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With image flat-lining, it’s time for spin doctor

I opened my Sunday paper, and wham!

A monsignor smacked me with a stinging letter to the editor regarding my column about Cardinal Roger, who had offered my bosses a free crypt at the cathedral if they’d put me in it. In the same section, another detractor took a shot at me regarding the Grand Avenue project.

The next day, a website devoted to defending the Los Angeles Archdiocese against its critics called me clueless, arrogant and self-righteous.

Whether or not these people were right, I clearly had a career-threatening image problem on my hands.

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So I did what countless others have done upon finding themselves in deep trouble.

I called PR guru Mike Sitrick, the king of crisis management.

The author of “Spin: How to Turn the Power of the Press to Your Advantage” represented Halle Berry when she faced hit-and-run charges. He helped Rush Limbaugh after news of his addiction to prescription drugs got out. Sitrick has also gone to bat for Global Crossing’s Gary Winnick, the Getty Trust, and, indirectly, for the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

Could Sitrick save me? If so, could I afford to be saved? I’ve heard that his fees can run as high as $700 an hour.

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Thankfully, Sitrick took my call.

“You’re the man,” I said, begging him to help me.

I’d heard that Sitrick no longer works with the archdiocese. He said that was true, adding that technically, he’d never worked directly for Mahony. He was retained by J. Michael Hennigan’s law firm, which represents the archdiocese.

Still, Sitrick said, his connection was close enough that he’d have a conflict of interest helping me defend myself against the church. He couldn’t take me on as a client.

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I dropped to my knees. Did Sitrick have any idea what kind of attack I’d come under?

LA-ClergyCases.comhad held me up to public ridicule, all but calling me a lazy hack and suggesting, without much subtlety, that I would pay the ultimate price.

“Lopez may be seeing the inside of that crypt sooner than he had anticipated; at the very least he needs to be on the lookout for stray bolts of lightning,” said the unsigned essay.

Whatever happened to turning the other cheek?

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Sitrick did offer me a bit of advice, even though he couldn’t take me on as a client.

“First thing we’d do is say, ‘Look, there’s a lot of criticism out there,’ and we would say, ‘Let’s examine the criticism, see whether it’s justified,’ ” he counseled.

Sitrick said I needed to ask myself whether I had crossed the line in terms of accuracy or fairness, and for the sake of objectivity, I should ask colleagues as well.

I asked the nearest colleague if I’d been too hard on Mahony.

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“No,” came the swift reply. “You haven’t been hard enough.”

Sitrick got out his “Spin” book and read from page 202.

“No matter how dire the circumstances, don’t lie, for lying is the one sin the media will neither tolerate nor forgive,” Sitrick said. “Yes, being truthful can sometimes be painful, but unlike the alternative, it has the practical virtue of not coming back to blow up in your face. Moreover, spin that’s based on the facts is spin that’s hard to refute.”

Sitrick said he quoted Sophocles in the book so people would know he’s no dummy:

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“The truth is always the strongest argument.”

But what, pray tell, is truth?

In his 2004 “Report to the People of God,” Mahony acknowledged leaving five priests in ministry despite complaints they had molested children.

This was indeed true.

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“But a Times analysis of church records released since then shows that he left 11 other priests in ministry for periods up to 13 years after parishioners raised concerns about inappropriate behavior with children,” my paper reported last year.

In my own case, I’m taking no chances. Here and now, I’m going to cleanse my soul, especially after hearing the Sitrick and Co. slogan: “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you.”

OK, here goes:

In my brief career as an altar boy, I stole some hosts.

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During recess at St. Peter Martyr School, I snapped Margaret Aiello’s brassiere.

I had impure thoughts about Adrienne Barbeau while married to my first wife.

As Monsignor Gregory A. Cox charged in his letter to the editor Sunday, I may indeed have offended thousands of Catholic Charities volunteers and staff who serve the needy in meaningful ways, but I certainly didn’t mean to. I was trying to suggest that Cardinal Mahony himself venture down the hill to the heart of skid row, where there’s a shameful shortage of services for some of the sickest and most destitute people in the nation, and personally demonstrate how a caring individual can make a difference in someone’s life.

Sitrick is a genius -- and I’m not saying that just because he didn’t charge me for the advice. Minutes after deciding to come clean, not only did I feel much better about myself, but I was rewarded with an e-mail from Mike Hennigan apologizing for the tirade against me on LA-ClergyCases.com.

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“This one slipped through; I did not read it until yesterday,” said Hennigan, who had the commentary replaced by a milder version. “However, I take full responsibility, and apologize for it.”

I hope that’s not just a PR ploy. If it is, I hope it’s spin that’s at least based on the facts.

No apology needed, Mr. Hennigan. We are all imperfect creatures.

This is my story and I’m sticking to it, and should I be struck by stray bolts of lightning as I walk out into the storm of life, this sinner has but one last question for the cardinal:

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Is the offer of the crypt still good?

*

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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