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Spotlight Report

  Joan Vennochi  

Archdiocese still plays the blame game

11/4/2003

The Archdiocese of Boston is at it again. Rather than acknowledge truth, it blames the media for reporting it.

On Oct. 23, Worcester Bishop Daniel P. Reilly testified before lawmakers who are considering several bills that would make same-sex marriage or civil unions the law of the Commonwealth. Reilly, who spoke on behalf of the state's four bishops, ended his testimony with these words:

"If a bill alters marriage's definition or changes the meaning of spouse, we cannot support it. If the goal is to look at individual benefits and determine who should be eligible beyond spouses, then we will join the discussion."

The next day's Globe reported Reilly's testimony with this lead paragraph: "Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Massachusetts yesterday told lawmakers that the state's bishops would "join the discussion" of granting domestic-partner benefits to same-sex couples, but that they remain opposed to legalizing gay marriage or civil unions."

The Globe reported this further comment from Reilly, proffered after his scripted testimony: "There should be a way for the state to provide the benefits they have a right to like other citizens. But just to put the title of marriage on it, I think that's the wrong way to go," the Worcester bishop said.

The next day, Representative Eugene L. O'Flaherty of Chelsea, who is cochairman of the Legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee, said he viewed the bishops' testimony as a new "window of opportunity" to advance a domestic partnership bill "at the very least."

He was wrong. The Episcopal Church is torn over the elevation of the first openly gay bishop in the history of Christendom. The Catholic Church is still very much alarmed at the mere suggestion of a "window of opportunity" to discuss same-sex legal benefits. Church leaders worked quickly to nail the window shut.

They could have said Reilly misspoke. Instead, they blamed the media for misinterpreting his words and enlisted the bishop to make their case for conspiracy.

Reilly wrote an open letter to several newspapers saying press coverage "misreported that the position of the Roman Catholic Church or the Catholic bishops in Massachusetts has changed on the same-sex relationships." Under the headline "Don't Believe the Headlines," the Massachusetts Catholic Conference sent a letter to lawmakers blaming the media for misinterpreting Reilly. And under the headline "Same old, same old,' The Pilot, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston, also blamed the media for "ignorance of church's teachings" or "sympathy for the gay rights agenda."

All this revisionism overlooks two basic facts: first, the very words Reilly spoke, and second, the interpretation afforded them not by "the media," but by O'Flaherty, a conservative Catholic legislator who does not support gay marriage. O'Flaherty does, however, believe that the extension of certain legal benefits to gay men and women represents a valid public policy debate and sees a need to "open the doors and open the windows" when it comes to discussing the specifics.

O'Flaherty says he is "supportive of civil unions" and is trying to work out a compromise for exactly what rights would be protected under such unions. "I support sitting down and finding out what we can end up agreeing on," he says, adding that compromise is "a two-way street. The Catholic Church has to give a little, and the gay marriage lobby has to give a little."

To O'Flaherty, Reilly's testimony sounded and read as if the church was giving a little: "If you go back and read his words, any objective person would have surmised there was an opportunity to engage in a discussion that was previously prohibited." He says he is confused by the church's position, post-Reilly. The Pilot editorial refers to a willingness to "join in a discussion" about individual benefits, beyond spouses, but precludes discussion about "extending marital rights for unions or partnerships of gays and lesbians."

The church's continuing devotion to confusion and truth-twisting is amazing and sad in the aftermath of the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Don't Catholic leaders understand the skepticism with which they are viewed by people of all religious persuasions? It is now clear beyond all doubt that for decades the Catholic Church denied truth and instead chose to blame the media for reporting clergy abuse allegations. It will take a long time to restore trust in an institution that lied to its own parishioners. And more than time, it will also take honesty: on every front, on every issue, in every encounter with the public.

Why couldn't The Pilot have told Catholics that Reilly said something he was not authorized to say? Instead, the official voice of the archdiocese dissembled with a blame-the-media message. In doing so it demeaned Reilly and his audience, who surely understand what really happened here.

It's the same old same old.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.


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