Stunning cases of sexual abuse by Catholic clergymen did not just start generating headlines this year. Almost two decades ago in Louisiana, reporter Jason Berry unearthed the sordid tale of a priest with a track record of sexually abusing children. A decade ago, Massachusetts was rocked by similar revelations about former Fall River priest James Porter. The Dallas Morning News spent a good chunk of the ’90s covering a notorious episode in that city. Tom Roberts, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, has ”fat envelopes full of clips” about similar misconduct published over the past 20 years.
But it was only this past January – when the Globe reported detailed information about the Boston Archdiocese’s failure to prevent former priest John Geoghan’s extensive sexual abuse of children – that the story generated major and sustained media attention. When Catholic bishops gathered in Dallas in June, more than 700 journalists descended on an event that traditionally attracts about two dozen. The Poynter Institute, a media think tank, began collecting articles from all over the country on the spreading scandal for its Clergy Abuse Tracker and now has an archive in the thousands. A recent Pew Research Center survey revealed that 74 percent of Americans were following the abuse allegations ”fairly” or ”very” closely, making it the biggest story next to ”defending against terrorism.”
The intensity and tenor of the coverage have generated some harsh criticism, much, but not all, of it coming from inside the church hierarchy. And there is some concern about the Catholic Church being chewed up in America’s culture of shrill public debate, driven by ravenous cable news networks and an endless parade of pundits. But by and large, a mainstream media corps often accused of a lack of perspective and understanding when it comes to organized religion is getting high marks for unearthing a scandal with broad and deep implications.
This saga features ”sex, secrecy, and hypocrisy,” said Robert McClory, a former priest and associate professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. ”It’s grist for the mill for the media when you discover a large, pompous institution that’s been caught in some way violating its own principles.”
Critics often cite what they see as a media feeding frenzy that has skewed the scope of the problem and tarred the church with too broad a brush. In a June speech in Dallas, Wilton Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, lauded journalists’ role in helping abuse victims come forward, but added that the media had ”distorted … the image of Catholic hierarchy in this country … to an extent which I would not have thought possible six months ago.” Using far blunter language, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras said in a June interview that the US press corps was evincing ”a fury which reminds me of the times of Diocletian and Nero and more recently, Stalin and Hitler.” Commonweal, a liberal biweekly edited by Catholic laity, noted that ”perspective is hard to come by in the midst of a media barrage that is reminiscent of the day care sex abuse stories, now largely disproved, of the early nineties, or the lurid details of Bill Clinton’s impeachment.”
But many observers contend that the media have fulfilled a crucial function in uncovering a tragedy of still unknown scope. ”In a way, this is a case study for why a free press is necessary in any kind of democracy,” said Charles Haynes, coauthor of ”Religion in American Public Life” and a specialist on religious liberty in society. Patrick Scully, communications director for the Catholic League, which frequently assails what it sees as anti-Catholic bias in the media, said: ”I think the straight news reporting of it, the basic facts, have been very fair and very good.”
Added Bill Mitchell, the Poynter online editor who helped start the Clergy Abuse Tracker: ”It’s understandable that some people think it’s out of whack. It’s a story so rife with the possibility of error and overdoing it. I think the excesses have been so incidental, surprisingly so.”
On one crucial question, most analysts are adamant: A Catholic hierarchy facing this kind of crisis cannot argue that it’s not the media’s or public’s business. ”While religion is a private matter, the church is not entirely a private matter,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. ”When crimes are committed, that clearly makes it an issue that a public institution like a newspaper should focus on.” Speaking about the churches, Debra Mason, executive director of the roughly 240-member Religion Newswriters Association, said, ”you’re talking about organizations that wield extreme power [that] are in many ways sheltered…. It demands and deserves to be scrutinized closely.”
The available evidence suggests the public is finding the church coverage generally credible. A February Globe survey of Catholics in the Boston Archdiocese found that 64 percent of the respondents rejected the idea of anti-Catholic bias by the media, while only 23 percent saw an anti-Catholic tilt. In April, another Globe poll of area Catholics revealed that two-thirds wanted Cardinal Bernard Law to resign his post. A national Gallup poll in May found that 77 percent of Catholics wanted a priest guilty of sexually abusing a young person removed from his post, and in another survey in June, 90 percent favored the removal of a bishop who knew of such abuse and did not banish the priest or report the case to police. The intense level of interest reflected in the Pew survey – in which the scandal attracted more interest than Middle East violence or the war in Afghanistan – seems to validate the media’s effort.
This level of public attention reflects a unique set of circumstances that transformed what had been localized coverage of scattered incidents into a national mega-story where the dots suddenly seemed to connect. Until the Boston case unraveled this year, ”I could count on the fingers of one hand the calls I got [from reporters] on the national level,” about sexual abuse problems in the past five years, said Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, communications director for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
”What made Boston explode?” said Tom Roberts, whose publication, the National Catholic Reporter, began covering the subject in 1983: ”The bright lights of the East Coast press;” the involvement of Law, ”who is kind of a kingmaker in the Catholic world;” and the fact that in January, the Globe procured previously sealed church documents that ”convey to people that you’ve got the unedited, unspun language of the institution.”
Maniscalco believes the turning point was the Vatican’s decision in April to summon the cardinals to Rome to discuss the crisis. ”It began as a story about one archdiocese. Then once you brought in the universal church in Rome, that became a kind of quantum leap,” he said.
He and others say the dramatic upsurge in media interest created some journalistic excess, particularly when it came to coverage of the April summit in Rome and the eagerly anticipated June meeting in Dallas. The Rome meeting attracted a horde of television journalists, and that week the story dominated the three nightly broadcast network newscasts. The Dallas gathering attracted about three times the number of reporters who actually belong to the Religion Newswriters Association. That sudden stampede of journalists, many not particularly familiar with the workings of the church, helped fuel overhyped speculation that some climactic move – ranging from doctrinal changes to possible resignations – might be imminent. The Dallas meeting, for example, produced a complex policy that included barring priests who abused a minor from the ministry but not necessarily banning them from the priesthood. And while it mandated reporting all allegations to government authorities, it did not mandate penalties against bishops who had failed to remove abusive priests.
Some media outlets ”were really ridiculous about some of the expectations of what would come out of those meetings,” said Mason. ”That’s pack journalism at its worst.”
And some of those who laud the reporting on this scandal evince discomfort about having the church batted around like a political football in the op-ed columns or by the television talking heads who are part of today’s news mix. While that kind of rough and tumble debate might be considered fair game in the secular world – fit for a Bill Clinton or Enron scandal – some may view it as inappropriate in this instance, given the church’s unique role in society.
”I fully understand that it’s the columnist’s job, and the cartoonist’s job, to opine, but I think it’s been unfair, in some cases vicious,” said Patrick Scully of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. ”There is a lot of ugly stuff, unthinking discussions on the 24-hour programs, and talk radio,” added Haynes.
That concern taps into what some observers see as a longstanding tension between the secular media and religious institutions. ”The deeper issue is that the news media, as a rule, doesn’t think religious developments are news,” said Haynes.
S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, coauthored a decade-old study that examined coverage in several major media outlets in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s for evidence of anti-Catholic bias. It found that ”on most controversies involving Catholic teachings, the Church came out on the losing side of the issue debate reported in the media,” in part because ”journalists frequently approached this subject matter from a secular vantage point.”
A 1993 study – ”Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media,” published by the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center – discounted the idea of anti-religious bias among journalists, but did conclude that the media and religion were ”two alien cultures” that misunderstood and distrusted each other.
Yet, officials involved with both of those studies say they don’t see anti-religious animus or bloodthirsty ”gotcha” journalism driving the reporting on the current sexual abuse story.
”My own subjective judgment about this as a career journalist on one hand and a lifetime Roman on the other is that [coverage] has been excellent,” said John Siegenthaler, the founder of the First Amendment Center, who wrote the introduction to the 1993 study. ”My sense of it is that there’s some pain in some of the reporting. ”
Lichter said that given his earlier study’s conclusion that ”coverage of the church reflects the more liberal, cosmopolitan and secular tendencies of reporters… I might have expected even more hard-hitting coverage of such a scandalous story. My subjective impression has been that coverage has been fairly restrained given the subject matter. This is a very volatile and explosive issue. This story is intrinsically scandalous.”