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Spotlight Report

Catholic leaders hit coverage

Stories on abuse called exaggerated

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 4/20/2002

As US cardinals prepare to gather at the Vatican to debate how to respond to the crisis caused by clergy sexual abuse, an increasing number of Catholic leaders are charging that the news media have exaggerated the scandal.

Over the last several days and weeks, prominent church opinionmakers, including two cardinals, have suggested that the clergy sexual abuse crisis is a relatively minor phenomenon that is being turned into a major scandal by the media and others with an ax to grind.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, for example, told The Washington Post this week that some newspapers are having a ''heyday'' with the issue.

''Elements in our society who are very opposed to the church's stand on life, the church's stand on family, the church's stand on education ... see in this an opportunity to destroy the credibility of the church,'' he said. ''And they're really working on it - and somewhat successfully.''

Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore made a similar point at a news conference this week, saying, ''It's really the media of the United States that has made this an American problem. We're in this feeding-frenzy situation right now, where the coverage of cases of 20, 30 years ago is being plastered in the headlines.''

Ten years after Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston called down ''the power of God'' on the news media, including the Boston Globe, for its coverage of the case of a pedophile priest, the Rev. James R. Porter, other prelates are now resuming the attack.

Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark said in a homily last month, ''I just think a line has been crossed. The media seems to go through certain frenzies, in which they don't let go. And I just think that having some bad story about the Catholic Church on the front page, or prominently repeated in newspapers and electronic media every day, is just inappropriate.''

Former Vatican ambassador Raymond L. Flynn, who was also mayor of Boston, has even suggested that the coverage may be fueling prosecutors to act.

''There's almost a frenzy whereby attacking the Catholic Church or attacking the cardinal here of Boston is really quite fashionable,'' he said this week on the Fox network's ''On the Record With Greta Van Susteren'' show. ''So I guess whatever is politically correct, whatever is politically fashionable, whatever some people in the media say, prosecutors are inclined to go along with it.''

The criticism of the news media, although apparently gaining currency among church leaders, is dismissed by some leading Catholics, including William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a watchdog organization that scours the press for examples of anti-Catholicism. Donohue said he objects to some cartoons and opinion columns, but that, by and large, he finds the coverage ''very fair.''

''There's nothing biased about hanging the dirty laundry of an institution out for the public to see,'' Donohue said. ''People who love the church want to get rid of the problem, and the way to get rid of the problem is to be informed.''

The news media has given intense attention to the issue of clergy sexual abuse since January, when the Globe published a Spotlight report on the case of John J. Geoghan. The issue has been explored by most major newspapers, many Catholic journals, and has been featured on the covers of all the major American newsweeklies and on many of the television news shows.

Larry J. Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and the author of ''Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism has Transformed American Politics,'' calls the coverage of clergy sexual abuse a ''justifiable feeding frenzy.''

''I'm a Roman Catholic, but the information becoming public completely justifies the media's focus on the subject,'' Sabato said. ''The media would be guilty of dereliction of duty if they did not reveal these patterns of sexual abuse of minors. Of course it's a frenzy, and inevitably people are going to conclude the problem is more widespread than it is, but that's something the church has to live with for having hidden reality.''

The suggestion that news coverage of the clergy sexual abuse crisis is too intense is increasingly being buttressed by the suggestion that the problem of abusive priests is statistically minor. That argument was made most prominently by Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, the prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, who will chair next week's meetings in Rome, and who told a news conference earlier this year that 0.3 percent of priests are pedophiles.

Others are now echoing that argument.

The Rev. Robert F. Drinan, a former Massachusetts congressman who is now a Georgetown University law professor, told a talk show recently, ''This is a tiny problem ... far, far less than 1 percent have this particular sickness.'' Archbishop John C. Favalora of Miami referred to the problem this week as ''the moral failure of a small number of the clergy.''

The statistics are impossible to verify, because there have been no scientific studies of the scope of sexual abuse among the Catholic clergy, the clergy of other faiths, or the general population. A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychologist and former priest, has estimated that 6 percent of priests have abused minors; sociologist Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University has supplied the lower figures cited by the Vatican.

Donohue insists that the number is not important.

''Obviously most priests are not molesters of any sort, and perhaps that could be emphasized more, but this problem is about more than a few rotten apples,'' he said. ''Even if it was just a few percent, that's way too high. We're not talking about people with drinking problems. We're talking about sexual relations, in a serial manner, with children. It's unconscionable, and this is not a time for Catholics to become defensive.''

But, as the coverage intensifies, the critiques are growing.

Some are comparing the clergy cases to day care cases of the 1980s and 1990s. But in the day care cases many charges were dismissed as false; there has been no indication, so far, of wide-scale fabrication of allegations against priests.

Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg wrote last week that, ''Unfortunately, the presumption of guilt is now so strong in much of the TV coverage, the net so wide, that one can't help recalling media's role in the witch-hunt frenzies behind sex-abuse allegations that closed the McMartin day care center in Manhattan Beach and Little Rascals preschool in Edenton, N.C.''

Commonweal, a liberal Catholic journal, also raised the specter of false allegations, writing: ''Admittedly, perspective is hard to come by in the midst of a media barrage that is reminiscent of the day care sex abuse stories, now largely disproved, of the early nineties, or the lurid details of Bill Clinton's impeachment. All analogies limp, but it is hard not to be reminded of the din of accusation and conspiracy mongering that characterized the anti-Communist witch hunts of the early 1950s.''

Victims of abuse find the debate about coverage ''painful,'' according to David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, which tried for years to get the news media to pay more attention to the issue.

''If anything, the problem is vastly underreported, to criminal authorities and to the news media,'' he said. ''Survivors could have stood up anytime in the last five or six years [before the current round of stories] and made the opposite claim, that every news outlet was cowardly and every journalist in the pocket of his or her bishop. Frankly, if all this attention is being driven by anything, it's driven by this enormous wellspring of suppressed pain and frustration.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/20/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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