by Steve Adubato, PhD

Sometimes people play games with words. I call it “the communication game”. Often the game doesn’t matter very much, but sometimes the stakes can be very high. Do you remember when former President Bill Clinton argued the definition of the word “is” and boldly said on camera, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky”? Corporate executives often play the communication game when trying to avoid responsibility.

Often our children play communication games with words. If you don’t ask exactly the right question, even if they know the intent behind the question, they will parse your words and give you an answer that gets them out of a jam or shades the truth.

Now consider the case involving the Reverend Michael Fugee (who resigned from the ministry on Thursday of this week) who, according to an April 28 Star-Ledger editorial, was convicted in 2003, “after he confessed to (twice) fondling a 14-year-old boy…”

Father Fugee’s conviction was later overturned on a technicality, and prosecutors decided they would not try the priest again, but rather allow him to evade going to jail by entering a program for first time offenders. According to the Star-Ledger editorial, part of the deal was an agreement that Father Fugee signed along with the Archdiocese of Newark, in which all parties committed to keeping Fugee away from minors. Specifically, “He would have no affiliation with youth groups. He would not attend youth retreats. He would not hear the confessions of minors.”

From a communications point of view, the INTENT of such an agreement signed by all parties was obvious. Father Fugee, who clearly admitted that he had a compulsion involving young boys, was to be kept away from all children. However, a variety of photos and other media reports showed Father Fugee not only in the presence of children in different settings, but also made it clear that he had heard the confessions of children. All of this apparently was given the okay by the Newark Archdiocese.

What is so perplexing about this from a communication and leadership point of view is that while the terms of this binding agreement seem crystal clear to any reasonable and decent leader, certain leaders in the Catholic Church are taking a very different view.

The Newark Archdiocese is choosing to interpret the language of this agreement in a fashion that, from a leadership and communication perspective, is alarming. Even though Newark Archbishop John Myers has said nothing publicly about the Father Fugee case, the initial statement from their spokesperson Jim Goodness was that the Archdiocese was not in violation of the agreement because Father Fugee was supervised by other adult religious leaders when with children. This logic was confounding. As media and public pressure intensified on Archbishop Myers to resign, Goodness clarified his initial communication; “He (Fugee) engaged in activities that the archdiocese was not aware of and that were not approved by us, and we would never have approved them because they are all in conflict with the memorandum of understanding.” In crisis communication, this is too little, way too late.

The BUSINESS of the church is to communicate in a clear and unambiguous fashion. In this case, they have done anything but that. Instead, the official position of the Archdiocese is to parse language.

Real leadership is not about playing communication games. It is about taking responsibility for the actions of those on your team. That’s what we expect from leaders in business and in the church. Either the intent is to protect children or it isn’t, and the fact that the Archbishop of Newark chooses not to communicate is disappointing and sends all the wrong messages.