As painful as it is to watch and to read, the sex abuse scandal in the Church needs to be covered in the media and covered well. Solid, accurate reporting will benefit not only the victims and those who may have been falsely accused, but also the Church.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, that has not been the case recently with some media outlets, which have chosen to use the latest round of stories as an excuse to attack the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. And while a new report from the Pew Research Center stops short of criticizing the news media for their papal coverage, it certainly points out the media’s obsession with the current vicar of Christ, as well as the impact it has had on his image.
According to Pew, during the six-week period from March 12 through April 27, the pope was a “major focus of more than half the reports on the scandal in the mainstream U.S. media, including print, radio, network television, cable TV and online news sources.” The study examined media coverage of the scandal in 52 secular outlets in the United States. Given the importance of the story, the researchers weren’t surprised by the amount of coverage or even that more was devoted to Pope Benedict, but the focus they said was something new that even top media researchers have not seen. They also noted the impact this has had on the Holy Father’s image worldwide.
“The amount of coverage devoted to the pope may not be unusual given his role in the Church and the media’s tendency to focus coverage of scandals on individuals rather than institutions. But the thrust of the recent coverage — dwelling particularly on allegations that the pope abetted the coverup of abusive priests in his native Germany and elsewhere — has been toxic for Benedict’s image.”
According to a nationwide poll also conducted by Pew, just 12 percent of the public said the pope has done a good or excellent job in addressing the scandal. That’s down from 39 percent in 2008. About 7 in 10 Americans (71 percent) said the pontiff has done a poor or only fair job, up from about half (48 percent) of those who felt that way two years ago.
It’s no surprise that the Church and the pope have always been countercultural. We are in the world, not of the world, and Jesus made it clear repeatedly in Scripture that if the world rejected him, it would reject us believers as well, and the pope represents the largest organized group of Christian believers on the planet. The Church also must be held to a higher standard, because we’re supposed to practice what we preach.
But the media can’t have it both ways. When Pope Benedict began his pontificate more than five years ago, many in the media labeled him “the Rottweiler.” They were extremely critical in 2005 because, among other things, he wouldn’t call for the ordination of women and did not back down on the issues of pro-life and traditional marriage. But now they want to label him as weak and ineffective, and even go so far as to accuse him of abetting a cover-up. They fail to report it was he who, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before becoming pope, started to get to the bottom of the scandal and call for change.
Again, as a concerned Catholic and journalist, I believe the coverage of this crisis should continue to make sure the Church is doing all it can to get to the root of this problem. But is it too much to ask for the coverage to be fair and balanced and for the media to report accurately what the pope has done to address the issue? Unfortunately, I think I already know the answer to that question.
Teresa Tomeo is the host of “Catholic Connection,” produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and Sirius Channel 160.