About a month ago, columnist Peggy Noonan, herself a Catholic, provocatively dismissed the protestations by some in the Church that the mainstream media is betraying bias or aggression in the way it has launched into reporting old cases of clerical sex abuse, especially as they relate to Pope Benedict XVI.
“To the degree it is true, it is irrelevant,” she wrote. “The press has been the best friend of the Catholic Church on the scandals because it exposed the story and made the Church face it.”
If this were 2002, we’d agree wholeheartedly. But today, it is hard to ignore that media attention is running in a different direction.
We hope no Catholic fails to recognize the role the press played in exposing mistakes and abuses in the handling of abuser priests and their victims. That attention served as the catalyst for desperately needed reform.
But today, we’re getting far too much misinformation and shoddy journalism. We’ve been deluged with incriminations of Pope Benedict XVI, especially in his previous role as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which since 2001 has been tasked with handling all clerical sex abuse allegations from around the globe. But in case after case that has been raised, a closer examination of the documentation supports the Vatican claim that it behaved appropriately given the processes involved and the information it was provided.
That said, both the Vatican and U.S. Church leaders have seemed to be in disarray when confronted by whatever the latest “smoking gun” has been. The Vatican has found itself on the defensive, and it has been angry at what it perceives to be, with some justification, a campaign to “get” the pope. At the same time, however, a proactive and well-calibrated media response is necessary both for the sake of journalists seeking to do their jobs well and to help answer the concerns of faithful Catholics, who often are getting only one side of the story.
Likewise on the national and the diocesan level, Catholics are often not hearing any sort of response to the waves of allegations and are feeling abandoned, or forced to draw their own conclusions based on what the secular media is providing them. One exception is the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which has been outspoken in challenging unfounded media assertions. Another is the blog of Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, media relations’ director for the bishops’ conference.
The good news is that the Vatican is slowly responding to the needs of its people. For starters, it has pulled together a collection of resources, including a primer on how it handles clerical abuses cases (at vatican.va/resources) .
There are also unconfirmed reports that it is drafting universal norms for handling clerical abuse that are similar to those already approved for the Church in the United States. That is welcome news because we know the U.S. norms work: From hundreds of abuse incidents annually a few decades ago, last year there were a total of six reported incidents — representing 0.000009 percent of American Catholics.
“Bring it on!” New York’s Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan recently challenged the press. “The Church needs criticism; we want it; we welcome it; we do a good bit of it ourselves. ... All we ask is that it be fair and accurate.”
Ahead there will certainly be many more cases unearthed from the past. As painful as these revelations will be, we are braced for them in the Gospel confidence that the truth will set us free, that our Church is emerging from this scandal strengthened by what it has learned and — in this season of the Resurrection — that grace can overcome sin.
--Editorial board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John McNamara, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor. Email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org