Pope’s abuse apology: Media did a fair job, surprisingly

Mainstream media didn’t pile onto Pope Francis. I know that sounds cynical — something like “Johnny’s trumpet recital didn’t suck!” — but in the story of Francis’ personal apology to victims of priestly abuse, reporters actually reported. They left pontifications to the pontiff.

Francis, of course, has apologized before for the abuses that his predecessors allowed to persist. In April, he vowed to impose sanctions for the “evil” done by churchmen. But many media have seen the broader, more severe tone of his latest remarks — in which he compared abuse to a “cult” or “satanic mass.”

One example is a 1,000+-word piece in The Guardian:

“It is something more than despicable actions,” Francis said of clerical sex abuse. “It is like a sacrilegious cult, because these boys and girls had been entrusted to the priestly charism in order to be brought to God. And those people sacrificed them to the idol of their own concupiscence.”

He added: “There is no place in the Church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses, and I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not.”

It is not the first time that Francis has condemned abuse, but his words delivered at the Santa Martha guesthouse on Vatican grounds were particularly pointed towards those clerics who may have enabled the abuse to be “camouflaged with a complicity”.

“I beg your forgiveness … for the sins of omission on the part of Church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse made by family members, as well as by abuse victims themselves. This led to even greater suffering on the part of those who were abused and it endangered other minors who were at risk,” said Francis, according to a translation made available by the Vatican.

The Wall Street Journal saw Francis’ remarks as a kind of escalation. Its coverage says that although he has apologized for abuses in the past, this is the first time he has included the bishops:

“I beg for your forgiveness, too, for the sin of omission on the part of the Church leaders who didn’t respond adequately to reports of abuse,” the pontiff said. “This led to ever greater suffering … and endangered other minors who were at risk.”

But the media didn’t just slavishly parrot Francis’ words; they also got reaction from pressure groups. NBC News has the other side saying that Francis’ statements are too little, too late:

Victims groups criticized the pope for waiting 16 months after his election to hold a meeting and called the move a publicity stunt.

“Over the past 2000 years, two popes have met with about two dozen clergy sex abuse victims. Very little has changed,” Mary Caplan, the leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said in a statement sent to NBC News. “A dozen popes could meet with 100 victims, and very little will change. These meetings are public relations coups for the Vatican and a distracting placebo for others.”

In the WSJ‘s accompanying video, Anne Doyle of BishopAccountability.org voices surprise that Francis took so long to meet with abuse victims after “he has extended himself with such compassion to every marginalized group.” She adds that he declined to meet victims as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Doyle tells WSJ‘s Sara Murray that Francis, at minimum, should require bishops to notify police of abuse instances. She says also that the church should also release the names of all priests who have been laicized or punished for abuses. It would set an “example of transparency” for all bishops, Doyle says.

My only complaint with the video is that Murray didn’t push back. She could have pointed out, for instance, that Francis has already done more than previous popes. Instead, she meekly accepted everything Doyle said.

CNN produced one of the most balanced reports. On the one hand, CNN lifts the negative side into the second paragraph: “… without strong action to back up those words, such groups are likely to view Francis’ comments as little more than lip service. Vatican officials have so far been reluctant to take action against bishops accused of concealing abuse.”

The network then gets reaction, as many media have, from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP):

“Let’s not mistake this meeting today for real action,” SNAP President Barbara Blaine told CNN. “The meeting today will not make children safer.”

“I think that Pope Francis has yet to take strong action that will protect children and he could do that by firing the bishops who have been complicit and who are transferring predators,” she said.

On the other hand, CNN notes that Francis last week sacked Polish Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski after finding him guilty of sexual abuse of minors. The network also recalls Francis’ creation of a task force on protection of minors. And it reports that Francis’ homily acknowledged secondary suffering as a result of priestly abuse: addictions, difficulties in family relationships, even suicides.

Other media, like NBC News, quote Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi for the defense:

“If you look at the time the pope dedicated to them, and their emotional reaction, it’s clear this was not a public relations event. It was a profound encounter between a pastor and a person he loves and tries to understand deeply,” Lombardi said. “I witnessed the profound gratitude they expressed to the Holy Father for the chance he gave them to speak about their experience.”

NBC points out that Francis months ago toughened Vatican laws against sexual acts with children, child prostitution and child pornography, making them punishable by up to 12 years in prison.

See what I mean? Not so bad. No secular inquisition on why the Roman Catholic Church is so corrupt or whether it can survive. No cheap shots about the sexually maladjusted clergy.

Whether they finally see the light, or the honeymoon period with Francis is still glowing brightly, mainstream media like those above still seem inclined to treat him fairly. Or at least to remember their own ethics.

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About Jim Davis
  • Julia B

    In an interview on PBS John Allen pointed out that the big US & European media coverage of the abuse scandal had not yet reached Argentina when Francis was elected. He said Francis wanted to be fully informed and with some structures in place before the meetings so he could have meaningful conversations with the abuse victims.
    The media need to give the critics their time to speak, but it seems the media are no longer totally buying into the sometimes hysterical stuff they spout. How can SNAP say nothing has changed in 2,000 years?
    I think the realization that other institutions – such as the BBC and English govt agencies – are also having the same kinds of problems and cover-ups has lessened the finger-pointing that was previously reserved for the Catholic Church.


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