On the Importance of the Media

Well, silence does not suit me. I admit it. Day after day I lay in my bed recovering from a sore back, each morning my daughters bring me the latest edition of Melbourne’s premier rag, The Age, and (glutton for punishment that I am) I turn to the World News to read the obligatory page on the Catholic Church and (what might as well just be called now) the Scandal.

“Scandal” is a great word for the current crisis, because it exactly mirrors the greek in Matthew 18:6-7

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!”

The word “stumbling block” is “skandalon” in Greek. Remember, Jesus was a prophet.

So there it is. The Scandal filling our daily reports. Is this a good thing? Yes, according to the Jesuit Provincial for Australia Fr Steve Curtin SJ, who writes (without any further elaboration):

“A free and independent media is a pillar of every civil society. To blame the media for misreporting aspects of the scandal of sexual abuse in the Church would overlook the service the media have provided for a church that needs to address a grave problem. (Read this article from Fr James Martin SJ).”

In the linked article in the Huffington Post, Fr Martin argues as follows (and please excuse me for quoting this at length, because he makes a number of valuable points):

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.

To sum up:

1) Latent anti-Catholicism in the media is a fact, but not the point here.

2) Media reports can often skew the facts or misinterpret them – not due to any malice but simply due to ignorance of the Church’s language and functions; but this is not the point either.

3) Op-Ed pieces in the media are a different matter – often the writers do not even bother to hide their malice toward the Church; this is a point, but does not negate what IS Fr Martin’s point, to wit:

4) Nevertheless, the media reporting of The Scandal has at least served the Church in opening up this issue and prompting a thorough-going review of the Church’s procedures for dealing with both the causes and results of The Scandal. That IS the point.

And I grant it. With all these caveats, we have reason to be thankful for the media reporting on The Scandal. As a number of Churchmen have argued (most vehemently, Archbishop Timothy Nolan of New York – you can download the audio of his Palm Sunday statement here – it is about 4MB in size) the Church in general and this Pope in particular have responded to this media barage by bringing in clear guidelines and procedures that are more stringent than any other organisation. Only just yesterday, the Holy See publically released clarifications of its longstanding policy on dealing with sexual abuse allegations. (In fact, the Vatican Website has put up on its front page an entire page detailing all documentation dealing with The Scandal.)

We can be thankful for all this, painful as it is.

What we have to bear in the mean time is all the rest of it: the latent anti-Catholicism, the misinformation arising from ignorance, and the outright scorn of many op-ed writers.

If there is any comfort here at all, let it be in Jesus own words (Luke 6:26): “Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.” Jesus was NOT a false prophet. This is a painful and cathartic time for all Catholics. We cannot dodge shame that has arisen because of these sins. Nor can we change the past. Some have claimed in the press that this is the greatest crisis ever to face the Catholic Church. That is hyperbole. Just as we cannot get away from our past in respect to the Crusades, the Inquisition, and a host of other areas, so with The Scandal we are called to repent of the past and move on in hope toward the future.

Update: You might be interested in John Allen’s interview with the editor of L’Osservatore Romano here for some more analysis. A quotation:

A vintage moment came when the Rome correspondent for the New York Times, Rachel Donadio, introduced herself and jokingly said: “Don’t shoot!” She was referring to criticism from senior Vatican officials and numerous Catholic pundits of the aggressive manner in which the Times has pursued the sex abuse story, and especially its connection to the pope. Not to be outdone, Vian laughingly replied: “You’re the ones shooting!”

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25 Comments

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25 responses to “On the Importance of the Media

  1. fr Ronan Kilgannon

    Yes, we can thank the media for reporting the crime in the Catholic Church, but why only the Catholic Church? Surely this indicates not a care for the victims but use of the victims for quite another purpose. Targeted coverage gives the wrong impression that this is a crime found only in the Catholic Church and among its clergy and religious. That is a serious falsehood. Why has no bishop in Australia raised his voice in protest at least about this?

  2. I think a term like “the media” describes a very large and diverse group. For that reason it’s best not to blame “the media” or praise “the media.” Doing so may cause those who accepted some of the nasty and bigoted stuff published are somehow being commended.

  3. Louise

    Well, I have no objection to the media reporting the facts about the Scandal – Atrocious Abomination that it actually is. Indeed, I doubt any ordinary Catholic really has a problem with it, except insofar as it is painful.

    We do object, however, to the downright *lies* being told merely in order to get the Pope.

    When I was a little girl, I learned that two wrongs don’t make a right. Do others not believe this?

  4. Louise

    For some reason, one of my comments is currently missing…

    • Well, I just removed one, Louise. I hope you don’t mind too much, but the sentiment was a little oblique to the topic and rather strongly stated.

    • And I just found the other one you were referring to. I won’t publish that for the same reason, but it seems that it got caught in the system because of the link. Sometimes WordPress thinks that a comment with a link in it is spam and puts it in the spam folder. Nevertheless, please keep this discussion absolutely on topic, Lou.

  5. Christine

    David (good to see you posting again, hope your back is much better :), I agree Fr. Martin makes good points.

    Two important aspects that the media do get wrong are that of celibacy and the way the Catholic Church is governed.

    One of our local papers, The Akron Beacon Journal reported last week about a priest who was defrocked for child molestation, left the priesthood to get married and subsequently molested a child again. Child molesters will act out whether they are married, single, celibate or not.

    According to Lifesite news, it turns out that the scandal revolving around Fr. Lawrence Murphy of Milwaukee, which was the subject of a sensational report by the New York Times before Easter, played out under the watch of — who else — Rembert Weakland, who did not defrock Murphy and did not report the situation to Rome for nearly 20 years. It seems that Cardinal Ratzinger acted correctly when he was finally informed of the case.

    The power to remove a priest from the clerical state, to suspend his faculties or remove him from active ministry, has always rested with the local bishop. Many commentators have pointed out that it was the failure of local church authorities to deal competently with the problem that forced the change in procedure at higher levels. The bishop is the prime authority in his diocese, the pope doesn’t micromanage him from Rome. That too many bishops failed miserably is without question and the press is right to call them to task.

    As for op-ed columnists, some have personal agendas that come through loud and clear when they write about anything having to do with the Catholic Church.

    Christine

    • Louise

      In any case, it’s not the “defrocking” which is important, but notifying the proper civil authorities (the police) of the alleged crime adn removal of the accused from active ministry.

      When the accused is found guilty in a court of law, he can then be subjected to further Church discipline e.g. laicisation and perhaps excommunication (whatever canon law says) on top of his (civil law) sentence.

      All this talk of “defrocking” is really beside the point.

      • Yes, I believe you are right, Louise. The preoccupation with “defrocking” (laicisation) is in the same league as the call for bishops to be “sacked”. As the world understands the priesthood to be a “job”, they naturally expect that the worst punishment from this “job” would be removal from it. However, one a pries is laicised the Church also relinquishes the considerable authority she has over him. He is, in effect, “set loose”.

        So yes – if an accused priest is found guilty by civil justice and incarcerated, laicisation may be appropriate. But even if the civil system fails, if the Church still has her own reasons for reasonable suspicion, she has the power to remove a priest from all contact with the community. The alternative of laicisation and release into the community would not solve the roblem quite so effectively.

        • Louise

          Well, now that you mention it, David, I did hear of a priest (who allegedly abused a child) who was later laicised and then married but went on to abuse another child after he was married, so in that case laicisation certainly didn’t help.

          (I cannot recall whether he was ever convicted of these offenses).

  6. fr Ronan Kilgannon

    I am not sure what ‘op-ed columnists’ are. But editors accept their articles for their papers. I can’t help wondering if such sloppy journalism was applied to some darker aspect of life within other religious or ethnic communities would it have passed muster with the editors. It seems to be good media (editors) and bad op-ed columnists as if there was no connection between them.

    Unlike Fr Martin I do blame the messenger for ‘the current wave of stories about sexual abuse’. None of them are current. Most are thirty or more years old. Apologies have been made over and over again for past sins and failures, huge amounts of compensation have been paid, counselling services offered, hot lines established and a massive effort been made in the last 10 years to assure, as much as is humanly possible, that this won’t reoccur. I wonder what more can we do?

    Is it one of those cases of not much startling news around, our sales are dropping let’s create some. Media outlets seems to feed off one another. I have learnt this from Media Watch.

    • Louise

      Some important points you make, Father. Particularly important is the fact that in many dioceses (including mine) one cannot have anything to do with any form of ministry to children these days unless you have had a Police Check. How effective they are, I don’t know, but there is little more any organisation could do to keep kids safe.

  7. fr Ronan Kilgannon

    Interesting David, that anyone can mention Catholics in whatever context but I cannot refer to ‘Muslim, Jewish or negro communities’ by name. A bit precious I think. Your editing takes the ‘grit’ out of the sentence. And yet it does prove my point. You fell for it. But then it is your website, you are free to do as you will. Thank you at least for printing what you did.

    I am intrigued by what you edited out of Louise’s comments. I have found her a level headed lady. Am wondering what is wrong with ‘a little oblique’ and ‘strongly stated?’ Some of your own opinions have read that way to me in the past, and I have appreciated them. I hope your column does not become so politically correct that it ends us like marsh-mellow.

    • Louise

      David may publish this or not as he sees fit, but my comments included links to various other news reports of child abuse cases which were not committed by Catholic priests. My point, which I thought was not too far off course, was that the media are shockingly selective with their “outrage.”

      Whereas all child abuse appals me. Moreso from priests, due to the nature of their office, but no-one should get off scot free, imo. Most rational people are somewhat more consistent in our outlook than the media, I would suggest.

      I actually empathise with David’s editing here – this is a very delicate subject and it is at least theoretically possible for some of us to make things worse. I don’t consider myself immune from this possibility.

      • I actually empathise with David’s editing here – this is a very delicate subject and it is at least theoretically possible for some of us to make things worse. I don’t consider myself immune from this possibility.

        Thanks for understanding, Lou. That is precisely the point.

    • Interesting David, that anyone can mention Catholics in whatever context but I cannot refer to ‘Muslim, Jewish or negro communities’ by name. A bit precious I think. Your editing takes the ‘grit’ out of the sentence.

      Maybe so, Fr Ronan, but it is ‘grit’ that I would rather not see in comments on this page. What is happening now to us has nothing to do with other communities and I see no justice in showering them with the shrapnel as we blow apart.

      This is not an issue of “political correctness” but it is an issue of gentlemanly behaviour. I have very good relations with at least two of the communities you name and no experience of the third. I believe we can make our argument without attacking specific communities.

      But then it is your website, you are free to do as you will.

      Yes, it is my website but I am not so ‘free’ as all that – let the reader understand. There are those who are quite ready to ascribe to me the sentiments expressed by my commentators, and I am sure you can understand that such comments could be potentially damaging to others, to the Church, to me personally, and to my blogging career in particular.

      Thank you at least for printing what you did.
      I am intrigued by what you edited out of Louise’s comments. I have found her a level headed lady. Am wondering what is wrong with ‘a little oblique’ and ’strongly stated?’ Some of your own opinions have read that way to me in the past, and I have appreciated them. I hope your column does not become so politically correct that it ends us like marsh-mellow.

      The question is on of “teperature” as Louise herself said. We enjoy a warm discussion around the table as the port bottle is passed around, but as ladies and gentlemen we do not wish the discussion to become so heated that the neighbours begin to complain and the police are called in. Get my drift?

  8. The work of the media in highlighting the scandals earlier in the piece did perform a useful service. The current beat-up – fed by deliberate misinformation and giving considerable airpace to hysteria of the lynch-mob type – does not pass the test of good journalism.

    And the assumption that the media is essentially benign seems hopelessly naive (or perhaps something else).

    We live in a radically secular society that hates everythng the Church stands for. Most journalists, as surveys have repeatedly shown, are far more left-wing than the population at large. Our own ABC and the Fairfax media in particular have consistently run an anti-Church campaign.

    To suggest that this is all doing us a favour is more than a stretch.

    It scandals the faithful, making them question whether they should be part of the institution. It adds further fuel to the attack on celibacy and the Church’s teachnig on morality. It is an attempt to marginalise the Church’s role in the public square by intimidating and ridiculing it.

    That’s not to say that more reform isn’t needed – it is. But this campaign isn’t about reforming the Church – it is about trying to destroy it.

  9. Louise

    Agreed, Terra.

    The work of the media in highlighting the scandals earlier in the piece did perform a useful service. The current beat-up – fed by deliberate misinformation and giving considerable airpace to hysteria of the lynch-mob type – does not pass the test of good journalism.

    Yes. When they publish the truth with no particular axe to grind, they perform an invaluable service. Outright lies, however, will undermine their service. If they publish what can be proven to be outright lies, who in their right mind will believe them the next time they report such things? It’s the boy who cried wolf.

    These people have jumped the shark and it will not make the world a better place.

  10. Louise

    It scandals the faithful, making them question whether they should be part of the institution. It adds further fuel to the attack on celibacy and the Church’s teachnig on morality. It is an attempt to marginalise the Church’s role in the public square by intimidating and ridiculing it.

    Quite so. And if we believe that some souls may end up in Hell as a result (and they might) then there will be more people to grieve for, in addition to the poor survivors of the abuse itself.

    This is of Eternal significance for some souls.

    Hence the prayers for the Holy Father etc.

    I do not know of one ordinary pew-warmer who does not wish to see true justice done for every person who has suffered abuse at the hands of priests (or indeed any perpetrator).

    Personally, I would start with much harsher sentences for those found guilty in a court of law.

    (Am I stating this too warmly, David?)

    • No. I would say you have the temperature just about right. Keep it bubbling, don’t forget to stir regularly, but don’t let it get burnt by lack of care.

      Thanks for understanding.

  11. Christine

    In any case, it’s not the “defrocking” which is important, but notifying the proper civil authorities (the police) of the alleged crime adn removal of the accused from active ministry.

    Agreed.

    Christine

  12. fr Ronan Kilgannon

    I am sorry David, but I am far from convinced. I think you have overstated your case. This is ecumenical sensitivity taken to a ridiculous extreme.

    I wrote: ‘I can’t help wondering if such sloppy journalism was applied to some darker aspect of life within the Muslim, Jewish or Negro communities would it have passed muster with the editors’.

    Would you please explain how this is ‘showering them with the shrapnel’ and ‘attacking’ specific communities? Would you please explain how I have ‘attacked’ them in what I wrote? Are we not permitted even to suggest that there may be some problems in these communities? I was simply stating a case with the conditional ‘if’. In your revision, why would not all ‘religious and ethnic communities’ now take the very offence you imply that I gave to three?

    By the way, the sentence you objected to was almost word for word from Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s website. He saw no reason for not specifying ‘Muslim’, ‘Jewish’ and ‘Negro’ in super-sensitive, multi-cultural New York.

    I find your comment ‘while we blow apart’ very odd. Do you actually think this is happening as the press would want you to, or is it a throw away comment written without bothering too much about Catholic sensibilities?

    As a final comment on this subject, I would like everyone to remember this sobering truth, that despite the focus in the Press and the focus of church reform, by far the greatest incidence of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church occurs in homes like yours not presbyteries like mine. That is tough isn’t it, but it is true. Just check the government statistics.

    This is my last word. Thank you.

    • Louise

      I find your comment ‘while we blow apart’ very odd.

      I admit that I thought it a little odd too, David. Just a bad analogy perhaps? Certainly the anti-Catholics are having a wonderful time in Fantasy Land, believing that our Church is now “done for.” It is certainly a tough time, but we are not blowing apart, at any rate. If we did, we would only rise again (as has happened through history).

      The abuse of children by priests is indeed appalling and no-one here denies it, but Fr Ronan is right – it happens at a much higher rate in ordinary homes like ours. And we don’t see the media howling about that.

    • Well, and I’ve let you have it Father. But you will have to live with my “ecumenical sensitivity” because that is the reality in which I live and work. And run this ‘ere blog. OK?