VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican, stung by communications blunders and mired in a leaks scandal, has hired an American journalist from Fox News and member of the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei to help improve its relations with the media.
The TV journalist, Greg Burke, and the Vatican on Saturday confirmed what a senior Church source had earlier told Reuters.
Burke, Fox’s Rome-based roving correspondent for Europe and the Middle East, will assume the new post of “senior communications adviser” to the Secretariat of State, the key department in the Vatican’s central bureaucracy.
Burke, 52, a native of St Louis, Missouri, has been working for Fox for 10 years. Before that he worked for Time magazine in Rome for 10 years. He worked as a stringer for Reuters in Rome early in his career and has also written several books, one about an Italian soccer team.
Burke’s role - a revolution in the Vatican’s communications structure - will be similar to that of communications advisers in the White House.
He will report directly to the Vatican’s deputy secretary of state, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the third-ranking person in the Vatican hierarchy. Father Federico Lombardi will remain spokesman.
“I told them no twice but the more I thought about it the more it seemed like the right thing to do. I can’t imagine a more exciting challenge for me at this time,” Burke told Reuters.
Burke will become the only person in the Vatican’s communications structure with vast print and television experience from outside the sometimes insular world of Catholic media.
The Vatican’s spokesman, for example, has worked for Vatican Radio much of his career but never for non-Catholic media.
“I’ve had a lot of diverse media experience that I hope I can put to use for the Church that I love,” Burke said.
The last “outsider” to hold a senior position in the Vatican’s communications structure was Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who was a Spanish newspaper correspondent before the late Pope John Paul tapped him to become spokesman. Navarro-Valls was also a member of Opus Dei.
The pontificate of Pope Benedict, which began in 2005, has been mired in a difficult relationship with the media.
Just six days ago, the Vatican’s number two, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, accused the media of trying “to imitate Dan Brown” in their coverage of the VatiLeaks scandal.
The scandal involves the leak of sensitive documents, including letters written to Pope Benedict whose butler, Paolo Gabriele, was arrested last month after a large number of stolen documents were found in his home.
Bertone said the media were full of “pettiness and lies”.
During most of Benedict’s papacy, the Vatican has effectively had no unified communications strategy, with various departments sometimes keeping each other in the dark about events.
Communications disasters for the Vatican have included the Pope’s decision in 2009 to lift the excommunication of a traditionalist bishop who was later discovered to have denied the full extent of the Holocaust.
Another public relations nightmare for the Vatican came in 2006 when Muslims around the world interpreted a speech by the pope at Regensburg, Germany as an attack on Islam.
Communications experts say the negative media impact of both could have been mitigated - or even avoided - if the Vatican had an effective public relations strategy that could have foreseen media reaction to some of its decisions.
Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Rosalind Russell