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Spotlight Report

  Boston Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Morrissey speaks to reporters in front of Cardinal Law's residence in Brighton. (Globe Staff Photo / Jonathan Wiggs)

Caught in the crossfire

Boston Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Morrissey has a job no one would envy

By Sally Jacobs, Globe Staff, 5/9/2002

On a crisp winter evening just over a year and a half ago, Donna M. Morrissey stood before an elegant cocktail party gathering and said farewell to a chapter of her life. After a grueling decade of working nights and weekends with the media, Morrissey had been offered a plum new job as spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Boston. Her co-workers presented her with a small diamond-cross pendant and applauded as she headed out the door.

For Morrissey, then 32, it was going to be the start of a new and blessedly more predictable life. No more toe-blistering nights at PR events. No more Diet Coke dinners. And who knows, she might even find a boyfriend.

''The hours were really raising hell with her dating life,'' said Morrissey's father, William P. Morrissey, senior vice president of Central Cooperative Bank in Boston. ''Going to the church was envisioned to be more of a 9-to-5 thing.''

Today, Morrissey, who identifies herself on her voice mail as the archdiocese's cabinet secretary for public relations and communications, is often the public face of the diocese at the center of the mushrooming crisis that has engulfed the global Catholic Church. She is the one on the nightly news in the elegant dark suits and high heels with the tiny diamond necklace glinting in the camera lights. She is the one with brow furrowed more deeply than an Iowa cornfield as she tries to be heard over the protesters. And, until recently, she has been the one to deliver a neat ''no comment'' for the church, should there be a comment at all. There has not been a lot of time for dating.

It is a job that no one would want. But Morrissey, who assumed her post in the far more tranquil days of early 2001, has it, and how well she has performed is a subject widely debated in a town where the scandal in the church has become something of an obsession. On the one side, there are those, including many PR professionals, who argue that she has violated every axiom of public relations, that her failure to articulate a clear and compassionate response to the sexual abuse crisis has made a bad situation worse.

''Donna Morrissey had the obligation as a PR person to provide the advice that would have kept this train from running away, and she did not,'' declared one former church official and member of Cardinal Bernard F. Law's cabinet who asked not to be identified.

Others believe that her hands have largely been tied by a client - the archdiocese - with a longstanding aversion to press scrutiny, and a clerical tradition of secrecy. Not even the savviest PR professional could have done better, they say.

''The chancery is the one responsible, not Donna,'' said George K. Regan Jr., president of Regan Communications, Morrissey's former employer. ''I mean, there is only so much you can do. If you have a lousy automobile, you can't make it drive.''

Right woman for the job

Just what role Morrissey has had in fashioning the church's response is difficult to discern. Morrissey is a member of the eight-member cabinet that advises Cardinal Law; she attends the board's weekly meetings. But whether she has stood up to the archdiocese's largely male and collared inner circle or challenged the team of lawyers that is believed to be coordinating the church's response is unclear. If she has advocated a more forthcoming response to the crisis, only those on the inside know. Most of them aren't talking. Neither is Morrissey.

Although Morrissey initially agreed to be interviewed for this story, she swiftly changed her mind. ''I need to remain neutral,'' she said. ''I don't think it is appropriate for me at this time that I participate in a profile piece on myself.''

For Morrissey, it wasn't supposed to turn out like this. When the archdiocese began casting about for a new spokesperson two years ago, it was looking for someone notably different from John Walsh, the amiable but somewhat passive figure who had held the job for 13 years. Church officials were looking for someone with pi zazz, someone who could help repace its traditionally reactive media posture with a strategy to enhance the cardinal's public image as well as his fund-raising efforts. What Law wanted, says Manny Berger, vice-president of Educational Management Network/Wittkieffer, the Chicago-based headhunter hired by the archdiocese, was someone ''who could help them to get credit and acknowledgement for all the good things they were doing.''

The person the church found was Morrissey. (And it found her on its own, long before Berger, who is based in Burlington, could propose any of the hundreds of people he contacted about the job.) She came from a family well known in the archdiocese; her father served on the board of Greater Boston Catholic Charities for more than two decades.

And, in a host of other ways, she was just what church leaders were looking for. She was young, female, and Catholic, a woman of quiet reverence. She was one of seven children raised in a well-respected Newton family. She had been a junior parish council member at St. Ignatius Church and graduated from Boston College, a Jesuit institution. Best of all, she had worked as an assignment editor for two television stations, WBZ-TV (Channel 4) and WCVB-TV (Channel 5); she fidgeted with the kind of excess energy that fuels the TV world. She had worked for three years at Regan Communications Group, where she handled top drawer clients such as Legal Sea Foods and the Boston Harbor Hotel, and had most recently represented the daughters of Stephen Fagan, the former Framingham man who was charged with kidnapping his daughters in 1979. In the austere culture of the chancery, Morrissey stood out. She bristled with vigor, leaping from one topic to another in a constant stream of conversation, typing into her computer during meetings, and loudly bemoaning the state of her hair before appearing on television. Some priests and other chancery regulars were never quite sure what to make of her.

When Morrissey was offered the job toward the end of 2000, she was delighted for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was, according to several sources who worked with her at Regan, a substantial increase in pay over the $85,000 she was earning at Regan. One of the first things she did with her higher salary was buy a used green Land Rover.

''She was absolutely thrilled,'' recalled Elaine Driscoll, a vice president at Regan. ''She called me at home and said, `I've been offered the cabinet position.' She said, `I am so excited.'''

Not everyone was sorry to see her go. Morrissey was seen by some co-workers at Regan as overly ambitious. Several Regan employees, in fact, refused to chip in their share for her farewell gift, the diamond cross.

''Donna is capable of doing whatever she has to do to get to the top,'' said Jeanie Flynn, who worked at Regan for several months. ''Sometimes that comes at the cost of people around her.''

Some at Regan, including Flynn, respected Morrissey's skills, particularly in working with television. As Regan put it, ''there is no one who knows television better than Donna. She is able to grasp what is a story, what sells and what doesn't. She just gets it.''

No comment

As Morrissey began working with Law in the beginning of 2001, the job was working out just the way both had hoped it would. The cardinal was in the news. There were stories about his trip to earthquake-ravaged Peru. There were stories about the new lights at the Holy Cross Cathedral. And whenever the cardinal was seen on TV, Morrissey was close behind him.

''It was interesting seeing such a hard-driving woman move in those circles,'' said someone who worked inside the archdiocese who asked not to be identified. ''They wanted a woman. They wanted to be seen as outside the box. She was not sidelined by anybody. She was always in the middle of the action. They were entertained by her.''

Even Law, ''was very impressed with her expertise,'' said the source. ''Frankly, they were a little in awe of her. It's not hard to get cameras, frankly, but it's not something anyone there knew how to do. I mean, they trusted her as much as they trust anybody.''

And then the trouble began. Reporters covering the archdiocese had long grumbled that Morrissey didn't seem to know a great deal about the inner workings of the church and had limited their access to Law. When Boston Globe reporters began asking questions about priests and sexual abuse last year, Morrissey ignored the advice of advisers outside the chancery, including some PR professionals, to get the church out in front of the issue. In January, setting the tone for the church's public posture in the first months of the scandal, Morrissey, on the advice of other key players in the archdiocese, did not respond to questions from The Boston Globe Spotlight team. Few observers thought it a wise approach.

As evidence of sexual abuse of children and teens by priests began to mount - some of it confirmed by the church's own records - the archdiocese's response often seemed chaotic. Reporters' calls went unanswered. On the rare occasions when Law was sighted in public, Morrissey often did her best to shield him from the cameras, which resulted in even more damaging images for the evening news. At a press conference held in April to discuss the cardinal's decision not to step down, Morrissey, looking anxious as a protester held a sign saying ''SHAME'' behind her head, offered little illumination. Asked about Law's secret trip to Rome, several weeks after his return, Morrissey again offered little, saying, ''I did not discuss how he went to Rome and when he returned. So I don't have that information.''

Public relations experts, some of them called in to help the archdiocese handle the mounting crisis, shook their heads in disbelief. ''She seems to have a chip on her shoulder when it comes to the media,'' said one veteran consultant who asked not to be identified. ''You cannot be bitter ... in this business, especially when the facts are stacked against you.''

Lately, some have wondered if even the archdiocese may have had second thoughts about Morrissey's role. In recent weeks, much of the comment from the archdiocese about the scandal has been expressed by the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, director of the archdiocese's office for worship and a professor of sacred liturgy at St. John's Seminary. Coyne's has been a more forthcoming and compassionate voice, and, perhaps because he is a priest, his words seem to many to carry greater weight. Some advisers had urged the archdiocese months ago to rely more on Coyne as a spokesman, but their advice was apparently not heeded until now. Coyne did not return several phone calls.

Blaming the messenger

If the church's response has been, as Regan put it, ''a case study for Columbia Journalism School in how not to do it,'' not all are blaming Morrissey. Regan, who hosted Morrissey's farewell party, stressed that the fault is widely shared within the church. Morrissey ''has taken some very unfair hits,'' he said.

And one person who has worked inside the cardinal's residence agreed, saying, ''My observation was that she might express a view or opinion, but not forcefully. She would suggest what to say and how to say it, whether to respond or not. What came back is, this is the way we are going to do it.''

Even lawyer Roderick MacLeish Jr., who represents the Rev. Paul Shanley's accusers and has criticized the church response to the case, said he feels ''badly for Donna. I think she is on an extremely tight leash and is told what to say and what not to say. But, frankly, what she is saying is upsetting people, and it is making people feel worse. At some point the words you say have to be the words you believe to be true.''

It has all been a disturbing and difficult time for Morrissey, according to her family and friends. Until she had the phone in her Newton home unlisted, the calls began coming at 5 a.m. and lasted until long after midnight, according to her father. But William Morrissey says that far from shaking his daughter's belief in the church, the current crisis ''has reaffirmed her faith. When you are in a crisis you see the dedication of all the priests and nuns. She is working to help them through this.''

And in the end, some feel that the experience, far from harming Morrissey's career, will enhance it.

''This is going to be one of the great growing experiences of Donna's career,'' said Jack Connors Jr., founder of the advertising firm of Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos Inc., and one of several civic leaders who have advised Law. ''She will have some bruises and scars. But one year from now people will say she was in the Vietnam War on Commonwealth Avenue and she survived.''

In a way, she already has. During the time that she has been at the archdiocese, Morrissey has found a boyfriend, a detective in the Boston Police Department's homicide unit. The couple, according to Morrissey's brother, Boston lawyer John Morrissey, ''is doing quite well.''

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 5/9/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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