New bishop in Harrisburg: One story, one side, one problem

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OK, gentle readers, once again I need to stress that the following post on a recent story in The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.) focuses on a journalism issue in this story, not the tensions centering on the appointment of a particular Catholic bishop to a particular post in the American hierarchy. This post is also not a commentary on what Catholic leaders have or have not done about the decades of sexual abuse of children and teen-agers by clergy or the cover-up of some of these crimes. I mean, my views on this issue are clear.

No, this is a post about the construction of a particular new report. In many ways, this post is an example of one of the most disturbing trends that your GetReligionistas have seen in religion-news coverage over the past decade.

The headline hints at the central problem: “Victims advocate: Appointment of Bishop Ronald Gainer the most distressing promotion yet from Pope Francis.”

And here is the top of the story:

The top official for a national group that advocates on behalf of people who have been abused by Catholic priests on Friday denounced the appointment of the new bishop of the Harrisburg Diocese.

David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called the appointment of Bishop Ronald Gainer a disappointing decision that signals the Vatican’s continued willingness to promote and advance clergy, he said, who shield predator priests. Clohessy said the appointment of Gainer … may be Pope Francis’ most distressing promotion yet.

“It’s a painful message,” Clohessy said. “The message is nothing has changed. Church officials who continue putting kids in harms way continue getting promotions. It sounds cynical but appointments like this make us question why should we expect bishops to change when they are moved up the ladder despite clear wrongdoing.”

Obviously — I mean OBVIOUSLY — Clohessy is a crucial voice in a report on this topic. Also, from decades of following this hellish story, I realize that critics of the hierarchy are much more likely to speak freely to the press about these issues.

I get all of that. That isn’t the problem. That is not what this post is about.

The problem is that this story is, literally, only half of a news story.

Let’s look at each and every one of the other attribution clauses linked to the information in this story.

* In the wake of Gainer’s appointment, SNAP drew attention. …

* Clohessy said SNAP last year. …

* Last year, the Chicago Tribune reported. …

Wait, there’s more.

* In addition, Clohessy said Gainer. …

* … the Lexington Herald Leader then reported.

* In spite of that, Clohessy said. …

* “It’s obviously reckless … ,” Clohessy said.

* “Similarly … , Clohessy said. “There’s obviously no doubt ….” he said.

Once again, let me stress that the information from SNAP, and even from the other newspapers, is crucial and this information needs to be included in a responsible report on the sexual-abuse issue. However, it would have been good to have sought out voices on both sides of the earlier events, rather than simply assuming that the Chicago and Lexington newspapers were the definitive authorities on these complex stories.

Thus, as a faithful GetReligion reader noted:

OK, and where is the opposing viewpoint? No one at Penn Live could pick up the phone and call the Lexington Diocese?

Yes, this report on one of the most complex, painful and divisive issues in American religion does not contain a single word of sourcing from the other side of the debate.

Yes, I know that Catholic officials may have failed to return calls. If that is the case, then say so.

Yes, I know that the legal teams involved in the defense of church leaders — in this case or in others — may have declined to return calls. If that is the case, then say so.

However, I find it hard to believe that there were zero people willing to discuss either the Gainer case or the fine points of cases similar to it. Really? There was no one willing to provide a different perspective? What is this, a column? An opinion or analysis essay?

It’s called journalism, folks. Give it a try.

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.

  • FW Ken

    It’s not just this story. Last night I saw a TV report that had Fr. Thomas Reese expounding on the wickedness of Catholic bishops protecting abusive priests. The problem is that he was speaking in the present tense, without citation of any cases.

    At some point, will reporters realize that people like Clohessy and Reese are not neutral sources. They may be telling the truth, but they have plenty of reasons not to. Where are the “hard questions” that reports are supposed to ask?

    • chrisinva

      Fr. Reese, still spiteful that his gig at America was terminated by the future Pope Benedict, is a full-time and very aggressive source for shrinking media news departments. The reporters – virtually always blank slates (and slanted left and anti-RC) eat it up, chew it, and spit it out in their “journalism.”

      Very often they don’t even bother quoting him. It would be too embarrassing.

  • Nicholas Escalona

    If I’m not mistaken, SNAP is not actually a legitimate group representing victims, but a front capitalizing on the situation to bash the Church. If they’re the group I’m thinking of, they have no place whatsoever being given a voice on these issues.

    • Thinkling

      You are not mistaken. They actually started out more nobly, to be victims’ advocates. But like Voice of the Faithful and other malcontents du jour, they were quickly hijacked and their ostensible mission became just a front, as you say.

      This speaks to the tone deafness and ignorance of the journalist. I disagree they deserve no voice, but making them essentially THE voice sounds beyond ridiculous.

      • scott122

        In what way has Voice of the Faithful been hijacked, and by whom? How has their mission become a “front”? You can’t just throw around these types of accusations without some proof – which is the whole point of the article!

        • Howard

          To say they have been hijacked would imply that they were at some point different than they are now. From the first launch of their website it was clear that they were just another Call To Action or Wir Sind Kirche kind of group wanting to remake the Catholic Church into something more like the United Methodists. The abuse scandal was just a tool they could use.

  • AnneG

    It’s not a story. It’s gossip.

    • Meggan Conway

      I agree. The article also didn’t address this question – if the accusation against the priest was credible, then why wasn’t he ever arrested? I don’t understand why articles criticizing the Church about handling of abuse allegations don’t explain why and how civil authorities fail to do something. The Church can remove a man from ministry but only civil authorities can put him in Jail.

  • James Patton

    If you want to control the narrative on this issue, the Catholic Church must own it. Name the Catholic program or institution that addresses the victims of priest abuse. Only when such a program or institution is created will the Church have a legitimate voice and not be perceived as the perpetrator of said crimes.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      No one is seeking to control the narrative. All we’re seeking here is that the newspaper do its job and report the news fairly. Talk with the bishop, talk with his deputies; give us journalism, not a reworked press release. As tmatt said, “It’s called journalism, folks. Give it a try.”

      • James Patton

        It isn’t customary to consort with perceived perpetrators on an issue that has to do with a cover-up. Again, if you don’t control the narrative, then don’t complain about the story that is told by journalist that doesn’t favor your perception.

        • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

          Apparently, Mr. Patton, you don’t do or understand journalism. Journalists don’t “consort” with anyone — they talk to the parties involved in the story and report on what those parties say. Obviously, the diocese and the bishop are parties to the issue at hand and they should have been interviewed and their words reported. Once again, it’s called journalism.

          • James Patton

            Propaganda isn’t what journalist do, except for a few exceptions.

          • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

            And the story under discussion is one of those exceptions.

          • Biff Spiff

            Propaganda is exactly what you are advocating. Reporting one side of a story without allowing an opportunity for a response is characteristic of propaganda.

          • James Patton

            Allow me to pose the other meaning of propaganda.

            A committee of cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church responsible for foreign missions, founded in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV.

            Now there is both sides to the story of that particular word. Fascinating, isn’t it?

        • tmatt

          You are missing the point, once again. What you are requesting is advocacy journalism — editorializing.

          The goal is to cover the major voices in a story in a fair, accurate and balanced manner.

          • James Patton

            What you are advocating is the status quo — pretend nothing has happened.

            The goal here is to present a positive message to the many people that do not share your beliefs. Of course, you could continue to keep the appearance of supporting the abusers and feed the many misconceptions about your religious institution. Your perpetual blaming of the media is a reflection of your own ineptitude and really makes for wonderful reading. So, please continue down this “winning” strategy and you can always count on me as an avid reader seeking this type of entertainment, like so many others.

    • FW Ken

      Right, that’s the ticket: programs and institutions. So good for hurting people.

      Here’s my journalism related response: send a reporter to ask Abp. Gomez how the Church in Los Angeles is addressing the harm done by his predecessor. Ask him about money spent on paying for counseling, if the local Catholic Charities had any specialized activities? Ask if any of the religious communities do anything specific to this area. Follow these leads around the archdiocese until you can draw some reasonable (and unbiased) conclusion. Interview victims who are happy with assistance from the Church, and victims who are not.

      Then go to a diocese that hasn’t had significant problems and ask this same series of questions of people in these same sorts of positions.

      • James Patton

        “Right, that’s the ticket: programs and institutions. So good for hurting people.”

        If you are trying to convince the readers to abolish the Church, then continue…
        Your argument betrays you.

        • FW Ken

          The Church is not an institution or a program, though she has aspects of each. It is a community of Christians that offers services from cradle to grave, and not just to our own people, but all in need.

          Ah! But now I’ve fallen into the trap of arguing an issue rather than journalism. Still, I think the failure of journalists to get Catholicism lies just in this reductionist fantasy: because the Church looks like an institution from the outside, the small mind assumes an institution is what it is at heart.

    • tmatt

      Mr. Patton:

      Please try to focus on the point of this blog, which is to discuss the journalism issues in this report. My post made that clear in the first few lines.

      The critics of the church are represented in this story — as they should be. The problem, the JOURNALISTIC PROBLEM is that there appears to have been no effort to cover the views of people on the other side of the debate.

      Again, we are here to focus on journalism, not to argue about the issue itself.

      • James Patton

        What makes you think that “the views of people on the other side of the debate” is compelling journalism?

        • Martha O’Keeffe

          Because, James, the story is laid out as “Side X claim this, that and the other”. There is no attempt to get the view of Side Y, or if there is any substance to the claims of Side X about what Side Y are currently doing.

          Were I to claim that you, for instance, were a notorious pilferer of unattended coats, and the local paper recorded what I said, I’m sure you’d be interested in having a reporter ask you “So, steal any coats lately?” in order to give your side of the story.

          • James Patton

            While I would love to answer loaded questions, I could just respond with a scripted standard response that has nothing to do with unattended coats. That has been the modus operandi, which in this case is an example of a loaded answer…:D

          • Richard A Imgrund

            Except that that is the journalism issue tmatt is raising about the article/editorial. Did Gainer, or the dioceses of Lexington or Harrisburg provide ‘the standard scripted response that has nothing to do with unattended coats’? Were they even asked for one and refused to provide one? We don’t know, the article/editorial never says anything about what Catholic officialdom has to say about SNAP’s disappointment.

  • Howard

    It looks to me like it’s a story about a press release, with much of the substance of the press release reworked so that it looks like original research. That’s a quick and easy way to get a “story”, even though it’s borderline plagiarism. Maybe this is bias, but I suspect laziness played at least as big a role.

  • Guest

    I will comment on this story. I live in the Lexington diocese, work (in part) for Bishop Gainer, and know him very well. He has a zero tolerance approach to abuse. He has followed the Dallas Charter faithfully, with a very strict interpretation. There have been priests accused of abuse during his tenure. After a commission reviews them to ensure the allegations are credible, the priests are immediately removed from active ministry and the diocese cooperates with the authorities. A priest I knew well was accused, dismissed, and ultimately sentenced to a year of jail time for a 25-year-old allegation. Bishop Gainer has only been in Lexington 11 years. Before that, he was not a bishop. To treat him as some kind of poster child for covering up abuse is the worst kind of lie.

  • wmrharris

    To provide context here: this is one of two articles run by PennLive on the same day. The other was an account of the bishop’s first public appearance, also written by the same reporter. There, he gave a rather interesting push-back to proposed statute of limitations legislation in the Commonwealth. Journalistically, one could fault both articles for excluding opposing views — both reports keep pretty close to the surface. Then again, one article covers a press conference, the other a press release — each in their way is a sort of advocacy.

  • FW Ken

    It is my profound hope that discus will develop a way for bloggers to delete comments that don’t advance discussion journalism, or represent trolling.

  • Hank

    Here’s a question about journalism, in the modern age: What weight should one give to hyper-linked sources in an article? It often happens that a given piece of on-line journalism will have a number of such links embedded in its text. As a reader, I think of these as footnotes, and if I have the time and interest, I will follow them up. In some savvy venues, an author will be derided, if s/he fails to provide links to sources, cited studies, etc. tmatt gives us a link to the article he’s criticizing, so we can read for ourselves, and not just take him at his word.

    Having read the article for myself, I find that, as far as his criticism of the text goes, tmatt’s criticism seems valid. Except that there are these links, imbedded in the text, which he hasn’t mentioned. As in his own article, all one has to do is click on them, if the subject is of interest and one has the time.

    I would have thought those links deserved mention. Especially in an article on the subject of journalistic fairness and thoroughness. As it happens, the articles the author has linked effectively address the journalistic worries that provide the subject for tmatt’s article. (Please, follow the links if you are doubtful.)

    This raises the question, is tmatt’s main concern actually journalistic fairness and propriety, as he says, or is he more interested in undercutting an article that gives weight, however slight, to voices raised in criticism against the Church? That uncertainty is an unfortunate result. I suspect tmatt was merely writing in haste. Many journalists are obliged to write in haste, especially for internet news sites.

    On reflection, this is probably a case of reading in haste, and rushing to respond.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      I can assure you, hank, that tmatt has no interest in undercutting the article. Notice that he said that David Clohessy “is a crucial voice in a report on this topic” — OBVIOUSLY.

      You do raise a fair point about the links in the story. But the fact that they can do that online raises the question of what happened in print. Did this story run alone? Did it run as a sidebar with the main article on Bishop Gainer’s appointment?

      But I would contend that even if it ran as a sidebar, and even with the links that were embedded, in journalistic terms, they should still have looked for quotes from the Diocese and the Bishop. Journalists are not propagandists and have the responsibility of seeking out and reporting other sides of the story. Allowing Clohessy a sidebar of his own is simply not good journalism.


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