The bottom line is that the priest sex abuse
story is huge in the States because it blends sex, religion, and cover-up.
It would be nice if reporters would cover a few other stories with the
same verve, but so long as journalism is a for-profit enterprise rather
than a public trust, the logic of the market will prevail.
a Jesuit magazine considered a semi-official Vatican mouthpiece because
it is reviewed by the Secretariat of State prior to publication, recently
carried an editorial complaining of “morbid and scandalous curiosity” in
the American media with respect to the priest sex abuse crisis.
Noting the large number
of satellite trucks American TV networks parked outside the Vatican during
the April 23-24 summit meeting with American cardinals, the article warned
of an “anti-Catholic” and “anti-papal” spirit in the United States.
“For many newspapers
and television stations,”
Civiltà Cattolica said, “it seemed
too good to be true to be able to slap the ‘monster’ of the day on the
front page, this time identified in the Catholic clergy.”
Since the sex abuse crisis
broke in December, I have written extensively on the subject, and I have
also been interviewed by countless broadcast and print outlets. On the
strength of that experience, I think I have a reasonably informed perspective
on how the American press has handled the story.
Here’s my take: Clerical
sexual misconduct, as well as the failure of the bishops to respond appropriately
to that misconduct, is a legitimate news story. Some might be able to make
the case that we in the press have exaggerated the dimensions of the story,
but anti-Catholicism is not the only, or even the most important, factor.
At the same time, the U.S. bishops could have cut off the story’s oxygen
supply by handling the cases of abuse with more sensitivity, or by supplying
more imaginative leadership in the aftermath of the disclosures.
No reporter should apologize
for bringing to light the abuse that has so shocked public opinion — Geoghan,
for example, or Shanley. Without the attention, the negligence that kept
these predators on the job might well have continued. The journalists who
forced the hierarchy to respond have performed a genuine service. I suspect
the Boston Globe, to take a leading example, will get serious consideration
for a Pulitzer Prize, and they deserve it.
At the same time, the
suffocating saturation coverage, the omnipresence of the story on page
A-1 in all the newspapers and in the lead time slot on all the TV newscasts,
reflects a distorted sense of news judgment. Consider only a few other
Catholic stories that have flared up since the sex scandal broke in December:
The standoff at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem,
and the efforts of Vatican diplomats in the Middle East;
Financial meltdown in Argentina, and the role of
Catholic leaders in giving voice to the victims of globalization;
Debate within Catholic circles over the U.S-led war
on terrorism, and whether American foreign policy is contributing to a
The sharp turn to the right in European politics,
driven in large part by fear of Islamic immigration, and the sometimes
ambiguous role played by Catholic leaders in this trend;
The pope’s trip to Azerbaijan and Bulgaria, spotlighting
his ongoing efforts to promote reunion with the Eastern Orthodox branch
A looming shakeup at the leadership level in the
Vatican, as a number of curial prelates reach or exceed 75 years of age;
The succession to Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini in
Milan, which could reveal which candidate the Italians are pointing to
as a possible pope;
A new Vatican document on confession, coupled with
a new commission on liturgical language, confirming that the struggle over
how Catholics pray and worship together continues to be among the most
intense issues in today’s church.
Each has received
scant attention in the U.S. media. Of course, most are foreign stories,
but each has a strong American angle, and public discussion would have
been well served if even a sliver of the ink spilled on the sex abuse story
had been devoted instead to one of these other concerns.
Why hasn’t it happened?
as Civiltà Cattolica suggested, is perhaps among the factors.
An a priori dislike of creedal religion has long been fashionable
in post-modern intellectual circles; anyone who has ever done graduate
work in the humanities at an American university has probably run into
it. Since journalism school graduates generally step out of this milieu,
it’s no surprise that many reporters, editors and commentators harbor a
reflexive skepticism about religious authority.
A colleague at a major
American newspaper recently told me, during a period in which she was on
the front page almost every day on the sex abuse issue, that whenever she
filed a story that tends to make the Catholic church look bad, her editors
couldn’t get enough. When she filed a story that tends to be exculpatory,
however, she finds much more resistance at the copy desk. That reality
is, at least in part, due to anti-Catholic dyspepsia among the American
Even so, there are several
other factors at work. American journalists are suspicious of all institutions,
not just religion. Most reporters are prepared to believe the worst of
City Hall, of the Pentagon, of schools and hospitals and insurance companies,
just as quickly as they are of churches. In Europe, journalistic super-heroes
write philosophical analyses of current events; in the States, they meet
secret sources in parking garages to get the scoop on the bad guys at the
top. Scandal of any sort is red meat to American reporters.
Moreover, there is a
natural tendency to want to keep a good story going, which entices reporters
to keep looking for new ways to repackage the same ideas rather than moving
on to another subject. I experienced this first-hand during the April summit
between the U.S. cardinals and the pope, when a colleague from a famous
American daily asked me to lunch. At that time, he asked me what office
in the Vatican would deal with requests for Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston
to resign (the Congregation for Bishops), and if I had any contacts there.
I gave him a couple of names, but indicated these were lower-level officials
who probably wouldn’t know anything definitive. Two hours later, he filed
an article citing a “secret source” in the Congregation for Bishops who
allegedly revealed that Law would be brought to Rome ahead of a scheduled
deposition in June.
The story soon fell apart,
as the “source” was almost certainly non-existent, and the information
was bogus. The guy who filed the story is an otherwise good reporter, but
in this case he was so hungry for new material to keep his story going
that he abandoned normal protocols. This was not anti-Catholicism, but
rather a simple desire to keep his name on A-1.
Finally, there is the
herd mentality of the news business, which dictates that if one major news
outlet does a story, everyone has to do it. No one wants to get beat on
the topic that “everyone is talking about.” I can go days without hearing
from a TV network, and then if AP or Reuters moves a story on the sex abuse
thing, my cell phone will rattle for hours from all of them. This is how
news cycles today work. Rationally, the existence of multiple networks
and newspapers should ensure a plurality of coverage; more often, it means
lots of different outlets competing on the same story.
The bottom line is that
the priest sex abuse story is huge in the States because it blends sex,
religion, and cover-up. It would be nice if reporters would cover a few
other stories with the same verve, but so long as journalism is a for-profit
enterprise rather than a public trust, the logic of the market will prevail.
If one asks, however,
why we are still living under the shadow of this story, the bishops must
also accept a major share of the responsibility. Geoghan and Shanley would
not be news if Cardinal Bernard Law had removed them from ministry when
he first learned of their predilections. There would not be the same perception
of drift and confusion if the bishops had stepped forward more effectively,
offering evidence that the hierarchy is interested in more than self-preservation.
So far, no one has played this role, and it does no good to blame anti-Catholicism
for that failure.
Dallas offers yet another
opportunity for someone to step up and seize the moment. All of my colleagues
in the press will be watching.
* * *
Speaking of reunion with
the Orthodox, some voices in the Vatican seem to be feeling new confidence
that something will break in a positive direction after John Paul’s May
23-26 visit to Bulgaria. Here’s what Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls
said to reporters behind the main altar during the May 26 papal Mass in
Plovdiv, Bulgaria, when asked if the pope was any closer to meeting Patriarch
Alexei II of the Russian Orthodox Church:
“The pope is now in Bulgaria,
and he is paying tribute to this country. Certainly, however, we are aware
that the Orthodox in this country are closely connected to the Moscow Patriarchate.
Our feeling is clear that sooner or later, and we expect sooner, this meeting
will take place. Everything is pointing in that direction.
“There are differences,
but nevertheless, when the pope has visited the different Orthodox churches
linked to the patriarchate — here, in Ukraine, in Romania, and so on —
Moscow is something that should be done and must be done and will be done,
we hope in a not very long time.”
These are bolder and
more optimistic words than any Vatican official has dared speak in recent
weeks on the subject of a possible encounter in Moscow between John Paul
II and Alexei. We’ll see if facts on the ground bear out Navarro’s positive
* * *
The June issue of 30
Giorni, an Italian Catholic magazine, carries an interview with Archbishop
Tarcisio Bertone, the number two official in the Congregation for the Doctrine
of the Faith. It made news in Italy because of Bertone’s comments on Archbishop
Emmanuel Milingo, the Zambian exorcist whose on-again, off-again marriage
to a member of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church was the biggest
Vatican soap opera of last summer.
Bertone disclosed that
Milingo is presently living in a priestly community outside Italy, with
an emeritus bishop. He is absolutely free, Bertone said, and in fact he
has received visits from bishops and other prelates. He is preparing to
return to Italy within the summer, Bertone said, to resume his pastoral
activity among faithful who are still spiritually attached to him.
Most of the interview
was devoted to the recent Vatican document Misericordia Dei, on
the sacrament of confession. It called for a new commitment to celebration
of the sacrament, and insisted that group confession (the so-called “third
rite”) be used only in case of “grave necessity.”
Bertone was asked what
regions of the Catholic world seemed to suffer the biggest collapse in
the sacrament. Bertone identified the “Anglo-German” region of Europe,
Canada, and Australia. They are precisely the regions where the communal
rite of reconciliation has had the widest success.
Bertone said that “grave
necessity” can only be invoked when penitents would otherwise be denied
access to the sacrament due to the absence of priests, and this situation
would leave the faithful deprived of sacramental grace for an unreasonably
long time. Examples would include mission territories or isolated regions
where priests cannot be present more than a few times a year. It is difficult
to imagine that “grave necessity” can exist outside these two cases, he
Finally, Bertone reaffirmed
that Misericordia Dei authorizes something that many liturgists
consider an abomination, which is confession during Mass. These liturgists
say that the Mass is the supreme moment of unity in the life of a worshipping
community, and individual devotions should be set aside. Confession during
Mass was, however, a common feature of pre-Vatican II spirituality, and
Bertone says prohibiting it would be “absolutely inacceptable.”
Altogether, the Bertone
interview is evidence that the Vatican commitment to reining in what key
curialists see as “excesses” of liturgical reform will continue.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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