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THE OMBUDSMAN

A bad call on otherwise fair coverage of ex-priest

By Gordon McKibben, Globe Staff, 6/1/1992

 In-depth
In 1992, the Rev. James R. Porter case in Fall River brought the problem of clergy abuse into the open.  
Coverage of the Porter case
ardinal Bernard F. Law's calling down God's power on the Globe for reporting about sexual abuses allegedly committed by former priest James R. Porter has created more heat than light on the coverage of a tragic story. The Globe's handling has not been perfect, but there's no doubt the pedophilia charges against the former priest and how the church reacts to the allegations are important matters, and any paper worth its salt will provide full coverage, perhaps even with God's blessing.

It is interesting to note that this office received only a few calls from readers complaining about the Globe's reporting for the first two weeks after the story broke on WBZ-TV May 7. Most callers identifying themselves as Catholics praised the Globe's coverage, which included reports of apparent cover-ups by the church of Porter's misdeeds 30 years ago, and which quoted victims complaining of the church's lack of remedial action.

Even Cardinal Law's angry denunciation of the media May 23, prominently reported in the Globe, prompted only a few calls. Readers identifying themselves as Catholics criticized the Globe and deplored the cardinal's outburst in about equal numbers.

But that doesn't mean the Globe escaped the wrath of many readers who claimed persuasively that the paper was insensitive in one glaring instance. At least 50 callers protested a front-page photo May 20 which showed the smiling faces of the former priest with his wife and three of their four children. The caption said the photo was undated and taken from the directory of the suburban Catholic church Porter and his family attend.

Ellen Mangiacotti of Cambridge spoke for many when she said the Globe photo turned innocent kids into victims and made them unnecessarily subject to torment.

"Gratuitous . . . you are guilty of child abuse yourself by running this photo," charged Richard Griffin of Cambridge.

A Dorchester man who said he had been molested long ago by a priest said he had no problems with the Globe pursuing Porter and the church's reaction, but he added, "There's no excuse for the distressing decision to run the photo of the family who had nothing to do with Porter's actions."

"It's proper for you to expose Porter, but leave his wife and children alone," snapped an angry woman caller, who added that "the country is smaller than you think; that photo will show up in Minnesota."

A week after the photo ran, protesting calls were still coming in.

In hindsight, I agree with these readers, and that puts me at odds with most Globe editors who sat in on the evening news conference May 19, where page one priorities are decided.

Deputy managing editor/daily Gregory L. Moore immediately raised the question at the meeting of whether the Globe photo would be picked up in Minnesota and harm the wife and children. After a 10-minute discussion -- an eternity in the news business, which denies the luxury of time for reflection -- the editors decided to go ahead and print the photo.

Thomas F. Mulvoy Jr., managing editor/news operations, said that "nobody felt terrific about publishing this photo." But he said editors decided to use it because it was relevant to the story, showing the former priest in his current setting and thus filling out a story that started 30 years earlier.

Some editors argued that the existence of Porter's family was already known from news accounts, so the photos were not a revelation, just an added detail. Editors noted reports that Porter's children had already undergone taunting after wire service and TV reports of the story were seen in Minnesota.

"We are in the words and pictures business and we decided in the end the family photo was relevant to the whole story, especially for scores of local people who have come forward to report they were assaulted by the priest," said Mulvoy.

"Of course we are sympathetic to invasion of privacy, and especially we try to be responsive to privacy in times of grief," he said, adding that readers might be surprised to know how frequently the Globe rejects photos showing grieving survivors or bloody victims of disasters if the photos are not needed to tell the story.

My opinion is that running the Porter family photo is a textbook case of a situation where the right to privacy should have carried the day when measured against the journalistic test of the readers' need to know. The Globe should have not run a potentially hurtful photo; the readers would have had the full story without it.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 6/1/1992.
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