Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Noonan: Journalists are the Church’s best friend

posted by Rod Dreher

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)

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posted April 2, 2010 at 2:32 pm

I agree with Noonan and you, with this proviso: *honest journalists are the Church’s best friend. The mere act of reporting these horrors is a blessing and the mere fact of reporting, I don’t think, shows any bias or Church-bashing. But the NYT piece last week was not honest or mere reporting/investigating. As Cardinal Levada, Jimmy Akin, John Allen, and many others have shown: their article was poor journalism, unsupported by facts (even their own). In that case, I think its justified to go after the journalists. Report the horror of it, yes. The Church needs that. But please don’t “report” things that aren’t true. They do nothing but hurt the Church because most people blindly believe it. And Catholics are justified to complain about that kind of journalism. (Whether the Vatican should is a different question and one of strategy/public perception)

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posted April 2, 2010 at 4:10 pm

As Cardinal Levada, Jimmy Akin, John Allen, and many others have shown: their article was poor journalism, unsupported by facts (even their own).
Except they haven’t shown the journalism was “wrong,” but that the Vatican views the issue differently. Even Allen, the most credible despite his insider status, doesn’t say that the NYT story is wrong, only that the Vatican has a defense.
Every time there is a major story about sexual abuse in the Church, the Church’s response is to blame the media. It’s a kneejerk reaction that does them no favors. That’s Noonan’s larger point. If it weren’t for the media’s willingness to not accept excuses and explanations from the Church, the coverups and scandals would never be reproter.

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the stupid Chris

posted April 2, 2010 at 5:53 pm

And apparently the Church’s worst enemy is the Pope’s personal preacher…
Likening the reporting on the scandal with the persecution of the Jews, on Good Friday, indicates how totally out-of-touch with reality the leadership of the Church has become.

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Loudon is a Fool

posted April 2, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Except they haven’t shown the journalism was “wrong,” . . . .
Fair enough. They have shown the articles were poorly conceived, poorly drafted, lacking in balance and, on the whole, unfair hit pieces intended to embarrass and harass Church leaders during Holy Week.
Noonan’s point is a good one. But the barrage of NYT articles and their timing can only be described as curious.

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posted April 2, 2010 at 6:35 pm

Is there ever a good time to report on a scandal involving the Vatican?

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Loudon is a Fool

posted April 2, 2010 at 6:58 pm

If the gay former Archbishop of Milwaukee’s 20 year failure to take disciplinary action against his brother in orientation were a Vatican scandal, any time would be an acceptable time. Since it isn’t, I guess there isn’t a good time to bring it up.
Personally, the times for reporting scandals involving the Vatican should mostly be reserved to the 12th, 15th, 20th, and 27th weeks of ordinary time. But that’s just me.

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posted April 2, 2010 at 9:15 pm

The other important person the Church should thank is MA Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney, who ended the decades-long deferential and fawning treatment the MA courts had traditionally accorded the local Catholic potentates with regard to keeping things sealed up tight.

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posted April 2, 2010 at 10:00 pm

If the gay former Archbishop of Milwaukee’s 20 year failure to take disciplinary action against his brother in orientation were a Vatican scandal, any time would be an acceptable time.
Did I miss the memo that Archbishop of Milwaukee was not accountable to the Vatican and that the Vatican wasn’t responsible for the actions and behaviors of the bishops and archbishops?

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posted April 3, 2010 at 1:29 am


posted April 3, 2010 at 9:28 am

This was a good column. It seems obvious now that Benedict was a the target of a bit of a hit job from a group including a trial lawyer, Rembert Weakland and other people with axes to grind. That said, I was disturbed by the response among many Catholics. The victims are still the children who were subjected to unspeakable harm. Even if Benedict is being treated unfairly (and I think it’s clear he is), his suffering pales in comparison to that of the children who were abused. All of which is why I’ve been so disturbed by some of the responses of conservative Catholics who should know better. Places like FT found it easier to denounce the New York Times and rally the troops for another culture war rather than simply correct the mistakes and move on with the work of rebuilding trust. In this context, Noonan is quite right: there is little media bias, otherwise the NYTimes would have jumped on these allegations years ago.

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posted April 3, 2010 at 9:40 am

Lasorda, so you are saying an archbishop or priest can “go rogue” and the Vatican can’t do anything about it? That the purge of heretical and liberation theologists didn’t occur? That the Vatican would have no control over, let’s say, an Archbishop who was promoting abortion rights?

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Hunk Hondo (C.H. Ross)

posted April 3, 2010 at 10:07 am

Bravissima!! After weeks of cringe-inducing “defenses” of the hierarchy, this was badly needed. Peggy has hit some awful clinkers during the past couple of years, but she broke out of her slump handsomely today.

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posted April 3, 2010 at 11:50 am

I first started to follow your writing when you were reporting on the first scandal — which now seems ages ago. I haven’t always been as appreciative as I should have been of your stuff, but I just want to say thanks for keeping to it. God bless.

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