VATICAN CITY (AP) – The Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, and his deputy resigned abruptly Monday amid an overhaul of the Vatican’s communications operations and a crisis period in Pope Francis’ papacy.
The departures of Burke and his deputy, Paloma Garcia Ovejero, signaled that problems associated with Francis’ reform of the Vatican bureaucracy came to a head at a bad time. The pope is struggling to address a global sex abuse and cover-up scandal.
Francis nevertheless accepted the resignations, which are effective Tuesday, the Vatican said in a statement.
“At this time of transition in Vatican communications, we think it’s best the Holy Father is completely free to assemble a new team,” Burke tweeted. “New Year, New Adventures.”
He and Garcia both thanked the pope. “One stage is ending. Thank you for these two and a half years,” Garcia tweeted.
Francis named a longtime member of the Vatican’s communications operations, Alessandro Gisotti, as an interim replacement. No deputy was named.
The pope recently overhauled the Vatican’s media operations for the second time by ousting the longtime editor of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, and naming a new director of editorial content for all Vatican media, Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli.
The resignations appeared to take the new team by surprise, though the job of Vatican spokesman is notoriously difficult given the feudal nature of the Vatican, its reflexive tendency toward secrecy and occasional skepticism of journalism.
The head of Vatican communications, Paolo Ruffini, said he had learned of the decision by Burke and Garcia and respected it.
He praised their professionalism and said he had full confidence in Gisotti, who had been a longtime journalist with Vatican Radio and more recently the head of social media for the Vatican.
“The year ahead is full of important appointments that will require maximum communications efforts,” Ruffini said in a statement.
It was perhaps a reference to Francis’ high-stakes summit on preventing clergy sex abuse in February, as well as his multiple foreign trips planned for 2019: Panama, United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Bulgaria and Macedonia in the first half of the year, and rumored trips to Madagascar and Japan in the second half.
Francis still faces continued fallout from the clergy abuse scandal, in Chile, the United States and beyond. The next year will likely see the outcome of a canonical investigation into ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, accused of sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians, as well as the results of a Vatican investigation into McCarrick’s rise through church ranks.
Longtime Vatican watcher Rocco Palmo tweeted that the standard rule in crisis communications is “that you don’t leave in the middle of the storm but ride it out.
“To lose both the Vatican’s top press hands (both quite devout) in mid-scandal appears to signal that something has become professionally untenable,” Palmo tweeted.
Burke, then a Fox TV correspondent in Rome, was hired as a communications adviser for the Vatican’s secretariat of state in 2012. At the time, the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI had suffered a series of communications blunders, and it was thought that Burke could provide guidance.
In 2015, Burke was named deputy spokesman under the Rev. Federico Lombardi, an Italian Jesuit.
When Lombardi retired in 2016, Burke became main spokesman and was joined by Garcia, the first woman to ever hold the position of deputy. Garcia had been the Vatican correspondent for the Cadena Cope, the Spanish broadcaster.
The two had internationalized the media operations, organizing unofficial briefings with visiting prelates, providing background information and streamlining communications with journalists during foreign trips.