An extraordinary column today by the Catholic writer Peggy Noonan, who wrote a book called “John Paul the Great,” especially this bit:
In both the U.S. and Europe, the scandal was dug up and made famous by the press. This has aroused resentment among church leaders, who this week accused journalists of spreading “gossip,” of going into “attack mode” and showing “bias.”
But this is not true, or to the degree it is true, it is irrelevant. All sorts of people have all sorts of motives, but the fact is that the press–the journalistic establishment in the U.S. and Europe–has been the best friend of the Catholic Church on this issue. Let me repeat that: The press has been the best friend of the Catholic Church on the scandals because it exposed the story and made the church face it. The press forced the church to admit, confront and attempt to redress what had happened. The press forced them to confess. The press forced the church to change the old regime and begin to come to terms with the abusers. The church shouldn’t be saying j’accuse but thank you.
Without this pressure–without the famous 2002 Boston Globe Spotlight series with its monumental detailing of the sex abuse scandals in just one state, Massachusetts–the church would most likely have continued to do what it has done for half a century, which is look away, hush up, pay off and transfer.
This is the sort of thing that can only be said by a Catholic — especially one who is not known to dissent from the Church’s teachings, a la Maureen Dowd — and one who understands how journalism works. She goes on to say that in her observation, many journalists have been reluctant to take this story up, because they were afraid of coming across as Catholic bashers. I have to say that corresponds to my observations as well. Non-journalists, especially religious conservatives, like to think that reporters sit around licking their chops, thinking up ways to go after churches for their sins and failings. While I would be the last person to claim that there is no anti-religious bias (or at least ignorance) in the way most newsrooms cover religion, as a general matter, it is a fantasy to think that reporters are excited by this story. I’ve seen it cause a lot of unease among journalists and editors, and I’ve heard stories from older reporters about them being ordered in the distant past (e.g., the 1980s and 1990s) not to pay attention to these stories coming out of the courts about priests molesting children. I myself was once taken off an abuse story I was chasing down for the New York Post, for reasons I was never able to ascertain, but which certainly had nothing to do with the quality of my reporting, or there being nothing left to report about the abuse ring I and a colleague were uncovering.
As Noonan points out elsewhere in her column, there can be a real price to be paid for reporting news that people don’t want to hear about their church. The story of the abuse scandal in America finally faded from our media, but that’s not because the story ended with a clear resolution. It’s because editors and producers got tired of it, and judged — probably correctly — that continuing to follow the story would start to look like piling on the Catholic Church. Believe me, you have no idea how many stories I was told that I believed to be true, or mostly true, but that I could never report because the priests and others telling them to me wouldn’t go on the record — and I lacked the resources and the time to chase down documents that might have borne out their charges. This is a common experience of reporters who spent any serious time covering the scandal. Far more abuse has gone unreported in the news media than reported, for reasons both good and bad.
In any case, Noonan’s column made me recall something a priest told me during the height of the scandal in this country. He said that as much as he hates the media, especially The New York Times and the Boston Globe, he was grateful that they were exposing the truth of what had been going on for far too long. He said, “In Scripture, God often uses the enemies of His people to chastise them, and to bring them to repentance. That’s what we’re seeing here.”
(H/T: Get Religion)