The Church must be held to a higher standard

  • April 16, 2010
Some allegations have staying power no matter how often they are refuted. For the past month, articles and broadcasts have abounded with reports about the sexual-abuse scandal and claims of cover-up at the highest levels of the Church. Most allegations concerned events in Europe and the United States, and spread wildly after suggestions that even Pope Benedict XVI may have known of or approved a decision to return a German priest offender to ministry.

Led by The New York Times, there were efforts to implicate the Pope — in his former capacity as a cardinal and 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, including by The Times itself, albeit with less prominence than it gave the original report.

Although these events occurred outside of Canada, they were widely repeated here, partly based on wire-service reports that were substantially based on The Times’ errors. Throughout, there were columnists and other commentators who seemed to be relishing the opportunity to smear the entire Church with the sins and crimes of a minority number of priests.

Prior to The Times articles, attention was focused on Irish and European cases of abuse. An opinion piece titled “The Great Catholic Coverup” by Christopher Hitchens in the National Post was probably the most vitriolic and one-sided in Canada, but not out of keeping with Church bashing in other Canadian newspapers. The Toronto Star, for example, headlined a March 15 report “Priest close to Pope suspended in sexual assault case,” even though the accompanying story gave no indication the two had ever met.

As many have already stated, Hitchens’ remarks about the Vatican’s “steady complicity” in an “endless scandal” are not supported by the record. The Hitchens article, and a similar 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.

Most analysts credit Pope Benedict with breaking the silence that too often  muted allegations in the past. He extended public apologies and mandated a zero-tolerance policy toward offenders. A cover article in Maclean’s magazine (April 5) repeated the allegations against Pope Benedict but made it clear that he has done more than any previous Pope to improve the handling of these cases and taken steps to try to prevent new ones.

There are journalists who do not want the Church taken seriously as a moral authority, a bias that seemed to drive the reporting of Hitchens and much of The Times coverage. Lesser lights often allowed their bias to shine in oft-repeated observations that pews are emptying and the Church will ultimately fall because of this scandal. The seriousness of the scandal and the need to help those who still suffer is real, but it was ironic that the churches shown on the TV news were all full.

Whether as individuals or as part of a lay organization, we must be careful how we evaluate media coverage of the scandal. It’s a given that we won’t like the focus of reports to be on what happened and who is to blame, rather than focussing on what has been done to try to heal victims and prevent new occurrences. Most Catholics complain, rightly in my opinion, about an emphasis 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 has been much the same in all of them.  

The media may be guilty of sensational and inaccurate reporting of these events, but we can’t blame them for causing the scandal. When we do, it’s all too easy to minimize the harm that has been inflicted on victims.

It’s a fact that a small percentage of priests betrayed their vows and, when caught, were not reported, properly punished or removed from ministry as today’s protocols require. Anti-Catholic and anti-faith bias factors into why we hear more about abuse when it occurs in the Church than elsewhere. But it’s not unreasonable to hold the Church to a higher moral standard.

We can’t expect, and frankly should not want, the media to ignore the problem. But we can expect and should demand fundamental standards of fairness and accuracy. The Times’ reporting, and the rapid copy-catting that followed, failed to meet those standards.

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