Make the story more catholic

cathdiversity We at Get Religion have urged reporters to use a diversity of sources — a catholicity you might say. Interview activists, church figures, and academics. Scan church documents and laws.

Jacqueline L. Salmon of The Washington Post wrote about disciplining Catholic bishops. Her story is a good example of what goes wrong when reporters don’t use a range of sources.

Salmon started her story in interesting fashion. She wrote about a Catholic Bishop, Carlos Sevilla of Yakima, Wash., who has been accused of concealing sexual misconduct by priests and employees. Although Sevilla has expressed some regret, he has not been disciplined by other Catholic bishops. His case highlights a broader issue — how to take action against bishops:

“What is the pope going to do now? If it’s nothing, then that is a terrible thing,” said Terry McKiernan, president of, based in the Boston area. “There has been no public action by the Vatican since the pope’s visit.”

Measures enacted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 after the scandal first exploded onto the national scene require bishops to permanently remove any priest who has sexually abused a minor. But unless the pope takes disciplinary action, bishops such as Sevilla face only private admonitions from their peers if they move slowly, or not at all, against priests accused of abusing children.

“Action has been taken against some priests, but action hasn’t been taken against U.S. bishops,” McKiernan said.

Salmon’s story leaves the impression of negligent church officials; they have the authority to make heads roll and clean house but refuse to do so. Her account is based on quotes from church activists, as well as church spokespeople. Although Salmon talked with numerous sources, she did not talk with many different types of sources.

Salmon should have talked with more disinterested observers, such as academics, or consulted church canon law. Had she done so, she would have found that disciplining bishops is difficult. Here is some of what church canon law says on the subject:

Can. 401-1. A diocesan bishop who has completed the seventy-fifth year of age is requested to present his resignation from office to the Supreme Pontiff, who will make provision after he has examined all the circumstances.

-2. A diocesan bishop who has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office.

Note the language: “some other grave cause.” These are not idle words. Now maybe Bishop Sevilla should be removed or disciplined. But Salmon needed to point out that removing or punishing a bishop isn’t easy. It involves a lot of steps. For example, in the mid-1980s Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, disciplined the Seattle Archbishop, going so far as to appoint the Rev. Donald Wuerl, the current archbishop of Washington, as an auxiliary bishop.

Later on in the story, Salmon quotes a Catholic layperson who offers a different view than the activists:

“It’s not like Enron, where shareholders can get rid of their board if they’re acting incorrectly,” said Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke, who was a member of the lay board appointed by the bishops in 2002 to monitor reform efforts. Burke, along with other members of the lay board, met with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, in 2004 to complain about the conduct of some bishops.

Yet in the very next paragraph, Salmon quotes from another activist. Her story gives the false impression that this is a conservative said-liberal said matter.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Salmon. Her story is interesting, timely, and important. But to make the story accurate fully, she needed to diversify her sources.

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  • Joel

    I know it’s not related to the story, but I’m in Bp. Sevilla’s diocese, and I’d like to get it said at the outset that he’s been very careful about avoiding scandal. From everything I’ve seen of him, he’s an honest and decent man, and not given to covering up wrongdoing by anyone. It’s hard to imagine that he could be replaced by anyone better, if the pope were inclined to do so.

    The Robert Fontana who is quoted at the end of the story also has a personal grudge against the bishop, it should be noted. His assertion that this diocese “has repeatedly erred on the part of protecting offending clerics” simply isn’t true. If you look at the stories cited in the article, you see that they were all minor mishandlings of situations that look a lot clearer in hindsight (and through the lens of the press). Robert and the bishop disagreed over whether a priest who had been cleared of wrongdoing should be treated as though he had been convicted. Those were the circumstances under which he left the diocese’s employ.

    One thing in the story seemed not to make sense at all:
    Sevilla has also acknowledged that he had not alerted his flock to the case of the Rev. Jose Joaquin Estrada Arango, 42, who had worked at four churches in Yakima between 2001 and 2003, before being transferred to a nearby diocese in Oregon, where he was convicted of sexual abuse for fondling a 14-year-old girl.

    According to this, Estrada was already out of the Yakima diocese before he did anything wrong. Have I missed something, or is Bp. Sevilla being held responsible for not knowing in advance that Estrada would molest a girl?

  • Julia


    In Catholic circles this word is not used very much. Why does the press seem to get such a kick out of using it to refer to parishioners and Catholics in a particular diocese?

  • hrh

    Julia: I don’t know what “Catholic circles” you travel in, but this is probably the most commonly used word to depict not only Catholics, but adherents to other religions. Maybe you should get out more.

  • hrh

    If anyone, including Ms Salman, is truly interested in getting the lowdown on the Yakima bish, one couldn’t do better than

    WARNING: Don’t go there unless you REALLY want to know about the antics of the US Bish Club. It’s definitely not for the Kool-Aid drinking set.

  • Brian Walden

    My question is where are the police in this? If there’s evidence that a Bishop has aided someone in committing sexual crimes where are the criminal charges?

  • Brian Walden

    Post #5 “…or alternatively, each irrevocably EXCOMMUNICATED”

    …umm, I’m no canon lawyer but I don’t think the Church has the authority to irrevocably excommunicate anyone.

  • Joel

    HRH, I’ve seen the list of accused Yakima priests on, and it seems that most of the accusations are exactly that – accusations. Being accused is not prima facie evidence of guilt, especially now that it’s become profitable to make those accusations.

    Thing is, there really isn’t a lot that anybody can do to discipline a bishop. The people demanding “accountability” are forgetting that the Church isn’t a democracy. The bishops are accountable to the pope, but not to the same extent that you or I are accountable to our bosses. In any case, the bishops are emphatically NOT accountable to the laity. I think that’s something the article could have gotten across better.

  • Joel

    But until that boycott of laity revenue reaches CRITICAL MASS, the curia PRETEND there are no such violators.

    The laity aren’t going to boycott the Church with their offerings, because the offerings aren’t meant for the bishops. They’re given to God, through the Church. Nor would it matter if they did, in the long run. The Church is not merely another business. If there was no revenue, the clergy would continue to minister, as they did in the catacombs.

  • Brian Walden

    “indeed spell out what can, or cannot, be done Mr. Walden.”

    Excommunication is not “irrevocable” – there is no such thing as the irrevocable excommunication that you call for. You make yourself greater than God if you think you can deny a person the ability to repent. You speak nonsense in your posts.

  • FW Ken

    There are plenty of faithful Catholics who have been pretty disgusted that in the 2002 charter that was supposed to protect children, the bishops sidestepped self-discipline and scapegoated the priests and, in some cases, even the laity in this entire affair. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus comes to mind. Including some of those voices in the mix would certainly have improved the story, as would a bit more clarity on timeframes. This seminarian accused in 2003 is still awaiting arraignment in 2008? It would help if the reporter had made stronger cases for the allegations and given a few more facts. I can’t see where Bp. Sevilla actually engaged in covering up, or shuffling priests around. He might have, of course, but that’s not the allegation.

    It was good to see names named: too often, people rant on about “the bishops” who ought to be disciplined, but I wonder who they are. We know about Mahoney, and the one case in Chicago, but I’d not heard of Sevilla. The Bishop Accountability site was certainly interesting. They had a list of 19 bishops who have been accused of sexual abuse, but not a similar list of bishops accused of facilitating abusers.

  • hrh

    FW Ken writes, ” They had a list of 19 bishops who have been accused of sexual abuse, but not a similar list of bishops accused of facilitating abusers.”

    That’s an easy one: they’ve ALL done it. And slowly, inevitably, they will be exposed. Count on it.

  • str1977

    Why is it somehow acceptable to impersonate a late great author and pretend that one is “reporting from heaven”, make claims about who is in heaven and who is not. All this combined with smearing the Church and calling for Catholics to all quit their Church?

  • Chris Molter

    The instances of telepathic and precognitive powers by some of the posters here is astounding.

  • Julia


    Sorry to get your dander up. I grew up in a family that paid a lot of attention to the use of words. My mother was an English major; I have three brothers with journalism degrees and the other one is often an expert witness in court where words are very important. I’m a retired attorney so I pay a lot of attention to the use and meaning of words.

    “Flock” is not used, or rarely used, in my diocese within the Catholic media. It is sometimes referenced in homilies on the Sunday when the gospel about the Good Shepard is read, but that’s about all I ever hear it used. But it is used frequently by the secular media to describe us. I’m just wondering why.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Maybe the secular media recognize that “flocks” are full of sheep, and until the sexual abuse matters were uncovered, most Catholic were happy to be good little sheep. No more. No more.

  • Zak

    Cardinal Ratzinger did not discipline the Archbishop of Seattle. Pope John Paul II did, in the sense of appointing a coadjutator (Wuerl, as you say), who was responsible for much of the administration of the diocese. Even that was complicated, controversial, and somewhat limited in scope.