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The PR Guru Who Wants to Take Down San Francisco’s Archbishop Cordileone

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone

Mark Stricherz

Mark Stricherz - published on 03/18/15

PR man prays for Pope Francis to remove him

The battle for San Francisco’s Catholic schools has been joined. Will Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone or a public-relations expert survive?

Last month, the  archbishop called for changes to the staff and faculty handbooks of the archdiocese’s four high schools in the 2015-2016 school year—Sacred Heart and Archbishop Riordan in San Francisco, Marin Catholic in Kentfield, and Junipero Serra in San Mateo. The proposal would add a detailed statement on Church teaching about sexual morality and the sanctity of life.

According to Catholic SF Weekly, the archbishop explained his proposals this way:

"At the outset, I wish to state clearly and emphatically that the intention underlying this document is not to target for dismissal from our schools any teachers, singly or collectively, nor does it introduce anything essentially new into the contract or the faculty handbook,” the archbishop wrote in the letter.

The handbook additions clearly state that the institution believes in the listed items, and does not require each individual staff member or teacher to assent to each stated item of Catholic doctrine. That is because the archdiocese recognizes that some Catholic teachers and other non-Catholic teachers may not agree with all that the Catholic Church teaches, Archbishop Cordileone said. The aim of the handbook additions is to specify for all what the church teaches and require that high school staff and teachers not contradict Catholic teachings in a school environment or in public actions.

Cordileone has drawn criticism from progressives before. As chairman of a subcommittee for the promotion and defense of marriage at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, he attended the annual March for Marriage in Washington, D.C. last June. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged the archbishop not to attend the event.

Now public relations strategist Sam Singer has been hired to lead a campaign to pressure Church leaders to remove Cordileone from his post. “Everyone is praying that Pope Francis will get rid of Archbishop Cordileone and these priests,” Singer wrote on his Google+ account, according to Catholic World Report.

Singer suggested the archbishop left sprinklers on at St. Mary’s Cathedral to prevent homeless people from sleeping on its steps. He urged reporters to write about a handbook at Star of the Sea elementary school that reminded students about Church teaching on masturbation, abortion, and gay marriage.

On Monday, protesters held a forum at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco to air their grievances against the archdiocese’s proposals:

At the forum, students and parents told personal stories about their struggles with their sexuality, about their relationship toward a Church they once felt rejected them, and about overcoming infertility. Many spoke of the damage they believe Cordileone will cause with his language in the handbook, especially the phrase “grave evil.”

Gus O’Sullivan, a senior at Sacred Heart, said, “The language is offensive and damaging. As a gay student, I understand the severity of this language.”

O’Sullivan said his struggle to accept his sexuality was difficult enough, but had such language been present at his school during that time, “It would have been detrimental to my mental health and self-worth.”

For months, Singer put the burden on Cordileone to show he was a faithful shepherd of the city’s Catholics. Now conservative and Catholic media as well as one contrarian local publication have put the burden on Singer to prove his moral bona fides.

Catholic World Report cited a long profile of Singer in

The SF Weekly. The alternative newspaper noted that Singer organized two public relations campaign for an oil company against attacks the company polluted the city of Richmond and indigenous tribes in the Amazon:

The SF Weekly profiled Singer’s abilities in August 2014, with a focus on his firm’s three-decade relationship with oil giant Chevron.

Singer Associates led the public relations response to a major fire at a Richmond, Calif., oil refinery after its third catastrophic failure since 1989. The 2012 pipeline explosion produced a massive cloud of thick smoke.

At the time of the fire, local authorities gave a shelter-in-place order for Richmond and two other cities. In the following weeks, an estimated 15,000 people in nearby communities sought medical treatment for breathing problems, chest pain, shortness of breath, sore throat and headaches, with 20 people being hospitalized, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s 2015 report on the incident said.

The City of Richmond’s 39-page legal complaint against Chevron accused the company of “willful and conscious disregard of public safety” as well as “years of neglect, lax oversight and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs.”  

In response to the disaster, Singer’s firm engaged in a major public relations campaign. It created a newspaper to produce pro-Chevron messages alongside community news and to shape the political and legal reaction. Chevron paid only $2 million in penalties for the incident.

Singer’s firm is also credited with helping to fight back a threatened multi-billion dollar legal judgment against Chevron that could have benefited indigenous Ecuadorans and farmers in the Amazon region who said the oil giant was responsible for massive pollution there. Singer’s firm said the lawsuit was fraudulent.

E. Michael Hamill at First Things said Singer’s campaign is both vindictive and mysterious in origin:

One magazine profile of Singer says: “You hire Sam Singer to have a fight.” Whoever hired him has gotten a fight. Articles on the subject no longer say that the archbishop is a reasonable man whose reasonable goals can be met by reasonable people coming together and reaching agreement. Instead they say that the archbishop is an affront to Pope Francis, who should be fired because he still believes the unpopular teachings of Catholicism.
Somebody paid for a fight. Somebody got a fight. It doesn’t seem to be in the teachers’ interests, but it is being fought in their name.

If the archbishop’s own diocesan paper is a guide, Cordileone has a good idea of the people footing Singer’s bill.

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