A number of people are under the impression that "the media" are responsible for the crisis of the Catholic Church in America. Prominent members of the church hierarchy in Rome are said to be among them. The member of the Roman Curia who has received the most publicity for his criticism of the media is Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras. In an interview with the Italian Catholic magazine Thirty Days, he accused the press of acting with "a fury which remind me of the times of Diocletian and Nero, and more recently Stalin and Hitler." The church "should be free of this kind of treatment," he advised. Getting more specific, he said that "newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Boston Globe" are "protagonists of what I do not hesitate to define as a persecution against the church."

Before addressing those strange comments, we should be clear about one thing. The press did indeed generate the level of publicity that enveloped the church in scandal. In that sense, the media were "responsible." But were they responsible for something bad, as the cardinal would have it, or for something good?

Many bishops evidently believed that if there is one thing worse than corruption, it is the public airing of corruption; as though God only sees things if they are reported in The New York Times.

Let there be no mistake about something else. The media in the U.S. have much more power and independence than in any other country in Europe, probably in the world. The newspapers criticized by the cardinal are richer than their European counterparts, with the resources needed to mount unprecedented coverage of an institution as large as the Catholic Church. In recent months the New York Times had about 45 reporters working on the story. Dozens of other newspapers have joined in -some would say "piled on."

There has been nothing remotely comparable to this level of media coverage of the Church, ever before in its history. (I am confident of that because "the media," as an independent power-unto-itself goes back only about 30 years, approximately to the time of Watergate.) In recent months, the media have also been helped by lawyers of the tort bar who have not shrunk from publicizing their cases, and by judges who mostly seem to have sided with plaintiffs, especially in Boston.

The key question to be addressed is whether what the media have reported is true. Notice that Cardinal Rodriguez didn't point to any errors, and one must wonder in all candor whether he even read the articles in question (certainly, reading all of the material would have been close to a full-time job).

Notice that what has been reported in the press has been a double scandal. First, the scandal of pedophile priests; second, the scandal of complicitous bishops. Many of these bishops evidently believed and perhaps still believe that if there is one thing worse than corruption, it is the public airing of corruption; as though God only sees things if they are reported in The New York Times.

In any event, it is clear by now that the facts reported about pedophile priests and bishops who covered for them have been overwhelmingly true. If the Globe or The Times had been lying about Cardinal Bernard Law, you can be sure that he would have said so by now. He hasn't.

The real difference of opinion is between those who think that corruption is best hushed up (because it will scandalize the faithful), and those who think it is best exposed to the daylight. Indeed, the scandal of bishops who hid the truth arose precisely because they felt that the exposure of corruption is even more to be deplored than the corruption itself.

I find that difficult to understand. In my frequent discussions with Catholics who are every bit as conservative as I am, I have not yet found one person who felt that the exposure of corrupt priests and bishops has been undesirable. Every single person I have spoken with has felt it important that these unsavory facts be brought to light. To be sure, a publicized scandal may be disheartening to many of the faithful, but that is only because they were under the impression that the condition of the church was healthier than it really was. Can anyone doubt that it is better to know the truth than to be kept in the dark?

In contrast, the position of those in the Vatican who deplore the exposure of corruption really is perverse. They seem not to understand that the moral harm is done whether or not it is exposed, and in fact may well be greater if it is not exposed.

For one thing, there is a greater sense of lingering injustice among those who were victimized. There is also a simmering resentment against the perpetrators who not only did bad things but got away with it and emerged with their reputations intact.