The big, national religion story of the past 24 hours involves the indictment of a Roman Catholic bishop in Missouri.
The top of today’s front-page New York Times story:
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A bishop in the Roman Catholic Church has been indicted for failure to report suspected child abuse, the first time in the 25-year history of the church’s sex abuse scandals that the leader of an American diocese has been held criminally liable for the behavior of a priest he supervised.
The indictment of the bishop, Robert W. Finn, and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph by a county grand jury was announced on Friday. Each was charged with one misdemeanor count involving a priest accused of taking pornographic photographs of girls as recently as this year. They pleaded not guilty.
The case caused an uproar among Catholics in Kansas City this year when Bishop Finn acknowledged that he knew of the photographs last December but did not turn them over to the police until May. During that time, the priest, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, is said to have continued to attend church events with children, and took lewd photographs of another young girl.
I am not an expert on the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals. But, to me, the NY Times coverage seems pretty straightforward (with one major hitch). In fact, the use of passive verbs up high — “has been” twice in the first paragraph and “was” twice in the second — adds to the element of simply reporting the facts. That’s opposed to active verbs that might seem (rightly or wrongly) aimed at dramatizing the story.
From a journalistic perspective, I do worry about the terminology “is said to have” as it relates to the allegations against Ratigan. “Is said to have” by whom? Who’s the actual named source making that claim?
Contrast the NY Times’ lede with that of the Los Angeles Times’ story (which did not appear on the front page):
In charging the bishop of Kansas City with failure to report child abuse, prosecutors in Missouri have done something unprecedented in the long, troubling saga of the sexual abuse scandal in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church: hold a member of the church hierarchy criminally accountable for the alleged crimes of a priest.
What remains to be seen is whether the indictment of Bishop Robert Finn will be an isolated event or will encourage prosecutors elsewhere to investigate allegations of coverup against members of the church leadership.
At first glance, the LA Times approach read more like the intro to an editorial than a straightforward news story. Then again, the language is blunt and accurate. Can anyone argue that the scandal has not been long and troubling?
With these kinds of stories, I generally believe news organizations do best to strip the language to the bare essentials. Let the facts tell the story, not the reporter’s — or news organization’s — opinions.
But news stories can take simplicity too far.
In the NY Times report, a graf near the end left me wanting more information, or less information, or something:
The case has generated fury at the bishop, a staunch theological conservative who was already a polarizing figure in his diocese. Since the Ratigan case came to light, there have been widespread calls for him to resign.
What does the bishop’s theological stance have to do with the case? After all, “liberal” bishops have found themselves caught up in this scandal, as well. There’s been enough sin in this story to taint a wide spectrum of Catholic leaders.
Over at his American Conservative blog, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher points out:
Note well that Bishop Finn is a member of the conservative prelature Opus Dei. You cannot tell who is going to be a good or a bad bishop on this issue by whether or not they are faithful to the Magisterium. Depressing. Infuriating.
Also, who has called for Finn to resign? Who are his critics (since all bishops have critics)? If this left-right angle is going to be pulled into the story, the reader needs specifics. This vagueness hurts the story.
For perhaps the most in-depth coverage, the the Kansas City Star is the place to look. It’s interesting that the local newspaper does not take a shot at the bishop’s theology, while the NY Times does.
The Star reports the facts while looking to local and national sources to help put the case in perspective. Along with familiar sources on this issue (do the names Sipe and Clohessy ring a bell?), the Kansas City paper quotes local parishioners. Some even defend the bishop.
“The man may have been guilty of incompetence and negligence, but I do not see him as a criminal,” said Matthew Copple of Gladstone, whose child attends St. Patrick School, where Ratigan once served as pastor. “That seems wrong to me. Let’s punish the people who committed the deed. I don’t see the need for the bishop to have a criminal record or be guilty of a crime.”
Others disagree and that’s the point. There are a number of voices to follow here and a liberal vs. conservative news framework is just too simplistic.