When lawsuits attack, Catholic edition

A few weeks ago, a lawsuit in Nevada made news because it revolved around alleged 3rd Amendment to the Constitution violations. Third Amendment Rights are invoked so rarely as to be the butt of jokes. See, for example, The Onion‘s “Third Amendments Rights Group Celebrates Another Successful Year.”

The mainstream media went to town. Here’s Fox News, for instance:

A Nevada family is using a rare legal argument in a lawsuit claiming police tried to commandeer their homes for a surveillance operation and then arrested the homeowners for resisting — invoking the Third Amendment, which bars soldiers from being “quartered” in a residence without permission.

The Mitchell family, in a lawsuit filed July 1, detailed the incident from July 10, 2011. According to the complaint, it all began when the Henderson city police called Anthony Mitchell that morning to say they needed his house to gain “tactical advantage” in a domestic violence investigation in the neighborhood.

The story goes on to describe what the lawsuit alleges. I was speaking with a law enforcement officer who was appalled that so many people were just accepting the lawsuit’s narrative. I’ve reported on enough cases to know that one should never determine the facts based on either a police report or a complainant’s report. When I hear or read that the police or a complainant says this or that, I take it to mean little more than a claim is being made.

All this to say that we received some reader complaints about a story reporting on a lawsuit. It’s out of St. Louis and the story appears in the Post-Dispatch. Here’s the top of the story:

St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson knew that a priest was a danger to children before that priest was charged last year with molesting a teenage girl, according to a lawsuit filed Friday in Lincoln County.

The lawsuit was filed by the parents of the girl, who told police last June that the Rev. Xiu Hui “Joseph” Jiang, an associate pastor at the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica in the Central West End, had molested her. Jiang, 30, eventually was charged with first-degree endangering the welfare of a child. The girl had described him as a family friend.

In the lawsuit filed Friday, the girl’s parents said Carlson “knew that Father Jiang was dangerous to children” and “that allowing Father Jiang access to minors as part of his duties as a priest would result in Father Jiang harming minors.”

The suit does not provide details of how Carlson would have known Jiang was a threat to children.

According to the suit, the girl’s parents asked Carlson last year if Jiang, who was ordained in 2010, would be removed from the priesthood. Carlson responded “that he would remove Jiang if he ‘had sex’ with the child, but not for activities other than that,” according to the suit.

Among the various readers to submit the story for critiquing here, one said, “The unvalidated quote attributed to the Archbishop is particularly outrageous.” But what’s outrageous about it — journalistically speaking?

I emphasized with boldface how clearly the reporter attributes each claim. What more is expected here? Right after the section I excerpted is a paragraph from the Archdiocese spokesman denying the claims in the lawsuit.

My question about how the reporter should have handled this is not rhetorical. What, specifically, are critics saying should be done? Not to report on the lawsuit? Not to include what the lawsuit claims? Simply to lay out more clearly that one side of a story is just one side of a story?

What do you think?

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  • Richard Mounts

    Mollie,

    I don’t know what more the reporter could have written without being accused of taking the archbishop’s side by the family or their supporters. It seems that the reporter played it straight down the middle. As a Catholic whose heart is so broken over the sex abuse scandal, I am stunned at this being alleged to have happened so recently. Surely, this new priest would have been subjected to greater review and multiple interviews that all candidates for the priesthood now undergo.

    If I lived in St. Louis now, I might be wanting the P-D to remind readers of that. I’d want readers to know that this priest has been screened to the nth degree. I’d want readers to be told that these are only allegations. I’d want readers to be reminded that perhaps some cultural differences may have played some part in all of this.

    But I also want to know if in fact the police have the check the family says they turned over. I’d want to know how a new priest even had that kind of money-they don’t get paid much.

    Who knows why the story doesn’t go into much detail? I think that given the reporter let the lawsuit “speak” for itself, and that the archdiocese spokesperson”s response was included, it was about as balanced as it could be. I am surprised at the reporter’s care in this article. I’d imagine the chance by the msm to stick it to the Catholics again would be too good to pass up. We’ll see how much this “local news story” gets picked up around the country.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I think people have to bear in mind that no amount of pre-screening will prevent all problems. The problems that have existed in the past involved multiple incidents, cover ups, shuffling. None of these are brought up here.
    I do however think that the Post-Dispatch should not just let the “only removed for having sex” quote from the parents stand. They should pressure the diocese to explain exactly what actions on the part of a priest will cause removal. If the diocese has not thought out how they will react to a priest French-kissing a 15-year-old girl, they need to be pressured. They need to come up with specific policies. It is also in the best interest of the public to know what these policies are. Specifics are needed, not accusations.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The problem with the article is it leads by saying “Archbishop Carlson knew that”. True, they end the paragraph with the “according to the lawsuit”, but they should open with “according to a lawsuit”. By hiding that at the end of the paragraph it makes it so casual readers will think these accusations of foreknowledge on the part of the archbishop have been proven, when in fact they are just alleged. When you open your first paragraph with an accusation, ending the paragraph by admitting it is not proved is not enough.

  • PetrusRomanus1

    The filed complaint is available online. I’ve read it, and see no discrepancy between what is alleged there and what is reported here.
    Catholic clergy of course do not like to be sued, or for that matter to be held responsible for their actions. That’s precisely why lawsuits become necessary, and why people need to know what’s going on. Thank you for keeping us all informed.


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