ROME -- In an effort to shore up its communications strategy amid a widening leaks scandal in a troubled papacy, the Vatican has hired the Fox News correspondent in Rome as a senior communications adviser.
The correspondent, Greg Burke, 52, who has covered the Vatican for Fox since 2001, will leave the network to help improve and coordinate the Vatican's various communications operations, Mr. Burke and the Vatican spokesman said.
Some Vatican watchers called the move a power play by media-savvy Americans -- including Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York and the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops -- inside a Vatican hierarchy run by Italians whose most frequent communications strategy is to accuse their critics of defamation.
Mr. Burke is a member of the conservative Opus Dei movement, and his hiring underscores the group's role in the Vatican.
In a telephone interview on Sunday, Mr. Burke, the Vatican's first communications expert hired from outside the insular world of the Roman Catholic news media, said that he would not replace the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, but would advise officials on how to shape their message. He said he had turned down the Vatican twice in the past month before accepting the paid position. He will answer directly to officials in the Secretariat of State, the Vatican's executive branch.
"If you look at what the White House has, everyone knows who the spokesman is, no one knows who the secretary of communications is," Mr. Burke said. "It's a very similar job. It's a strategy job. It's very simple to explain, not so easy to execute: to formulate the message and try to make sure everyone remains on message."
That is a tall order. Vatican experts say that the institution is suffering from a deep crisis of leadership more than of communications. Pope Benedict XVI is seen as an intellectual with little interest or skill in governing, and his deputies have been mired in infighting.
The Vatican must deal with a growing investigation that has led to the arrest of the pope's butler in connection with the leaking of private documents, a case that could reach into higher levels of the hierarchy. On Saturday, Pope Benedict called a meeting of the high-ranking cardinals who are investigating the case.
At the same time, the Vatican's secretive bank remains embroiled in controversy over whether it can meet international transparency standards. And on Friday in Philadelphia, a former aide to a cardinal became the first senior official of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States to be convicted of covering up sexual abuse by priests under his supervision in a vast scandal that has cost the church untold credibility and more than $1 billion in legal settlements.
Since his papacy began in 2005, Benedict has also tangled with Muslims and drawn criticism for revoking the excommunication of four schismatic bishops, one of whom had denied the scope of the Holocaust in an interview broadcast worldwide before the pope's announcement. Asked how he would handle a case in which the message was as much an issue as the medium, Mr. Burke said, "I think at that point you say, 'We have a train wreck coming here.' "
He added, "I don't have an answer for you on how I'd stop the train, but I'd try."
Mr. Burke will have to contend with members of an Italian Vatican hierarchy whose most common defense strategy is blaming the media. In an interview last week with Famiglia Cristiana, an Italian Catholic weekly, the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, accused the press of "imitating Dan Brown," the author of "The Da Vinci Code" and other best sellers, in its coverage of the "Vatileaks" scandal.
A graduate of Columbia University and Columbia Journalism School, Mr. Burke worked for a decade as Time magazine's correspondent in Rome before moving to Fox News in 2001, where he covered the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Benedict, and also traveled around Europe and the Middle East for the network.
Like Cardinal Dolan, Mr. Burke is a native of St. Louis. He said that he had met with Cardinal Dolan in New York in late May, and he did not rule out that being known by the cardinal might have helped him get hired.
Affable and easygoing, with an all-American air in a baroque culture, Mr. Burke is a numerary in Opus Dei, which means, he said, that he is celibate and gives most of his income to the movement.
He is the second Opus Dei member to take on a crucial role dealing with Vatican communications. The first was Joaquín Navarro-Valls, a psychologist and journalist who, as the Vatican spokesman under John Paul, was known for his skillful efforts to shape John Paul's image in the media and the world.
Vatican experts said that Mr. Burke's hiring could be seen as an implicit rebuke to the Vatican spokesman, Father Lombardi, a Jesuit priest who is also the director of Vatican Radio and has struggled to contend with the multiple scandals on Pope Benedict's watch.
Mr. Burke will answer directly to the Vatican's third-ranking official, Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu, the deputy to Cardinal Bertone. He will also work closely with Msgr. Peter Wells, an Oklahoman who as Archbishop Becciu's deputy has taken an active role in improving the Vatican's communications in the face of recent scandals.
"For a global institution with a billion followers worldwide, let's just say the press operation is locally understaffed," he said.
For his part, Father Lombardi said he welcomed Mr. Burke's arrival, which he said was aimed at "integrating" communications between the Secretariat of State and other Vatican communications organs, including Vatican Radio and the newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.
"I am not going to be a power guy," Mr. Burke said. "I'm not going to be making the decisions. But I certainly hope to be sitting at the table when those decisions are made. I have the sense that this is not going to be easy. This is tough stuff."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.