More Pieces Added to Puzzle of Holy See Press Office Resignations

The appointments of four new staff at the Holy See Press Office follow months of unheeded requests for help.

Paolo Ruffini speaking at a press briefing on the Synod on Youth, Oct. 8, 2018.
Paolo Ruffini speaking at a press briefing on the Synod on Youth, Oct. 8, 2018. (photo: Edward Pentin photo)

The Vatican announced on Friday four new staff additions to the Holy See Press Office, appointments which add further pieces to the puzzle of Greg Burke’s and Paloma Garcia Ovejero’s sudden and largely unexpected departures on New Year’s Eve.

In a Jan. 11 statement, the Vatican announced that after Burke, a St. Louis native, and Garcia, a Spaniard, had stepped down as Holy See Press Office director and deputy director, the prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, Paolo Ruffini, had “started a process to form a new organizational structure of the Press Office of the Holy See.” 

That began with the appointment Dec. 31 of a replacement for Burke in the person of ad interim director Alessandro Gisotti, and has now been followed by the naming yesterday of a senior advisor to the director, French journalist Romilda Ferrauto, and two assistants: American Sister Bernadette M. Reis, FSP, and Peruvian journalist Raúl Cabrera Pérez. South Bend native and former official at the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Thaddeus Jones, will also join the press office team as office manager. 

All have worked at one time or another for Vatican Radio, and having known most of them for many years, they are very able, fair-minded and personable professionals with a love for the Church.  

But their arrivals came too late for Burke and Garcia. The two officials, appointed in July 2016, stood down of their own accord, with Burke saying that at this “time of transition in Vatican communications, we think it’s best the Holy Father is completely free to assemble a new team.”


Isolated and Overworked

This alluded to the fact that the Pope was already putting together a new communications office, but Burke and Garcia increasingly didn’t feel a part of it. The two former Rome correspondents had been suffering under a very heavy workload, and for months had been pleading with the Vatican for more staff but to no avail. 

The Register has learned that for at least six months, Burke had specifically asked nearly a dozen times for Jones to be hired, but each time his requests were turned down. Even when one of them inquired earlier this week whether Jones would be joining the press office, they received a negative response. 

“Now they’re gone and, in little over a week, the new staff are there,” said a source close to Vatican communications. “Either Ruffini didn’t realise how serious the requests were until Burke and Garcia left, or he was trying to push them out, believing that the less support they gave them, the sooner they would leave.” 

The Register has asked the Press Office if they could explain the reasons for the timing of the new appointments, and why they were not made during the tenures of Burke and Garcia, but so far have not received a reply.    

Yet the new appointments add further weight to the fact that Burke and Garcia were increasingly not being given the support they needed. Sources say they had little or no access to the Pope, and that the running of the Vatican was increasingly “chaotic” with everyone wanting to have a say in strategy. 

The internal problems were visible to us in the press corps in the form of a lamentable Vatican silence at a time of crisis. 

It wasn’t always so dysfunctional. Burke, a former Rome correspondent for Fox News and the Register, had been part of the Secretariat of State since 2012 as a special communications adviser before Pope Francis hired him on the recommendation of Ruffini’s predecessor, Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò.

Within the Secretariat of State, Burke had worked closely with Archbishop Peter Wells, an Oklahoma native and then-assessor of general affairs in the Secretariat of State, and Cardinal Angelo Becciù, the sostituto (deputy) to the Secretary of State. 

But in recent years, the Secretariat of State has gradually lost its grip on Vatican communications with power steadily transferred to the Dicastery for Communication and, more importantly, the Pope’s inner circle of advisers. 


Poor Management

Since taking up his post, Burke had become increasingly isolated: Archbishop Wells left shortly before Burke's appointment as press office director, Cardinal Becciù was appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints last summer, and Msgr. Viganò left following the “Lettergate” affair last March, although continues to wield influence as assessor in the Dicastery for Communication. 

At the same time, “unofficial” spokesmen close to Francis, such as Vaticanistas Andrea Tornielli, Gianni Valente and Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, were seen as undercutting Burke’s work, as has been widely reported. Ruffini’s appointment and his subsequent prominence during the media briefings at the October Youth Synod further undermined Burke’s position, while the coup de grâce was Tornielli’s appointment last month as Vatican Media’s editorial director. 

Added to the difficulties was Pope Francis’ working relationship with his spokesman. He and Burke appeared to have a good rapport, but informed sources say it was only so deep, and was hindered by the Pope’s well-known disregard for the United States and his lack of trust in general. The decision to give Ruffini prominence at the synod briefings was the Pope’s, sources say, despite Francis telling Burke he would be given all the authority he needed as press office director.  

From all the above, it appears the Vatican’s problem has been not one of poor communications so much as poor management — as has often been the case throughout its history. Perhaps with this new structure finally in place, that will now begin to change, and the direction the Pope is leading the Church become more transparent.