Shooting the Messenger

The Catholic Church and its defenders are rushing over each other to condemn journalists who dare criticize Pope Benedict XVI for his handling of sexual abuse cases as an ordinary, as head of the CDF, and as pope. Peggy Noonan is more balanced, and suggests that maybe the Vatican defenders give the press some credit.

In both the U.S. and Europe, the scandal was dug up and made famous by the press. This has aroused resentment among church leaders, who this week accused journalists of spreading “gossip,” of going into “attack mode” and showing “bias.”

But this is not true, or to the degree it is true, it is irrelevant. All sorts of people have all sorts of motives, but the fact is that the press—the journalistic establishment in the U.S. and Europe—has been the best friend of the Catholic Church on this issue. Let me repeat that: 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. The press forced the church to admit, confront and attempt to redress what had happened. The press forced them to confess. The press forced the church to change the old regime and begin to come to terms with the abusers. The church shouldn’t be saying j’accuse but thank you.

Without this pressure—without the famous 2002 Boston Globe Spotlight series with its monumental detailing of the sex abuse scandals in just one state, Massachusetts—the church would most likely have continued to do what it has done for half a century, which is look away, hush up, pay off and transfer.

In fact, the press came late to the story. The mainstream media almost had to be dragged to it. It was there waiting to be told at least by the 1990s, but broadcast news shows and big newspapers weren’t keen to go after it. It would take months or years to report and consume huge amounts of labor, time and money—endless digging through court records, locating victims and victimizers, getting people who don’t want to talk to talk. And after all that, the payoff could be predicted: You’d get slammed by the church as biased, criticized by sincerely disbelieving churchgoers, and maybe get a boycott from a few million Catholics. No one wanted that.

An irony: Non-Catholic members of the media were, in my observation, the least likely to want to go after the story, because they didn’t want to look like they were Catholic-bashing. An irony within the irony: some journalists didn’t think to go after the story because they really didn’t much like the Catholic Church. Because of this bias, they didn’t see the story as a story. They thought this was how the church always operated. It didn’t register with them that it was a scandal. They didn’t know it was news.

It was the Boston Globe that broke the dam, winning a justly deserved Pulitzer for public service.

See also Lee Podles’ discussion of stupid remarks made by some folks in the Vatican and Baptist Planet, “Attempt to Tar Catholic Church Critics Backfires.”

The fact is this: had priests not abused those in their care, had seminaries not been turned into “pink palaces,” had bishops and priests not protected one another, had victims not been silenced and shamed by those they tried to reach out to, had any of the bishops bothered to react with anger and disgust at the abuse and the cover-ups, had the Vatican bothered to discipline any of the bishops involved–the Catholic Church would not be in this situation today.

2 thoughts on “Shooting the Messenger

  1. I think how strange it is that such a story has finally made it to the headline news, yet there is not much reaction within religious establishment. There are voices calling pope to resign, and your blog is one of the few to write anything about it. Are we afraid that this is not going well with our story of the “Beast”? I personally think that this is probably the last chance for everyone to see the real character of the Roman Catholic system, although it seems that many do not care. As long as Vatican politics is in line with theirs (social justice, ecumenism, and environment), scandal and its victims don’t matter.

    I just read how Jewish community is outraged because the pope’s personal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, in a Friday sermon in St Peter’s Basilica, said attacks on the Catholic Church and the pope over a sexual abuse scandal were comparable to “collective violence” against Jews.

    I wish I heard their outrage before this comment.

  2. I thought we might see your blog active again. 🙂

    I’m disappointed at how defensive and reactive the Vatican has been the last couple weeks. At the same time, when one sees the response one Italian newspaper made to the NY Times article about the Milwaukee priest, it seems appropriate to be skeptical of what comes out of certain news organizations. The Italian paper accused the Times of relying on an abridged computer translation of the official Italian responses from Bertone, and the original responses show a much sterner Vatican stance under Ratzinger. (see here for the full thing:

    Hope all’s well, Bill. As for me, I was co-MC for the bishop’s Mass at the Nashville cathedral this past weekend, and finals start in 3 weeks.

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