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Diane Winston Headshot

Gunning for the Pope?

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Last week, the New York Times added another piece to the puzzling history of the Vatican's response to the crisis of clergy sexual abuse. Reporters Laurie Goodstein and David Halbfinger plumbed church documents and interviewed church leaders to ascertain how Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, deployed church policy to address scandals that, by the 1990s, were erupting globally.

Despite recent Vatican efforts to paint the current pope as a responsive leader seeking to address the problem, the reporters draw a picture of a bureaucrat more concerned with protecting his institution than with preventing abuse and disciplining abusers.

As Goodstein and Halbfinger write: "the future pope, it is now clear, was also part of a culture of nonresponsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction. More than any top Vatican official other than John Paul, it was Cardinal Ratzinger who might have taken decisive action in the 1990s to prevent the scandal from metastasizing in country after country, growing to such proportions that it now threatens to consume his own papacy."

Read the article to see if you agree. More to the point, decide whether it addresses the key question bedeviling public opinion: why did church officials place institutional issues--preeminently the shortage of priests and the sanctity of its theological claims--above the safety of its children?

It's this question that raises the story from a one-off, garden-variety scandal to an ongoing crisis. As others, including Vatican officials, have noted it's a sad reality that children are abused in schools, camps, and religious settings. Typically when the crime comes to light, the offender suffers the consequences and the story comes to an end. But if a powerful institution shields the guilty party, obstructs justice, and enables the offending behavior to continue, it's newsworthy.

Critics complain that the Times is out to get the Church and Pope Benedict, in particular. They cite theological inaccuracies, historical misunderstandings and editorial intimations to justify their stance. But they miss the forest for the trees. The intricacies of priestly ordination, Vatican law and institutional preservation are important to the story, but they're not the point. The point is the church's choice: opting to safeguard the institution, its priests and reputation at the expense of children and families. The Times is, as any news outlet should be, interested in making sense of this decision and, of course, grabbing readers' attention.

Newspapers and other news outlets exist to make money for owners and shareholders. That primary economic objective is central to any analysis of what's covered and how it's reported. Journalists desirous of speaking truth to power, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable only occasionally get satisfaction. It's a lesson I learned when I went to work for the Baltimore Sun in 1989. The religion reporter had written an exposé of clergy sexual abuse in the local Roman Catholic diocese. But the story was spiked because, depending on whom you believed, diocesan leaders complained to the editors; the editors were afraid of offending readers, or the business side did not want to rattle advertisers.

That scenario undoubtedly was replicated in many newsrooms until the Boston Globe's 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning coverage made reporting on clergy sex abuse de rigueur. But despite the frisson of revealing religious hypocrisy, it's not just a "gotcha" phenomenon. It's also a call for accountability. "Who allowed this to happen?" is a question that echoes in all cases of misconduct and reflects journalistic insistence on the public's right to know.

Should religious organizations be exempt from the close scrutiny directed at other institutions? The Times' critics seem to believe that the Church deserves special dispensation. They seem to expect reporters, steeped in its history and mission, to treat it with the empathetic understanding of insiders mindful of its divine calling. But journalists are, by definition, outsiders who report on human foibles. The church gets the same treatment as the military, the unions, the government or any other powerful bureaucracy mired in malfeasance.

I welcome the Times' spotlight on the Vatican's handling of the crisis. Its reporting should be debated and its assertions can be critiqued. But it's helpful to have the timeline, context and overview which articles like this most recent one provide. Religious groups may aspire to a different standard of coverage but as long as they operate on this side of paradise, I expect journalists to give them the same treatment as they do any other human endeavor.