Church plays the blame game

Posted: Jun 12, 2002 12:00 AM
As a dictum, "blaming the messenger" has been elevated to near-iconographic status by the Catholic Church, which now blames the media for this dreadful pedophilia business. Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, one of a half dozen cardinals in line to replace Pope John Paul II, has said in a magazine interview that the U.S. media have been conducting a "witch hunt" in their pursuit of the molestation scandal. He compared news coverage to the tactics of Hitler, Stalin, Diocletian and Nero (the latter two, for the history-challenged, were mean Roman emperors), specifically naming CNN founder Ted Turner, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe as unfairly aggressive. "Those (publications) were protagonists of what I define as prosecution of the church," Maradiaga says in the June 12 issue of "Trente Giorni" (Italian for Thirty Days). Doubtless, reporters and editors at those papers are enlarging Maradiaga's comments to poster size and passing the Tattinger. Calling the media aggressive is like calling George Bush a cowboy; both are cause for preening and celebration. Note No. 1 to Cardinals: Good newspapers are aggressive. In this country we consider sexual abusers of children to be fair game. Such complaints from the church not only are asinine ("It's their fault!"), but also suggest that certain members of the clergy are -must I say it -in denial. By all means, get some therapy, but first, clean house. Meanwhile, let's not lose sight of what this story is about -not journalism's perceived flaws, but some 250 priests, including two bishops, who have resigned or been accused of sexual misconduct or abuse. If anything, one might wonder what took the media so long to set this house on fire. Fifteen years ago, my friend Carl Cannon, now White House correspondent for the National Journal, wrote about and won an award for his series on the Catholic Church's cover-up of pedophiliac priests. Also during the 1980s, Karen Henderson of Cleveland's Plain Dealer and Louisiana writer Jason Berry won awards for their work on sexually abusive priests. Berry and Cannon both appeared on "The Phil Donahue Show"; all three reporters were nominated for Pulitzers. Then silence. Why did the story explode only now, and what does that say about journalism? Cannon masterfully tackles those questions in a May article for the American Journalism Review, which can be found at The gist is this: As journalists and as a nation, we weren't ready to deal with such awful tidings. As Cannon notes, newspapers published the reports without pride; readers received the information with skepticism and contempt for the messenger. Sound familiar? Essentially, the story was too repugnant to pursue with any appetite. Timing really is everything, and history has helped create this moment of truth. One abuse survivor speculated to Cannon that Sept. 11 helped the media see the importance of truth. Media critic Bill Powers of the National Journal suggests that we have Monica Lewinsky to thank for our willingness now to pursue distasteful sexual issues. "Before that (Monica) scandal, the news media were still very chary about any stories with explicit sexual conduct," said Powers. "In the post-Monica world, that sort of thing is business as usual, and shocks nobody." Note No. 2 to Cardinals: Blame Monica. Of course, no one's to blame except the church itself, which for decades if not centuries has failed to police its own and protect the faithful. The world is ready for a purge, and one of sorts has begun, though it falls short of the biblical magnitude circumstances demand. U.S. Catholic bishops meeting this week in Dallas will vote on a new sexual abuse policy, which, as proposed, is weak broth for such sickness. Though the policy would require bishops to report any new allegations of abuse to criminal authorities, it weirdly would offer a "grandfather" loophole giving second chances to priests who have committed only one act of sexual molestation on a child. Huh? You'd think we were discussing a drug and alcohol policy for high school students. One offense and you're on probation; twice, you're expelled. The differences are too obvious to need explaining. What doctrine fails to instruct that sexually abusing children is immoral, illegal and intolerable? What sort of moral authority places forgiveness of adults above protection of children? The church's policy clearly ought to be zero tolerance: One strike and you're out. Anything less is dishonest, dishonorable and invites the kind of media scrutiny the church finds unfairly aggressive. As God might have put it to Adam and Eve: Tough.