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 BishopAccountablity.org, 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.