Exposing wolves (only) in sacred spaces

The following comment is not meant as a criticism of the “On Faith” website at The Washington Post.

I’m glad that the website ran the story about which I am poised to gripe.

It certainly do not intend to criticize the skilled team at Religion News Service, a crew that I always strive to praise for its essential work, even when I am offering some criticism. This RNS story focuses on the religion angle of a national story and covers that angle pretty well.

So what am I upset about?

The headline on the story will offer some clue. It is very broad and direct. The first thing I thought when I read it, however, was: What is this story doing in “On Faith”?

The headline, you see, simply said: “Too often, abusive predators hiding in plain sight.”

That is not a religion headline, you see, unless there is a journalism committee somewhere that decided the sexual molestation of children is now exclusively a religion-beat story.

So what’s the lede in this particular story? That should be obvious:

The abuse allegations at Penn State seem unthinkable: revered assistant coach and prominent community activist Jerry Sandusky preying on eight children. But such abuses of trust play out across the country over and over again.

Experts say respected people who set up charitable or social groups for children, only to be implicated in some form of child sexual abuse, are a frightening reality.

“I call them ‘institutions of trust,’ ” said Portland, Ore., attorney Kelly Clark, who has represented more than 300 sex abuse victims.

Some predators are so tacitly trusted “that when something like this happens, the instinctive reaction is, ‘That can’t happen here. We can’t allow the mission to be compromised,’” he said.

Any reader can connect the dots. Many of our culture’s “institutions of trust” are churches or other organizations with strong religious or moral components to their work. Like the Boy Scouts. You know, of course, that sexual molestation is especially if not uniquely a problem in churches and Scout troops, right?

This story goes on, as it should, to mention some other cases in addition to allegations at Penn State and the local Second Mile charity. There are horrible cases linked to an orphanage, a Catholic church and (wait for it) the Boy Scouts.

But there is also a very valuable quote that returns readers to the broader themes of the headline and the lede:

“A pedophile is going to go where they have access to children,” said Richard Serbin, an Altoona, Pa., attorney who has represented 150 clergy sex abuse victims statewide since 1987.

And predators only stalk children in Catholic churches and in the Boy Scouts? It seems to me, once again, that is essential for journalists to continue to hold these particular institutions to a higher standard and to push for information about cases linked to them. I am not questioning that.

But are there other institutions in which the leaders need to have their feet held to the fire? Can predators linger in secular schools as well as religious? Can they strike in liberal pews (think Nevada and the Episcopal Church) as well as conservative? Are there other civic groups that need to get their houses in order, as well as the Boy Scouts?

The religion angle is there. It must be covered.

But let me ask the question again: Have many journalists, in effect, decided that the sexual molestation of children is now exclusively a religion story?

Get religion? You bet. But someone needs to get the rest of the story, too.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • carl jacobs

    Far be it from me to defend the unabashed Liberal apologists who constitute the MSM in this country (he says with complete objectivity :D ), and certainly not a newspaper second only to the NY Times in its unabashed liberalism. But I don’t see the problem here. The story is about the connection between institutions that parents naturally trust and pedophilia. The RCC has richly earned its place on that list. The Boy Scouts don’t seem to me an institution exclusively associated with religion. As for the TEC in Nevada, there isn’t any victim associated with that story. Besides, TEC is almost invisible in this country. The story gets its hook from focusing on large institutions that people can identify with. It didn’t seem focused on religion to me.

    I am not particularly comfortable with defending the MSM. It seems a violation of the laws of nature and nature’s God. But I don’t think the author of this article intended for you to draw the conclusion that you made.


  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    If you read the post, you know that I had little criticism to offer of the RNS piece. It is, however, primarily focused on religious/moral institutions. That’s a valid part of the story as I said repeatedly.

    My comment is about the coverage of this issue in general and that is slightly represented in this piece.

    Are you, essentially, saying that there are no secular or liberal religious institutions that parents trust and, thus, that is not part of the whole picture? There are no parents who “identify” with public schools, for example?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Concerning one detail in comment No. 1….

    I have corrected his comment to reflect a correction in the post. The current TEC presiding bishop was formerly bishop of Nevada, not Utah.

  • carl jacobs


    No, I am saying that in the case of this article, the journalist’s selection of examples seemed reasonable to me. I am in broad agreement with your general point – that journalists will tend to emphasize the sins of their cultural enemies. I just don’t believe this story gives evidence of that conclusion. After I read your post, I read the article principally because I didn’t see a smoking gun in your excerpts.


    Thanks for correcting my error of Utah vs Nevada.

  • R. L. Hails Sr. P. E.

    If you seek truth, beware of journalists and lawyers who purposely slant it. Yes, there was a tiny minority of pervert priests in the Catholic church in the latter half of the last century. A number of their bosses were worthless. Billions of dollars have been earned from these vile crimes. Careers have been made. Scores of parishes and dioceses bankrupted. Disgust rots in the hearts of faithful people.

    However, most of the studies, indicate that secular schools have a problem, today, that is an order of magnitude larger. Teachers are not prosecuted, they are paid not to teach kids.

    There is a reason why one issue dominates our media, e.g. Penn State football, while a vast silence sits on others, e.g. Senator John Edward’s love child expose during a hot political campaign. Every editor in our “robust” journalism profession hid the story, except the National Inquirer. Why?

    Sexual offenses, and lying via silence, are not limited to the failings of religious people. They are limited to sinners. There is a lot of sin in our society. Some prefer the word corruption.

  • Dan

    Remember when the press excoriated the film industry for failing to bar Roman Polanski from being near child actors after he raped a young girl? Either do I.

  • Julia

    This is a great article that should be on the front page of the Washington Post – not just “On Faith”.

    “A pedophile is going to go where they have access to children,” said Richard Serbin, an Altoona, Pa., attorney

    This should be in large block letters on the front page of every newspaper in the US – and maybe around the world.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    Weakening the church is ironically destroying one of the most powerful institutions that protects children at many levels of society, from behavior improvement of the members to their social services.

    Here in Asia, Christian and Buddhist organizations are at the forefront of fighting sex tourism including child prostitution.

    Yet Obama cut the Catholic organizations in the US that fight human trafficking.

    One has to be happy thatNicolas Kristof has an article today that exposes sex tourism by pedophiles.