Calling in the Big Guns to Fire at the San Francisco Archdiocese

Salvatore Cordileone, archbishop of San Francisco
Cordileone's opponents hire a publicist with an alarming track record.

Realizing that the best way to fight any war is to first wage a media campaign to convince others that the cause is noble and the enemy evil, opponents of Salvatore Cordileone, the archbishop of San Francisco, have brought in the infamous public-relations maven Sam Singer to escalate the war over the issue of whether San Francisco’s Catholic schools should actually be Catholic.

Singer has launched a media blitz to defeat the archbishop’s policy, claiming to have been hired by “concerned parents” who oppose the archbishop’s instruction that teachers in the diocesan schools should teach in communion with the Church. On Ash Wednesday, LGBT protesters, dressed in black, held a vigil that the San Francisco Weekly described as bearing “the signature slickness of a Singer campaign, drawing news coverage across San Francisco, and all the way down to Santa Cruz.”

Such a campaign is expensive. And Singer is no ideologue. His work history shows him to be a hired gun, willing to work for the highest bidder.

When Chevron’s refinery in Richmond, Calif., exploded in 2012, Singer mobilized his troops on behalf of Chevron — in opposition to the 15,000 Richmond residents who descended on hospital emergency rooms after experiencing breathing problems from the toxic fallout. When Levi Strauss wanted to close its doors in North America, putting thousands of men and women out of work, Singer was there to help the company make the move. Describing Singer’s greatest hits, the San Francisco Weekly reported that he has “walked Jack-in-the-Box back from a food poisoning abyss, cleaned up Nike’s international sweatshop image problem, and allowed Levi Strauss to shutter the majority of its North American facilities while remaining an American icon.”

When a tiger killed a teenager and mauled several visitors at the San Francisco Zoo, Singer helped garner sympathy for the tiger: “The first task Singer undertook when summoned by the San Francisco Zoological Society was to search for dirt on the Dhaliwal brothers,” the teenagers who were mauled in the encounter with the tiger that killed their 17-year-old friend. Singer planted stories in the press that the Dhaliwal brothers were drinking, smoking pot, and behaving badly prior to the lethal encounter. He then encouraged the zoo to post signage urging visitors not to tease the animals, although there was no evidence that the boys ever teased the tiger. “We threw ourselves a softball,” Singer admitted. “We knew journalists would ask if they taunted the animals. And we’d say ‘We don’t know, but we have enough information that we believe it was a possibility.’”

In his war against the Church in San Francisco, Singer is using the media in the same way, feeding them stories of “concerned Catholic parents” and oppressive clergy. The stories seem to have had an impact. The editors at the San Francisco Chronicle recently asserted that while they would not “quarrel with Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone’s determination to ensure that his rigid interpretation of Church doctrine is taught at four Catholic high schools,” he “could not be more out of touch with the community he has been assigned to serve.”

As expected, the first casualty of this war is the truth. Singer has said that himself, suggesting that his mission is to “push the facts as our clients see them.” Noting that Singer “has a complex relationship with the truth,” reporter Joe Eskenazi wrote in the Weekly that “the truth, after all, isn’t exactly Singer’s milieu.” That is, “Singer is playing by a different set of rules” and “traffics not so much in truth but the perception of truth.”

This is what makes the battle with Singer so hard to fight: His side gets to play by a different set of rules. Archbishop Cordileone does not have the luxury of the multiplicity of truths that Singer can deploy. Singer’s arsenal includes a Twitter feed filled with statements proven to be false — for example, this from February 25: “San Francisco Archbishop Will Purge Gay, Lesbian and Pro-Choice Teachers.”

Singer must know that is false, because Cordileone has stated several times that he has no intention of firing teachers simply because of their sexual orientation or beliefs. Rather, the archbishop is concerned that the teachers in Catholic schools simply teach the truth of the Catholic Church — through their actions and their words.

Other U.S. dioceses face similar battles in their K–12 schools. What happens in San Francisco is happening elsewhere, and the foe is formidable. Singer is not working for free. Parents of pupils in San Francisco’s Catholic schools are not able to buy the kind of “services” he sells. The war against the archdiocese is being funded by sources with much more to gain than a clause in a faculty policy manual.

The San Francisco Weekly is predicting that the archdiocese will lose, that “Singer will steer the archbishop’s already unpopular anti-LGBT slam into a Singer-defined narrative. . . . Right or wrong, Cordileone probably doesn’t have a prayer.”

That’s false. Archbishop Cordileone has an abundance of prayers — of countless Catholics across the country who are increasingly alarmed by the attacks on their Church. Faithful Catholics are beginning to mobilize under the leadership of their own courageous bishops and priests. Prayer is powerful. When combined with a willingness to fight back, it can be unstoppable. This war is not over. The fight has just begun.

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