Communications Experts Say Pittsburgh Diocese Shouldn't Delay Priest Announcements

Nov 26, 2018

Pittsburgh’s Catholic Diocese announced this month that it placed two more priests on administrative leave, following allegations of sexual abuse.

Father Richard Lelonis was placed on leave on Sep. 12, but the Diocese did not make the announcement of the two allegations he faces until Nov. 12. According to diocese spokesperson Nick Vaskov, the court imposed confidentiality prior to the victims coming forward in September.

The most recent case of Butler County priest Joseph Feltz came to the Diocese’ attention when a lawsuit was filed against him earlier this month, according to Vaskov. He said the diocese followed their established protocol at that time: Feltz was immediately placed on leave and law enforcement was notified.

“Letters were sent to all of the parishes where he had previously served, then we announce it publicly,” said Vaskov, “just so the parishioners have the opportunity to hear the news first.”

A press release about Feltz’ leave was sent out Saturday, Nov. 24. But waiting a week and a half to go public with new information isn’t ideal, according to some communications professionals who specialize in crisis management, like Rick Kelly of Triad Strategies.

“The way to handle it effectively is to get the information out as soon as you have it, don’t sit on it,” Kelly said.

Vaskov said the Pittsburgh Diocese typically makes announcements of priests being placed on leave within 7 to 10 days of hearing an allegation. But these announcements have often come out on holiday weekends or evenings – inconvenient times for news coverage and attention. Though Kelly notes that’s an old-school public relations strategy, and timing doesn’t have as much bearing in today’s 24-hour news cycle.

Steven Alschuler of Alschuler Communications said that the way the Diocese disseminates information is ineffective.  

“It really almost gives the appearance of willful blindness to this, and an internal culture that lets out the least information possible, delayed as much as possible with as little contrition as possible,” said Alschuler. “It’s not that people are getting information late that concerns them. The concern people have is that getting information late is a symptom of an overall problem, an operational problem.”

He said many organizational crises can be foreseen and planned for. He said it should have been obvious to the Diocese that there were going to be a lot of allegations, and that it would take time to discover and disclose them.

“It doesn’t appear as if they had any overall plan for doing that, and as a result, you’ve had this tortuous drip, drip, drip of revelations that is just killing them reputationally,” said Alschuler.

Six priests have been placed on administrative leave and allegations have been made against four deceased priests since a grand jury report was released this summer. The document alleged widespread childhood sexual abuse by clergy in the Pittsburgh Diocese and five other dioceses in Pennsylvania. The report also alleges a systematic cover up of abuse by church leadership.

Kelly and Alschuler agree the reputation of organizations and individuals can recover after a crisis, but that it takes time, and is made more difficult by how much pain has been caused. Kelly said it’s what an organization does or does not do over time that’s the biggest factor in restoring a reputation.

Feltz and others who face allegations have denied the accusations, and according to the Diocese, investigations do not imply guilt. 

In a news release, Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik urged those who have been harmed by the church to inform the Diocese “so that we can protect others and offer healing.”

The diocesan victim assistance hotline is 1-888-808-1235. The Pennsylvania state abuse hotline is 1-800 932-0313.