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Rev. James Martin, S.J. Headshot

It's Not About The Media: Blaming The Messenger In The Sex Abuse Crisis

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More so than in 2002, when the clerical sex abuse crisis exploded into American newspapers, some Church leaders and prominent Catholics have accused the media of unjustly targeting the Church, specifically the Pope. The reporting on the story is, they say, inaccurate, unfair and motivated by anti-Catholicism.

Let me speak to that question as a Catholic priest, as someone who works at a weekly magazine and who also occasionally writes for the secular media.

There has always been a lingering degree of anti-Catholicism in some quarters of the media, for a variety of reasons, some with roots deep in American history, which I've written about at length in America magazine. The media also gets things dead wrong at times, even in factual reporting -- especially when reporters new to the religion beat don't have a clue about the way that the Catholic Church functions.

There are also op-ed writers and columnists who seem never to have a good word to say about the Catholic Church, even in the best of times. Snotty comments from pundits who know zero about celibacy are useless; misinformed asides from journalists who know little about the Vatican are unhelpful; and mean-spirited stereotypes from otherwise thoughtful writers about all priests, all sisters, all bishops, all popes and all Catholics are as harmful, and as defamatory, as any other stereotypes. To that end, I agree with a few of the critiques about the media.

But to blame the messenger for this current wave of stories about sexual abuse is to miss the point. For instance, a friend told me that at the Chrism Mass, a diocesan-wide liturgy a few days before Easter, her local bishop told the congregation to cancel their subscriptions to The New York Times, which he called "the enemy." Besides the fact that a Mass is not the time to critique your local newspaper, this overlooks a critical dynamic about the service the media has provided for a Church that needed to address a grave problem but wasn't doing enough.

To wit: without the coverage by The Boston Globe in 2002 of the sexual abuse by priests, the Catholic Church in United States would not have confronted the issue on a nationwide basis and instituted mandatory guidelines.

Why do I say this? Because years before, in 1985, a smaller but highly influential, left-leaning Catholic newspaper, The National Catholic Reporter, reported and editorialized on abuse cases involving a notorious Louisiana priest.

What was the response? In 1992, after many closed-door meetings with experts in the intervening years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a series of guidelines on dealing with abuse. These, however, were not binding on the bishops, but voluntary.

But this was nothing along the lines of what happened as a result of the dogged reporting from the Globe that began in earnest in early 2002. That is, there was nothing like the extraordinary meeting of American bishops, convened in Dallas in 2002 that produced the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," which set forth the nationwide "zero tolerance" policy for abusers. Prior to that, there was no mandatory institution of "safe practices" for every single Church institution (parishes, schools, social-service centers, etc.), no mandatory training programs for all priests, deacons, and Church employees across the country. And there was no creation of the Office for the Protection of Children and Young People at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. None of that happened after the 1985 case. But it did after 2002.

What helped to move the Church from "voluntary" to "mandatory" was the full-bore coverage by the mainstream media -- harsh most of the time, wrong sometimes, motivated by anti-Catholicism very occasionally, but needed by a Church that, at least until that point, seemed unable to confront fully the widespread nature of the abuse, the systemic structures that caused it, and the seriousness of the damage done to children and their families by these crimes.

The Catholic Church in this country has come far from where it was in 2002. Its extensive training programs and draconian guidelines can be taken as models for all institutions that deal with children and young people. That doesn't mean that local churches elsewhere won't still need to address abuse (as we're seeing in Ireland and Germany), nor that the U.S. Church has "finished" addressing these crimes. As long as the possibility for abuse exists, or one victim is still suffering from past abuses, we will not be "finished" with this problem.

Nor is it surprising that the media are focused on the news from Ireland and Germany, or even on the Vatican's response. It is not simply the question of sexual abuse, which occurs in every institution that deals with children (and occurs most often in families). Rather, as Paul Moses, a Catholic journalist who has worked in the secular press, pointed out on Commonweal's blog, it is the media's questioning of whether past cover-ups have occurred. Covering cover-ups is what the media does, no matter the institution. "When a scandal of this proportion is uncovered," Moses writes, "journalists will naturally want to see how far it goes -- the basis for the latest round of stories."

Every single bishop I know wants to end sexual abuse. They have met with victims whose lives have been destroyed, and they are justly horrified. But for every bishop of my acquaintance, there are as many religion reporters of my acquaintance called "anti-Catholic" by those very same clerics. Reporters work diligently to get the story right, particularly on such an explosive topic, sometimes after being unable to get Church officials even to return their phone calls. Sometimes I wish that I could bring both parties together to discuss how the media deals with the Church and the Church with the media.

There's another reason not to blame the media: it probably doesn't work in the long run. Blaming the media in these situations, for better or worse, comes off as an excuse; it makes people wonder why so much time is devoted to finding holes in a story when so little was expended in decades past to prevent abuse; you never know what digging that the media might be doing that will make your objections seem irrelevant; and, as the saying goes, "Don't pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel." For every objection you raise the media will have a team of reporters to respond. Object and correct, but don't blame. More fundamentally, targeting the media ignores the way the media helped the Catholic Church in this country.

In 1992, Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, said, "By all means we call down the power of God on the media, particularly the Globe." It was a public excoriation for the paper's relentless criticisms of the Church's handling of abuse cases.

In a sense, the power of God did come down on The Boston Globe: it became an unwitting instrument through which the Church was forced to face -- for the first time on a nationwide, mandatory, system-wide basis -- the crimes of its priests and the sins of the bishops who had shuttled them from parish to parish in decades past.

So I thank God for the secular media, which, in its own biased and sometimes inaccurate way, forced the Church in this country to change for the better.

James Martin, SJ is a Catholic priest and the author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. A longer version of this essay is on "In All Things."