coca-Cola in the midst of their mind-numbing replacement of Coke with "New Coke." It will probably work for Toyota, too.

The Pope has a major problem, too: the Irish Catholic Church, which is enmeshed in a child sex-abuse scandal and coverup that is a monstrous nightmare -- and one entirely of its own making. And with the recent but unsurprising news that "problem priests" may have been transferred a step ahead of the law from Ireland to the United States, the problem is growing. Fast.

The Pope and the Vatican have tried -- and sincerely tried -- to manage the problem after years of hoping it would "just go away." Benedict has repeatedly apologized for this terrible crime. He has publicly addressed the issue with humility and empathy for the abused. He has been contrite, and is not attempting to avoid the problem. He has given the Dublin Archdiocese considerable authority to rid itself of bishops named in government reports on the abuse. He has met on many occasions, face-to-face, with abuse victims, who have, almost to a one, found him to be sincere and deeply remorseful.

He knows the buck stops with him. Around Easter, we will hear his words on the crisis and plans to deal with it in a specific pastoral letter to the people of Ireland.

And what has been the general public reaction so far?

Well, let's be charitable and just say it has been negative, ranging from the somewhat benign "too little, too late" to "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" to "nothing will ever make up for the harm that has been done."

Like the customers of Toyota, Tylenol and Coke, many people's judgments about the Church scandal and its repair are formed by what they see in the media. Sadly, these sound bytes are usually created -- almost manufactured -- by those who live more by ratings than the often-cumbersome explanation that the truth deserves and requires.

I recall a recent interview with a high-ranking Vatican official that received a great deal of coverage. Probably 95% of what was said expressed shame for the scandal and compassion for its victims. But then the poor Churchman gave the sharks what they wanted: He told the interviewer that "most priests are good, decent people who faithfully follow and live the Gospel."

Bullseye! The beast had been fed. "Despite child sex scandal, Vatican claims 'priests are good'" roared the headlines repeated around the world.

What will it take to get the message -- or any message -- across? We can only hope that Divine Help will be enough. Otherwise, the next "American Idol" may have to "brought to you by the good people of the Catholic Church."

God bless you all!

-- Father Tim

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