The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

The media on the Church: we distort, you decide

Anyone who thinks the media has been treating the Church fairly over the last few weeks should take a moment to read what Sr. Mary Ann Walsh has to say in today’s Washington Post:

Some quarters of the media in the past few weeks seem to have a difficulty in getting stories right and fair. Fact-checkers and skeptical editors may have gone the way of dinosaurs. Some media appear to cite people for inflammability and absurdity, not knowledge. At times it seems that bias abounds, libel runs freely, and scrutiny lies by the side of the road.

Example: The Washington Post ran an opinion piece on Palm Sunday by Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, whose claim to fame in the U.S. previously was for a Saturday Night Live performance 18 years ago when she ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II. As the Washington Post’s theologian at the start of Holy Week, she declared that “all good Catholics … should avoid Mass.” The Web site of the same newspaper ran a vitriolic blog entry by atheist Richard Dawkins. The British scientist called the Catholic Church an “evil, corrupt organization” and a “rotten edifice” and spewed more of his anti-Catholic screed in, of all places, the On Faith section of the Washington Post-Newsweek blog. Neither Sinead O’Connor nor Richard Dawkins, while free with their opinions, seems an expert on Catholicism. They’re simply well-known. Given that editorial criterion, readers might worry that if cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer were still alive, the Post would hire him as a food critic.

MSNBC libeled the pope in Holy Week with a Web site headline – Pope describes touching boys: I went too far – which has since been removed. The headline was intended to grab attention – it did – but had not a shred of substantiation in the story it headed. Fellow media outlets, who rightly cry indignantly when they see plagiarism among their brethren, gave MSNBC a pass on the libel. MSNBC dropped the headline and apologized after the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights made noise.

A main source for many media these days seems to be plaintiffs’ attorneys, who distribute old material they’ve “found” in the discovery process. Plaintiffs’ lawyers speak of “secret” documents, more properly called “confidential,” and offer their own interpretation of the materials as well as church motivation in drafting them. Media with a frightening naiveté report on these materials as if the plaintiffs’ lawyers constitute a new Oracle of Delphi. On Wednesday of Holy Week AP reported as “breaking news,” a 1963 letter “obtained by the Associated Press” about pedophilia that was sent to Pope Paul VI by Father Gerald Fitzgerald, who headed a now-closed treatment center in New Mexico. What took AP so long? Father Fitzgerald’s letters were reported in The New York Times a year ago. The story didn’t take hold then, but with nothing better to use to keep their story going, plaintiffs’ attorneys recycled the documents and AP thought it had the scoop of the year.

There’s a lot to be reported on child sexual abuse. It’s a sin and a crime and more prevalent in society than anyone ever dreamed before the 21st century. Some organizations, such as the Catholic Church in the United States, have made massive efforts to deal with it. People are learning how to spot abusers. The Catholic Church has educated more than two million people to do so. Children are learning how to protect themselves. The Catholic Church has educated more than five million children in this regard. There are lots of stories there. But such stories take time to report and plaintiffs’ attorneys make no money promoting them. And that, at least for now, isn’t news.

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posted April 8, 2010 at 2:58 pm

“Given that editorial criterion, readers might worry that if cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer were still alive, the Post would hire him as a food critic.”
(LOL) LOVE IT!!!!!
Peace to all

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posted April 8, 2010 at 4:25 pm

There has been some reporting that is factually incorrect, but the fact is abuse has occurred and it’s inexcusable. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert tend to be my preferred news sources. Here’s what Jon Stewart had to say about the recent situation:

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posted April 8, 2010 at 4:35 pm
From the homily of Archbishop Buti Tlhagale OMI, President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, delivered at the Annual Chrism Mass, on the 1st of April 2010, held at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“In our times we have betrayed the very Gospel we preach. The Good News we claim to announce sounds so hollow, so devoid of any meaning when matched with our much publicized negative moral behaviour. Many who looked up to priests as their model feel betrayed, ashamed and disappointed. They feel that some priests have “slipped away from the footprints of the Apostles.” Trust has been compromised. The halo has been tilted, if not broken. What happens in Ireland or in Germany or America affects us all. It simply means that the misbehaviour of priests in Africa has not been exposed to the same glare of the media as in other parts of the world. We must therefore take responsibility for the hurt, the scandals, the pain and the suffering caused by ourselves who claim to be models of good behaviour. The image of the Catholic church is virtually in ruins because of the bad behaviour of its priests, wolves wearing sheep’s skin, preying on unsuspecting victims, inflicting irreparable harm, and continuing to do so with impunity. We are slowly but surely bent on destroying the church of God by undermining and tearing apart the faith of lay believers. Ironically, priests have become a stumbling block to the promotion of vocations.
Bad news spreads like wild fire. I wish I could say that there are only a few bad apples. But the outrage around us suggests that there are more than just a few bad apples.
The upshot of this sorry state of affairs is that we weaken the authoritative voice of the Church. As Church leaders, we become incapable of criticising the corrupt and immoral behaviour of the members of our respective communities. We become hesitant to criticise the greed and malpractices of our civic authorities. We are paralysed and automatically become reluctant to guide young people in the many moral dilemmas they face.
Under such circumstances, when allegations after allegations are made, when scandal after scandal is brought forth, as clergy, we probably feel much closer to Judas Iscariot and his thirty pieces of silver. “Alas for that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed”. (Mk. 14.21) Or perhaps like Simon Peter, we are deeply buried in denial; we curse and swear when we hear the words: “You are one of them”. We answer: “I do not know the man you speak of”. Each time we toss our vows in the air, each time we break our fidelity, we betray Christ himself. ”

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posted April 8, 2010 at 4:38 pm
Rev. James Martin, S.J., Catholic priest and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything
“More so than in 2002, when the clerical sex abuse crisis exploded into American newspapers, church leaders and prominent Catholics have accused the media of unjustly targeting the church, specifically the pope. The reporting on the issue is, they say, inaccurate, unfair and motivated by anti-Catholicism. Let me speak to that question as a Catholic priest, as someone who works at a weekly magazine, and who also occasionally writes for the secular media.
There has always been a lingering degree of anti-Catholicism in some quarters of the media, for a variety of reasons, some with roots deep in American history, which I’ve written about at length in America. And the media also gets things wrong from time to time, even in factual reporting–especially when reporters new to the religion beat don’t have a clue about the way that the Catholic church functions. (“When will Pope John Paul pick his successor?” I was once asked by a full-time religion reporter a few years ago.)
There are also op-ed writers and columnists who seem never to have a good word to say about the Catholic Church even in the best of times. Snotty comments from pundits who know zero about celibacy are useless; misinformed asides from journalists who know little about the Vatican are unhelpful; and mean-spirited stereotypes from otherwise thoughtful writers about all priests, all sisters, all bishops, all popes and all Catholics are as harmful as any other stereotypes. To that end, I agree with a few of the critiques about the media. A few.
But to blame the messenger for this current wave of stories about sexual abuse is, I believe, to miss the point. For instance, a friend of mine told me that at the Chrism Mass, her local bishop told the congregation to cancel their subscriptions to The New York Times, which he called “the enemy.” Besides the fact that a Mass is not the time for a critique of your local newspaper, this overlooks a critical dynamic about the service the media has provided for a church that needed to address a grave problem, but wasn’t doing enough.
To wit: Without the coverage by The Boston Globe in 2002 of the sexual abuse by priests, the Catholic Church in United States would not have confronted the scourge of sexual abuse on a nationwide basis and instituted mandatory guidelines.
Why do I say this? Because years before, in 1985, The National Catholic Reporter reported and editorialized on abuse cases about a notorious Louisiana priest. In great and numbing detail.
What was the response? Well, in 1992, after many closed-door meetings with experts in the intervening years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a series of guidelines on dealing with abuse. These, however, were not binding on the bishops, but voluntary.
But this was nothing along the lines of what happened as a result of the dogged reporting from the Globe (and other media outlets) that began in earnest in early 2002. That is, there was nothing like the extraordinary meeting of American bishops, convened in Dallas in 2002 that produced the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which set forth the nationwide “zero tolerance” policy for abusers. There was no mandatory institution of “safe practices” for every single church institution (parishes, schools, retreat centers) across the country, no mandatory training programs for all priests, deacons and church employees. And there was certainly no creation of the Office for the Protection of Children and Young People at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. None of that happened after the 1985 case. But it did after 2002.
What helped to move the church from “voluntary” to “mandatory” was the full-bore coverage of the mainstream media–harsh most of the time, wrong sometimes, motivated by anti-Catholicm very occasionally–but needed by a church that, at least until that point, seemed unwilling to confront fully the widespread nature of the abuse, the systemic structures that caused it and the seriousness of the damage done to children and their families by these crimes.
The Catholic Church in this country has come far from where it was in 2002. Its extensive training programs and draconian guidelines can be taken as models for other institutions that deal with children and young people. That doesn’t mean that local churches elsewhere do not still need to address abuse (as we’re seeing in Ireland and Germany), nor that the U.S. church has “finished” addressing these crimes. As long as the possibility for abuse exists, or one victim is still suffering from past abuses, we will not be “finished” with this problem.
Nor is it surprising that the media are now focused on the news from Ireland and Germany, or even on the Vatican’s response to individual cases in the past. It is not simply the question of sexual abuse, which occurs in every institution that deals with children. (And occurs most often in families.) Rather it is, as Paul Moses, a Catholic who has worked in the secular press, pointed out on dotCommonweal, a question of whether past cover-ups have occurred. Covering coverups is what the media does, no matter what the institution. “When a scandal of this proportion is uncovered,” Moses writes, “journalists will naturally want to see how far it goes–the basis for the latest round of stories.”
Every single bishop I know wants to end sexual abuse. They have met with victims whose lives have been destroyed, and they are justly horrified. But for every bishop of my acquaintance, there are as many religion reporters of my acquaintance called “anti-Catholic” by those very same clerics. Reporters work diligently to get the story right, particularly on such an explosive topic, sometimes after being unable to get church officials even to return their phone calls. Sometimes I wish that I could bring both parties together to discuss how the media deals with the church and the church with the media.
There’s another reason not to blame the media: it probably doesn’t work in the long run. Blaming the media in these situations, for better or worse, comes off as an excuse; it makes people wonder why so much time is devoted to finding holes in a story when so little was expended in decades past to combat abuse; you never know what digging that the media might be doing that will make your objections seem irrelevant; and, as the saying goes, “Don’t pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel.” For every objection you have they will have a team of reporters to respond. Object and correct, but don’t blame. But, more fundamentally, targeting the media ignores the way the media actually helped the Catholic church in this country.
In 1992, Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, said, “By all means we call down the power of God on the media, particularly the Globe.” It was a public excoriation for the paper’s relentless criticisms of the church’s handling of abuse cases. In a sense, the power of God did come down on the Boston Globe: it became an unwitting instrument through which the church was forced to face–for the first time on a nationwide, mandatory, system-wide basis–the crimes of its priests and the sins of the bishops who had shuttled them from parish to parish in decades past.
So I thank God for the secular media, which, in its own biased and sometimes inaccurate way, forced the church in this country to change for the better.”

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posted April 8, 2010 at 4:46 pm

Be careful what you ask for, folks. As Cardinal Law found out, if you call down the power of God upon the media, God might answer your prayer in the affirmative.
Much to your chagrin.

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posted April 8, 2010 at 6:12 pm

Yes— I agree— the secular media did force the Church to change for the better. The Church has cleaned up her act! No religion has done as much to confront this problem.
Question: When are they going to take on the rest of society, where child sex abuse is a terrible epidemic? Their lack of attention to vast sex abuse in society, makes me question whether their goal was to help procect those “children” from the 50’s and the 60’s— or was their only goal the destruction of the Church—-still unfinished business?
Come on media— save the children!

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posted April 8, 2010 at 6:27 pm

“Question: When are they going to take on the rest of society, where child sex abuse is a terrible epidemic? Their lack of attention to vast sex abuse in society, makes me question whether their goal was to help procect those “children” from the 50’s and the 60’s— or was their only goal the destruction of the Church—-still unfinished business?”
Had the Church not squandered her position as a moral beacon, the media would not have to be doing the job you call it to do. Perhaps when God gets the Church back into order, He will put it back on task to address the moral state of society once again.
How much longer will the voice of Cardinal Law echo in Catholic press releases?

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posted April 8, 2010 at 7:33 pm

O’Connor and Dawkins rants are not libel or even news accounts of any sort. They’re opinions of two people whose views are well known. Saying the church is evil and that going to Mass helps perpetuate it are statements of moral reasoning arrived at by two particular people. They are debatable, certainly, but are not logically indefensible on their face. What would your church term any other group guilty of the same offenses. If not “evil”, what term would Christ use to describe an organization which in his name abused children, the one crime for which he supported the death penalty?
As for the church being treated unfairly, the media and critics are merely making bank on scorn which the church has earned for itself. You really think the church has gotten more than its due in this? It’s evaded prosecution for thousands upon thousands of felonies. Its leading men have enjoyed immunity for racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering, witness intimidation, etc. This is not hyperbole on my part. Read the federal statutes sometime. Most defense attorneys would call the church’s position damned lucky and more than fair. If we were to treat the church “fairly” ie like everybody else in a similar situation, the Vatican and many cardinal’s mansions would be subject to Waco-style raids (which resulted on suspicion of the abuse of a dozen or two kids).

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posted April 8, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Amen to the statement by the archbishop. What this fundamentally goes back to is the issue between Henry II and Becket. Who should have jurisdiction over punishment of these priests? The ecclesiastical authorities or the civil authorities? What needs to happen is the Pope needs to come to the realization that prayer, counseling, rehab, and confession does not work, just as the medical and mental health profession know that there is no known therapy or medication that stops sex offenders or prevents recidivism in them. That is why states are now opting for civil commitment for more dangerous sex offenders, even after they have completed their sentencing. Sex offenders within the church need to go to jail. We can pray for them and minister to them there, where they will no longer be subjected to the temptations that access to children and other victims has for them. We have an additional obligation to the congregations to protect the “body of Christ” from these predators and to be good shepherds over the lambs. If you are interested in what Jesus has to say on this, read Matthew Chapter 18.

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posted April 8, 2010 at 11:43 pm

The church abuse scandal proves the strong link between homosexuality and abuse of minors. As per independent studies done by John Jay Criminal Justice College in 2010, by USA Today in 2002, by Boston Globe in 2003, and as per victims’ attorneys, 90 % of the victims are boys, between 12 and 17 years of age. The church should get rid of all homosexuals, and never again, allow any homosexuals enter the seminaries. And, society once and for all, has to understand that homosexual marriage is a travesty, and that adoption by homosexual couples, is child abuse.

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posted April 8, 2010 at 11:52 pm

The doctrine of the Catholic Church is a significant distortion of the truth preached by Jesus Christ. It is a figment of the imagination of some power-hungry group of men that we have any need for a Pope, or any of the other hierarchy. Salvation is between you, Jesus Christ, and those who have yet to be witnessed to.
All that aside, the vatican should consider itself quite fortunate to even still have a voice amidst all this current scandal. And this is only the CURRENT scandal. Nevermind centuries of bloodshed and torture, intimidation and racketeering. The Catholic Church should be dissolved so that its followers may be inspired to something simpler and greater. The Teachings of and faith in Jesus Christ. (not hokey visions of his Mom)

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posted April 9, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Even Ed Koch, Jewish former mayor of New York who disagrees with every major thing thing the Catholic Church teaches realizes that all this late broohaha are manifestation of anti-Catholicism:
“I believe the continuing attacks by the media on the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Benedict XVI have become manifestations of anti-Catholicism. The procession of articles on the same events are, in my opinion, no longer intended to inform, but simply to castigate.”

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posted April 9, 2010 at 2:39 pm

I have a lot of respect for FR. Martin, but I think he displays a myopia. God has often used the enemies of the people of God to discipline them. Just because the Church has benefited from the dogged reporting of the media does not mean that the media is our friend. Just because the media has played a vital role in the ongoing reform of the Church does not excuse their misdeeds now.
The reporting in the media has crossed over the line from biased and into inaccurate. As just one example, the now infamous NYT article reported a set of facts that were not just unsubstantiated, but contradicted by the the very documentation the article was built on. A lot of the reporting has followed on this same route, often parroting the NYT’s “facts.” And then there is the reality of the media’s near exclusive focus. By only reporting on Catholic abuse, they are implicitly saying that it is only a Catholic problem. But the facts contradict this a well.
I don’t hear anyone saying that the media should stop covering abuse in the Catholic Church. But it is entirely fair to call the media on its bias and question its motivations when its coverage has been so misleading and so shabby. Rather than calling on the media to stop doing its job, we are calling on the media to *start* doing its job. Start actually doing the work of journalism and checking the facts. Start giving editorial space to authors who are backed up by facts and guided by reason instead of anti-Catholic firebrands. And start covering the larger story of the epidemic of child abuse in our society. If the bright light of media attention is really a good thing, then start directing it to where else the problem is, and where the problem is worse .. not instead of at the Catholic Church, but in addition to the Catholic Church.
Until the media starts doing its job, I can only assume that they have an agenda .. and the truth isn’t it.

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posted April 10, 2010 at 12:40 am

A multinational corporation is discovered to have been covering up instances of sexual abuse by its employees in at least ten nations over the past 40 years. The company officials who participated in the cover-up not only are still in power in many instances, but have been promoted within the company. Five years after the death of a long-time head of this corporation we are hearing allegations of how weak he was in dealing with this issue of child abuse by his employees. And now, the current head of the corporation is facing continuing questioning about his own involvement in possible cover-ups of abuse.
Now…show me another entity/corporation that approaches this scale of scandal and we can start talking about how the press is being so unfair to the Catholic Church. Until you can do that you are, at best, engaging in focused misinformation. At worst, you are agents in the cover-up.

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posted April 11, 2010 at 2:40 am

I would take issue with Fr. Martin’s article on three points.
First, criticism of the media for the shoddy and irresponsible reporting on this story of the sex abuse crisis is not the same as blaming the media for the crisis itself. The fact is, the reporting on this story has been shoddy, irresponsible and, in some cases, libelous to the point where legitimate questions of fairness and motive on the part of the media are being raised. Those questions are not being addressed because those critical of the media’s shoddy and irresponsible reporting are being dismissed as blaming the media.
Second, Fr. Martin gives the media too much credit in the Church finally being willing to address this issue. Reforms of the US seminaries initiated by JPII in the late 70s led to more careful consideration about who was and who was not admitted to seminary. Consequently, the cases of abuse by priests decreased dramatically in the late 80s and 90s, well before the media broke the story in 2002. The lion’s share of cases was limited to the period from the mid-60s to the mid-80s and by priests largely ordained from the early 60s to the mid-70s. Give credit where credit is due, of course, but to paint the picture as if the Church was ignoring this problem until the media broke it open is not a true picture.
Third, Fr. Martin is too generous is his assessment of the media’s motives and practices. I am convinced anti-Catholicism is far wider in the media than he is willing to admit, given what I read in the media. As well, the ignorance of Catholicism is inexcuseable. A full time religion reporter who asks when the pope is going to name his successor should be fired. If you’re given a beat, you learn that beat. Too many reporters don’t care to get the Church “right” because they don’t think it matters. Also, to say that uncovering cover-ups is what the media does, “regardless of the institution” reflects an amazing innocence of the media’s record on these types of stories.

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posted April 11, 2010 at 2:41 am

Not sure what I did wrong, but the above post on Fr. Martin’s article belongs to me.

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posted April 26, 2010 at 1:03 am

So only experts on Catholicism should weigh in on the abuse scandal? Not just your average go-to-church, pray-to-God, take-communion Catholics? You’re blaming the media, plaintiff’s attorneys, and Sinead O’Conner, instead of the people who caused all of this harm to the innocent and to the Catholic Church.
As a Catholic, I will give credit where credit is due — the victims, the plaintiffs attorneys, the media — for exposing this dirty little madness, ignored and kept hidden by the Church. It’s articles like this that continues to push the Church in the wrong direction. Stand up, admit the failures, don’t blame others, and ask yourself, what is purpose of a church that will protect its priests before its children?

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posted June 2, 2010 at 6:13 pm

No one is saying that the media shouldn’t cover the issue’s within the Church. But for everyone’s sake use facts, credible sources. Sinead O’Conner? Atheists? Both have crosses to bare with the Church. Million’s of Catholics dont need two insignificant opinions from insignificant people. Get a life.

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