Vatican turns to Fox News man Greg Burke for image makeover

Holy See hires outsider after suffering a series of public setbacks and embarrassing leaks

Milan

The scandal-plagued Vatican has hired a US news specialist to drag its public-relations operation out of the dark ages.

But for modernisers seeking fresh air in the dusty corridors of the Holy See, the development has been tempered with the news that the recruit is an Opus Dei member from the right-wing Fox News channel.

Greg Burke, 52, Fox News' Rome correspondent, will become "senior communications adviser" to the Secretariat of State, the key department in Vatican City. His role will be similar to that of White House communications advisers. 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 stay as a spokesman.

"I told them 'no' twice but the more I thought about it the more it seemed like the right thing to do," Mr Burke told Reuters news agency.

He will be the only person in the Vatican's communications team with considerable print and TV experience from outside the world of Catholic media. "Am I being hired because I'm in Opus Dei?" he said. "It might come into play."

The last outsider with a key role in the Vatican's communications structure was Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who was a Spanish journalist before Pope John Paul II hired him. He was also a member of ultra-conservative Opus Dei. Pope John Paul II's papacy was credited with an efficient PR machine – something the current regime lacks. Communications disasters during Benedict XVI's reign include the Pope's 2009 decision to lift the excommunication of a bishop later discovered to have denied the full extent of the Holocaust. There was also the Pope's speech about Muslims and violence, and perhaps most damaging, the Vatican's tardy response to the 2010 explosion of the clerical paedophilia scandal.

The Vatican is presently battling embarrassing leaks that have raised new questions about corruption in the Holy See and have thrown a light on the poisonous atmosphere in the institution's upper echelons.

Last week, the Vatican's No 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, attacked the media for trying to "play at Dan Brown" the writer of the bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code. Insiders say Mr Burke will find it tough dealing with labyrinthine Vatican politics and a more intrusive media.

Widespread dislike of the Pope and his deputy, Cardinal Bertone, is portrayed by Italian newspapers as the latter's fault.

The last outsider: John Paul II's man

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the last news professional employed to boost the Vatican's public image, had been a professor of psychiatry in his native Spain before entering journalism and going on to cover the eastern Mediterranean for the Spanish daily newspaper ABC. In 1983, Mr Navarro-Valls – who, like the newly hired Greg Burke, was a member of Opus Dei – was summoned to the Vatican, having caught the eye of Pope John Paul II. He was soon appointed, aged 48, to overhaul the Holy See's press affairs and was an effective operator. But he was not without controversy, in 2002 appearing to link homo- sexuality with clerical paedophilia.

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