Do it for the children

Pope Benedict XVI sprinkles holy water during the Pentecostal mass in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican May 23, 2010. REUTERS/Max Rossi (VATICAN - Tags: RELIGION)

In response to some of the outcry over the New York Times attack on Pope Benedict XVI, there have been a couple defenses worth discussing.

The first comes from Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. Winston is huge in the religion and media universe and is a well respected scholar and former Godbeat journalist. She is thoughtful and thought-provoking. But I can’t say much in favor of her defense of the Times. Here’s a key chunk of that:

Critics complain that the Times is out to get the Church and Pope Benedict, in particular. They cite theological inaccuracies, historical misunderstandings and editorial intimations to justify their stance. But they miss the forest for the trees. The intricacies of priestly ordination, Vatican law and institutional preservation are important to the story, but they’re not the point. The point is the church’s choice: opting to safeguard the institution, its priests and reputation at the expense of children and families. The Times is, as any news outlet should be, interested in making sense of this decision and, of course, grabbing readers’ attention.

Put another way: inaccurate reporting is awesome because of — the children!

There are many problems with this statement. First off, if the point is making sense of how an institution didn’t do enough to protect children, how in the world can that objective be obtained by providing false and inaccurate information? I can’t look into anyone’s heart, of course, but I like to believe that everyone — from the harshest Vatican critic to its strongest defender — seeks to protect children from those that prey on them. Wanting accurate theological information, a proper understanding of history and context and a removal of tendentious reporting from stories does not in any way mean you support child abuse. This is such an obvious point but one that needs reasserting.

I mean, I’m Lutheran. We’re not known for thinking the Vatican is infallible. When I look at these stories of how child abuse was perpetuated, it disgusts and revolts me. I still don’t think that factually inaccurate hit pieces are constructive or appropriate.

Besides, did the article actually show what Winston alleges (the Vatican choosing to hurt children) or did it present a history of the debate regarding who had competence to try cases of sexual abuse? The only part of the story where it comes close to showing “the church’s choice: opting to safeguard the institution, its priests and reputation at the expense of children and families” is the section concerning the 2000 meeting where several cardinals downplayed the significance of the issue. And yet that same section shows Cardinal Ratzinger standing up, speaking for reform and, then, moving to gain control of sex-abuse cases within a year.

And there’s the rub. Because that contradicts the assertion made at the top of the Times story that “the future pope, it is now clear, was also part of a culture of nonresponsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction.” A GetReligion reader described Winston’s defense as “just emotionalism.” It is certainly telling that a critic of Winston’s intelligence and stature is unable to defend the Times piece except through abstractions.

Winston attempts to reimagine the story not as it stands but as something different. If it were, as she argues, an attempt to show that the Church at all levels wasn’t just slow to respond but too concerned with its own reputation at the local level to effectively care for victims and the larger Catholic community, that would be unassailable. The pope himself has said:

“Certainly, among the contributing factors [for the present crisis] we can include … a tendency in society to favor the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person.”

But that’s not what the article said. The problems that critics have cited with the article deal with quite specific claims made by the reporters that go much further then general concern with Vatican culture. How in the world is it not appropriate to point out that those allegations weren’t proven by the reporters who made them — indeed, that they were refuted by their own reporting? This piece fails to respond to the actual criticism of the piece.

It’s not as if there is a debate about whether the abuse happened or whether the bishops handled it horribly or that Rome was too slow to respond. Critics of the coverage in general — and this particular Times story — take issue with the specific manner in which reporters are attempting to pin the story on Benedict.

Good journalism should use clearly reported facts to scrutinize how the Church (and other institutions, such as public schools) have handled child abuse. Good journalism should provoke helpful reforms. That’s simply not going to happen if the reporting is biased, sensationalistic, lurid and patently unfair.

This Times article wasn’t even subtle in intimating that the Pope is bad and that the Church itself is a sinister force. Winston defends the piece on just those grounds — essentially she says the church is a horrible institution so accuracy is optional. And the church is powerful, so journalists must afflict it any way they can.

I just can’t agree with that. Facts always matter. Context always matters. Get the story straight.

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  • Mark Silk

    What’s the second defense worth discussing, Mollie? Mine?

  • Bobby

    Mollie is away from her computer for a while today, I think, so her responses may be delayed. But I know she’ll appreciate your comments when she returns to her keyboard.

  • tmatt

    I do know that MZ is planning a series of posts on responses to the Times analysis piece.

    She is, however, on the road at the moment. So am I.

  • CourageMan

    Twitter-length version of Mollie’s post:

    @MZHemingway short version of @dianewinston “church bad, so accuracy optional; church powerful, so afflict it SOMEHOW!!!”

  • CourageMan

    Seriously, the two things that anti-impressed me most about Diane Winston’s piece:

    (1) the repetition of the trite catch-phrases “speak truth to power” and “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Journalists have no desire whatever to speak truth to power that they like and/or fear and will cook up transparent rationales to make it look like some principle (cf. honor killings versus Matthew Shepard). And second, why exactly is “afflicting the comfortable” good? Have the comfortable, **by definition,** done something to deserve affliction? If this is not so, is this really anything other than a rationale for egalitarian ressentiment? (The answer to that is “no,” BTW.)

    (2) “The Times’ critics seem to believe that the Church deserves special dispensation. They seem to want reporters steeped in its history and mission who treat it with the empathetic understanding of insiders mindful of its divine calling.”

    This is descriptively false. The Times critics want reporters to be knowledgeable, not because they think the Church should get special dispensation, but precisely because they do not think that. To … ahem … plagiarize the premise of this site, on no other newsroom beat would a paper run an ad saying “specialized knowledge of this subject not necessary.” A sports reporter who doesn’t understand the arcane rules of baseball? Absurd. A city-government reporter who doesn’t understand council and bureaucracy procedures? Ridiculous.

    Knowledge of the Church and its procedures is helpful, not because it produces p.r./ra-ra sympathy, but because it’s sometimes necessary to understand wtf is going on. The top of this NYT story could not have been written except by someone ignorant of the exact nature of the disputes and issues that the rest of the story deals with. The Vatican, unlike individual bishops and to a lesser extent the USCCB and equivalent bodies, has little to do with the kinds of day-to-day running-the-shop matters that really affect children’s safety. If you don’t understand what “defrocking” is, you might very easily be confused about what the Vatican was deciding and, like the NYT and apologists like Ms. Watson, write good-sounding but misleading things like “disciplining abusers.”

  • james

    “The TIMES article wasn’t even subtle in intimating that the pope is bad….”

    An attack on Pope Benedict in the TIMES is never offensive; it’s always defensive.

  • Jon in the Nati, non-Catholic

    Journalists have no desire whatever to speak truth to power that they like [...] and will cook up transparent rationales to make it look like some principle

    Yeah, I had to go to journalism school to figure that one out. Apparently I was not paying attention.

  • Mollie

    Mark Silk,

    Yes! Well, actually, you’re 3rd. I don’t want to give everything away but I thought the 2nd and 3rd defenses had a lot more going for them.

  • Joel

    Newspapers and other news outlets exist to make money for owners and shareholders.

    Wow! It takes a lot to get a journalist to admit this. Being at a small-town paper, I have to jump between editorial and advertising frequently. But to hear the reporters talk, you’d think their lofty calling was free of any such mundane concerns as mere money.

    I guess Diane figures it’s still preferable to admitting that there are multiple facets to the story.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    In cases like this–where a media outlet like the Times–is running stories that are clearly hit jobs– it would be quite relevant to know the religious, social, educational, political, etc. of the reporters and editors creating the hate hits. There should be more transparency in the mainstream media in what the public is told about those feeding us our “facts.” Dan Rather’s and his family’s little known (by the general public) Democratic Party activism certainly turned out to be relevant in his case.

  • Jerry

    I’m waiting for GetReligion to highlight a story presenting the other side of this issue that has serious errors. Or perhaps there aren’t any or they’re all just peachy keen?

  • Joel

    Jerry, almost all the coverage of “the other side of the issue” has been in specialized publications, usually Catholic ones. I do recall that there was a John Allen article that came under the watchful eye of GR a while back. But for the most part, MSM coverage has been negative, even though the quality of the reporting has ranged from well-researched to wretched.

  • Passing By

    Jerry -

    Any links? I would also be interested to read about bad “pro-Vatican” coverage. Bad journalism doesn’t benefit anyone.

  • Mollie


    I actually don’t know what you mean by “the other side.”

    Some of the critics of the Times piece are also very critical of the Vatican. These issues are pretty complex.

  • Bob Smietana

    Nowhere in Winston’s piece does she say that facts don’t matter. Or that context doesn’t matter. She’s a much better journalists than that.

    Instead, she points out that Laurie Goodstein and David Halbfinger took examined the notion that the current Pope, when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was more responsive than other Vatican leaders, in responding to the clergy abuse scandal.

    They examined this claim and found it lacking, Winston argues.

    She wrote:

    Despite recent Vatican efforts to paint the current pope as a responsive leader seeking to address the problem, the reporters draw a picture of a bureaucrat more concerned with protecting his institution than with preventing abuse and disciplining abusers.

    As Goodstein and Halbfinger write: “the future pope, it is now clear, was also part of a culture of nonresponsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction. More than any top Vatican official other than John Paul, it was Cardinal Ratzinger who might have taken decisive action in the 1990s to prevent the scandal from metastasizing in country after country, growing to such proportions that it now threatens to consume his own papacy.”

    Read the article to see if you agree. More to the point, decide whether it addresses the key question bedeviling public opinion: why did church officials place institutional issues—preeminently the shortage of priests and the sanctity of its theological claims—above the safety of its children?

  • Norman

    Repeating Goodstein and Halbfinger’s assertion does not prove it, nor does it respond in any way to the specific arguments made against that assertion. It is just the repetition of a controverted claim, which gets us precisely nowhere and advances debate not a whit.

    As to Winston’s question (why did church officials place institutional issues—preeminently the shortage of priests and the sanctity of its theological claims—above the safety of its children? “), the weakness there is its crude oversimplification, straining at populism, which trivializes a complex and serious issue. Managing the priesthood and carefully considering theological views that seem contrary to the faith are not extraordinary or unusual endeavors for any religious body, and the fact that the Catholic Church failed in something as basic as the protection of children can not be blamed on its performance of such mundane duties.

    All religions tend to doctrine continuously because religion is about belief, and any organized and coherent religious body will be united behind some body of core beliefs which are preserved and passed on, adhered to and safeguarded. There is not a question of placing theology above anything else but a reality that theology always continues, because it is the circulating lifeblood of religion. A religion that loses focus on what it believes ceases to *be* in any meaningful way.

    Safeguarding children and preserving the integrity of faith is not an either/or proposition. Both are basics, both are necessities, and there is no inherent contradiction between the two. The immense failure that is the clergy sexual abuse crisis within Catholicism was not caused by the mere fact of continuing to attend to the core doctrines which unite it as a church. It is, in fact, ludicrous to suggest, as the NY Times article did and as Ms. Winston repeats, that the current crisis was the result of, or exacerbated by, having one department of some few hundred (at most) employees in a global church devoted primarily to doctrinal matters. Having this one department function as it does is no huge outlay of manpower or resources. No serious analysis would suggest as much.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Actually of late the New York Times almost seems to be trying to spin a story that says “bishops tried to act against abusive priests but were prevented from doing so by Ratzinger”.

    The fact that bishops relocated priests, that priests walked in on priests in the act of abusing, and shut the door and walked away, that the recently retired bishop of Spokane is accused of having not only known that his fellow priest at the parish had boys over regularly and was often told of abuse by some parents and victims, but that he made sure to yell “it’s only me” before going upstairs when the other priest had a visitor, apparently so he would not accidently see abuse in progress, is disturbing.

    It often seems like the Times spends its energy attaking Benedict, instead of Weakland and other bishops who are heavily implicated in the shufflings, cover-ups and so on, in part because to attack Weakland would be to undermine a fellow Liberal.

    In fact, at times it has been claimed that the sexual abuse crisis is a product of some right-wing conspiracy.

    Also, the fact that there is no consitent call for the changes that would allow prosecution of many of the priests, allowing retroactive revokaion of Statatures of Limitations (SOL) shows that all articles need to better assess the SOL issue.

    Lastly, why is there no outcry at under advisement pleas and 3-years probation for a molestor who tied up and then raped minors? The only outcry is that Ratzinger delayed this criminals voluntary request to be laicized so he could the more easily beguile some Catholic lady who had had her first marriage annuled and had some children who would be ripe for his abusing into marrying him.

    The number of priests who were laicized who then abused either step children or their own children has not been adequately covered. Some claim that celibacy is at the heart of the problem, yet Maciel fathered children with at least three and maybe more women, but he still abused many male youths, including his own sons.

    I would still say that Benedict XVI has been too lenient. His failure to excommunicated the abusive priests is a worthwhile issue. However, the fact that the Episcopal Church and Anglicans in general, even when the Archbishop of Canterbury has the audacity to attack the Catholics on this matter, get a pass from being criticized for keeping an admitted child molestor as a bishop and many other caes of abuse and shuffling in both Australia and the US, shows that there is something to the claims of anti-Catholic bias in media reporting.

    There are possible not-anti-Catholic reasons why the Catholic cases get so heavily reported, however when the AofC can speak about the issue and not get ripped for the failures of his own religious communion to protect children, there is a problem.

  • james

    “They examined this claim and found it wanting.”

    That’s the problem! Both TIMES’ reporters are framing their judgment upon what seems to be “true,” even though the “truth” of their allegations have not been proven. They are also judging the pope by what they feel or imagine he was capable, incapable, or not capable of doing on the basis of such “facts’ and “insights” into how the Vatican (and their turnover of personnel) worked a decade or more ago. Thus they are forced to empoly words (i.e., he did it, he neglected this or that) outside their proper historical context, all the while presuming actions to be factual (which can only be answered by the pope himself, a scientific sammple of clerics around him, and a lot more available documentation).

    No explanation of theirs, however, entails any of the pope’s explanation (though they tend to slant what they allegedly and scientifically “know” about his actions [or inaction] and speech to embody their journalistic condemnation).

    What their “reporting” allows them to say is all they got which isn’t much. And Winston fall for that! Pretty sad!