Some allegations have staying power no matter how many times they are refuted. For the past month, including the Easter weekend, articles and broadcasts have abounded about the sexual abuse scandal and claims of cover-up at the highest levels of the Church. Most of the allegations concerned events in Europe and the U.S., and grew wildly after suggestions that Pope Benedict himself may have known of or approved a decision to return a German offender to ministry. Led by the New York Times, there were further efforts to accuse the Pope, in his former capacity as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with failing to act promptly in a U.S. case. The allegations, and the Times’ role in spreading them, have been widely and justifiably refuted and discredited (Register, April 4), including by the Times itself, albeit with less prominence than it gave the original. Many individuals and organizations also made phone calls and sent letters in pursuit of fairness.
Although these events took place outside of Canada, they were widely reported here, partly from wire services and substantially based on the Times’ errors. Throughout, there were columnists and other commentators who seemed to be, if not enjoying it, certainly relishing the opportunity to smear the entire Church with the sins and crimes of a minority.
Prior to the Times involvement, attention was focused on Irish and European cases. “The Great Catholic Coverup”, an opinion piece by Christopher Hitchens printed March 18 in the National Post, was probably the most vitriolic and one-sided in Canada, but not out of keeping with the unjustifiable innuendo that could be found in other Canadian newspapers. The Star, for example, headlined a March 15 report “Priest close to Pope suspended in sexual assault case,” even though the accompanying wire story gave no indication the two had ever met.
As many have stated in print, Hitchens’ remarks about the Vatican’s “steady complicity” in an “endless scandal” are not warranted by the record. Most analysts credit Pope Benedict with breaking the silence that too often surrounded allegations in the past, extending public apologies and insisting on a zero-tolerance policy toward the offenders. A cover article in Macleans (April 5), while it repeated the allegations against Pope Benedict, makes it clear that he has done more than any previous pope to improve the handling of these cases and attempt to prevent new ones. The Hitchens article, and a not-dissimilar piece in La Presse, was so inaccurate and inflammatory that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops took the unusual step of protesting them in a press release. As far as I know, it got little play outside of the Church press.
There are journalists who do not want the Church taken seriously as a moral authority, and Christopher Hitchens and much of the Times reporting was driven by this bias. Lesser “lights” let their bias shine in their oft-repeated observations that the Church will fall because of this scandal, and is already emptying out. Without diminishing the seriousness of the scandal or the need to help those who still suffer, it was ironic all the churches they showed were full.
Whether as individuals or as part of a laity organization, we need to be careful how we evaluate media coverage of the scandal. It’s a given that we won’t like the emphasis on who and what is to blame, rather than on what has been done to try to heal victims and prevent new occurrences. Most Catholics complain, rightly in my opinion, about the focus on misdeeds in the Church even though research suggests that abuse occurs at a similar or higher rate in other institutions that serve youth, including schools, and the historical pattern of mismanagement and cover-up was much the same in all of them.
We can blame and correct the media for sensationalistic and inaccurate reporting, but we really can’t blame them for causing the scandal. When we do, it’s all too easy to minimize the harm that has been done, particularly in older cases when the standard institutional responses of the time were sorely inadequate. It’s a fact that a small percentage of priests violated the trust placed in them and were not reported, punished or removed from ministry as today’s protocols would require. Anti-Catholic and anti-faith bias is a factor in why we hear more about it when it occurs in the Church than elsewhere, but it’s not unreasonable to hold the Church to a higher standard. We can’t expect, and frankly should not want, the media to ignore the problem, but a standard of fairness must be demanded. The Times, and the rapid copy-catting that followed, have given an unfortunate example of how not to achieve it.
– Joanne McGarry, © The Catholic Register, April 18, 2010
– A critic blinded by hatred, by Father Raymond de Souza, National Post, April 15