Propaganda vs. journalism in PBS Catholic abuse coverage

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Good Episcopalian that I am, I am ready to believe the worst about the Catholic Church.

Perhaps it was my upbringing, the culture in which I was formed, the schools where I was educated, my crowd. But accusations hurled against the Catholic Church of corruption, cruelty, mendacity — of being downright un-American –stick in the back of my mind. “Why not?”

I was also reared in Philadelphia and as a boy worshiped at the altar of the Eagles and Phillies. Longing and loss then were taught to me early on, as was support for the underdog.

Yet as much as I enjoy watching a good thrashing of the Vatican, I also am troubled by unfairness, foul play and sneakiness.

Which brings me to the documentary broadcast by PBS’s Frontline show entitled “Secrets of the Vatican“. This is an extraordinary film. It is beautifully made. I would not hesitate to say that the camera work, the musical scoring, the editing, and the writing are exquisite. Documentary film making does not get any better.

And yet, “Secrets of the Vatican” is also vile. Repulsive in that art and the extraordinary talent of its creators are put to malign purposes. It is propaganda — a film crafted to make arguments rather than to speak the truth.

At this point I must stop and respond to the cries of two competing choruses. My opening remarks about my own anti-Catholic bigotry are hyperbole designed to introduced the topic of bias. Nor am I claiming “Secrets of the Vatican” has suborned perjury from those whom it has presented on film.

It is, however, exaggerated, unbalanced, and seeks to inflame rather than inform. I do not expect a plaintiff’s attorney who specializes in clergy sexual abuse cases to present both sides of an argument in the documentary, but I would expect a film maker to do so, giving voice to the opposing side.

Catholic commentators have excoriated the film, accusing it of rehashing old stories and telling only half the tale. The popular conservative blogger Fr. Z wrote:

 The objectives of the show are to pin all responsibility for every case of clerical sexual abuse not just on local authorities but on “the Vatican”, to detach sexual abuse from homosexuality, to undermine a celibate clergy, and to convince you that there are more homosexual priests than there really are.  Finally, Pope Francis is the most wonderfullest Pope ehvurrr.

Let’s look at one vignette from the film — the claim that Catholic clergy are more likely to be child molesters than non-Catholic clergy — that illustrates my disquiet.

Frontline interviewed Dr. Martin Kafka, a Harvard University psychiatrist who has studied this issue. Kafka made the claim:

The number of Catholic clergy who are accused of or prosecuted for child and adolescent sexual abuse vastly outnumber the number of Protestant clergy.

Taken in isolation this statement could be construed to mean that reports of child abuse by Catholic clergy “vastly outnumber” reports of child abuse by Protestant clergy. That would be a statistic compiled by the FBI that would speak to reports of abuse.

However, in light of the surrounding comments, images and testimony offered by the film, the implication of Dr. Kafka’s statement is that Catholic clergy are more likely to offend than non-Catholic clergy.

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Dying children don’t rate religious viewpoints

Belgium is on the map these days, and not for its waffles or Brussels sprouts. It’s for passing a law allowing children to have themselves killed.

Euthanasia is already legal there, but in mid-February the nation extended the “privilege” to children. As you might expect, there’s been much hand-wringing over the matter, such as on CNN or at ABC News.

The journalists there sought out educators, pediatricians and medical researchers. Naturally.

You know whom they didn’t ask? You got it: religious leaders. The ones who have dealt with issues of life and death, and beyond, since before the written word was invented.

How’s that working out? Well, we get some back-and-forth on the need for the law, although the two stories don’t handle the issues equally. Both raise the specter of children suffering unbearably with some disease like cancer. Both note that the law requires parental consent and counseling for the children, to make sure they understand what euthanasia means — “the child must understand the gravity of the request,” says ABC. But ABC appears to focus more on the general philosophy behind euthanasia; CNN brings up more reasons against it.

“I think there is such a thing as a futility in palliative care: that for some patients even the best palliative care will not suffice to ease their suffering,” Belgian sociologist Kenneth Chambaere tells ABC. He also “argues that in reality, Belgium will also have an age limit because of the strict competence and capability criteria.”

ABC reports that people also request euthanasia in Belgium for depression, and that a death wish may well be a symptom of dementia. The article goes into waiting periods and advance directives, neither of which have much to do with killing children.

The weird thing about the CNN story is one of the cases it brings up to illustrate why some people see a need for children’s euthanasia — a woman who was distraught over the prolonged death of her baby from a neurological illness:

“That whole period of sedation, you always need to give more and more medication, and you start asking questions. And you say, ‘What’s the use of keeping this baby alive?’ ” [Linda] van Roy said.

She wishes she could have administered a fatal dose of medication to make the end of her daughter’s short life come more quickly.

That’s why she’s campaigning for a change to Belgium’s euthanasia laws, to give the choice of ending their suffering to older children whose bodies are wracked with pain.

An accompanying video shows the mother and her dying child and, shockingly, cuts to a Belgian doctor who says that the euthanasia law would just legalize what some doctors already do.

This despite the fact that, as ABC points out, the baby, who died at 10 months, “would never have qualified for euthanasia.” So the mother pushes for a law to enable children to end the kind of prolonged death her baby underwent, even though the law wouldn’t have affected the baby? Sounds like logic works no better in Brussels than in Washington, D.C. Might there be another side to quote in that debate linked to faith and ethics?

At least CNN lines out several secular reasons against euthanasia for children. Among them: Medicine now provides for pain management; few children will ever ask to die; most medical teams caring for terminally ill children wouldn’t believe that children make a “spontaneous and voluntary demand” for euthanasia.

Most tellingly, CNN quotes a nurse’s belief “that giving children a choice would mean they made decisions based on what they thought their families wanted to hear, and that it would be a terrible strain for children who may already feel they are a burden to their caregivers.”

What does God think of all this?

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AP reports he did have sexual relations with that woman

 

“Can a bad person be a good theologian,” asked Mark Oppenheimer in the lede of an October column on the scandals surrounding John Howard Yoder. Should private failings overshadow public achievement?

This question has been asked of prominent figures ranging from T.S. Eliot to Bill Clinton to Mike Tyson. Is the aesthetic value of the Wasteland diminished by Eliot’s anti-Semitism, or the former president’s accomplishments wiped away by his claim he “did not have sexual relations with that woman”? Does biting Evander Holyfield’s ear or being convicted of rape undo sporting achievements? Will Pete Rose ever be inducted into the baseball hall of fame?

Religious leaders are held to a different standard, Oppenheimer wrote:

All of us fall short of our ideals, of course. But there is a common-sense expectation that religious professionals should try to behave as they counsel others to behave. They may not be perfect, but they should not be louts or jerks.

By that standard, few have failed as egregiously as John Howard Yoder, America’s most influential pacifist theologian. In his teaching at Notre Dame and elsewhere, and in books like “The Politics of Jesus,” published in 1972, Mr. Yoder, a Mennonite Christian, helped thousands formulate their opposition to violence. Yet, as he admitted before his death in 1997, he groped many women or pressured them to have physical contact, although never sexual intercourse.

Oppenheimer does not cast stones, but he pulls no punches in discussing Yoder’s flaws. He does not call him a hypocrite, but asks whether interpretations of his work should be colored by  personal failings. This week MennoMedia, the publishing agency for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada, announced it will add a disclaimer to new editions of Yoder’s books that speak to his history of sexual harassment and abuse.

These musings on celebrity right and wrong were prompted by an Associated Press article reporting on the marriage of a former Catholic priest who left the Legion of Christ under a cloud. The article begins:

Thomas Williams, the onetime public face of the disgraced Legion of Christ religious order who left the priesthood after admitting he fathered a child, is getting married this weekend to the child’s mother, The Associated Press has learned. The bride is the daughter of former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon, one of Pope Francis’ top advisers.

The second paragraph notes Glendon’s position as President of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences and names his wife to be — Elizabeth Lev. It then moves back to Williams.

Williams, a moral theologian, author, lecturer and U.S. television personality, admitted last year that he had fathered a child several years earlier. At the time, Williams apologized for “this grave transgression” against his vows of celibacy and said he had stayed on as a priest because he hoped to move beyond “this sin in my past” to do good work for the church. …

Towards the end of the article the Legion of Christ scandals are recounted and Williams’ fall from grace is placed against the order’s larger problems. The article closes on a curious note, however.

The Legion said the numbers indicate that less than 1 percent of the 1,133 priests ordained in the 72-year history of the order had been found guilty by a church trial of abuse, and less than 4 percent had been abused. A Legion spokesman said he didn’t know what the percentage was for the current number of Legion priests.

One percent of priests are abusers and four percent have been the subject of abuse? And what is the unknown percentage, abusers or victims? Should “abused” in the second clause of the first sentence be “accused”, or is the AP setting the two numbers against each other?

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Forgetting the kippah or crucifix (and the second why)

All-nighters and Domino’s Pizza at the student newspaper. X-acto knives and 2-point tape. The smell of chemicals processing the film. The five Ws and the H.

Good times, folks. Good times.

What journalists among us can forget our introductory class, whatever it was creatively named by the institution of our choice? One of the first quizzes I remember taking at my alma matter covered the basics of good, solid reporting. And those fundamentals included (say it with me): Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.

As our loyal followers know, one of our mantras is to stress this foundation and its importance from a religious standpoint. Of course, just as multiple Whos can be involved in a report, so can multiple Whys.

Why am I stressing the basics? Because The Associated Press didn’t. And the absence of a second Why in this AP story from earlier this month on a proposed move by the Quebec government to ban employees in the public sector from wearing religious headwear and neckwear glares at me from my computer screen.

From the top:

MONTREAL – Viewed from the outside, Quebec often seems like a place where all life orbits around the political destiny of a French-speaking province in an English-speaking country.

The latest instance centers on religious headwear. The trigger is a heatedly debated plan by the ruling party, the separatist Parti Quebecois, to make the provincial government religion-neutral.

It wants to do so by banning symbols of religious faith such as Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans, Muslim head scarves and large crucifixes from public workplaces. And as usual, the measure is being read also for what it says about the ruling party’s perennial goal of making Quebec independent of the rest of Canada.

The analysis is that with support for separatism weakened, and an election being predicted for December, something spectacular is needed to rally the party base. But the proposal appears to be losing support with that base, and if anyone is being mobilized, it’s the opposition.

In recent weeks Montreal has witnessed the rare spectacle of thousands of protesting Muslims, Jews and Sikhs marching together through the streets.

“I just want to be able to wear what I want; I don’t see why any one can tell me what to put on my head,” Saara Khan, a Montreal Muslim high schooler who wears a head scarf, said at a recent protest.

But why, Saara Khan? Why do you want the religious freedom to wear your head scarf at school?

AP assumes we know the importance of the religious headware. Another thing I learned in that freshman journalism class is what happens when we assume. Ahem.

The full answer is easily available. As author Shabana Mir, assistant professor in social foundations and qualitative research at Oklahoma State University, puts it: “The list … shows that the Muslim headscarf is capable of a number of meanings, many of which are rather more mundane and less dramatic than outsiders might imagine.”

And of course I can’t expect valuable ink to be spent on all 17 reasons. But how about a primer?

Another source for the story represented the Jewish faith:

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Could Prince George’s baptism rekindle rite among British?

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It would be impossible to compare coverage among major news outlets, so plentiful have been the stories this week hailing His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge’s baptism into the Church of England.

The event, as with all activities attended by several senior members of the royal family, was well publicized in advance and blanketed with coverage. Bets were placed on the colors the ladies would wear, which family members would carry the infant in and out of the chapel and who would be selected as Godparents. The usual questions, I suppose, for most who only care to scratch the surface.

Significant stories, however, went beyond the royal family hype, the fashion and the newly added fourth generation to the line of succession to give us a glimpse at the bigger picture: Could the christening of a 3-month-old cause a surge in the number of baptisms, recommittals and overall interest in the Church of England?

The Spectator says it already has:

In 1950, nearly 70 per cent of the population was baptised into the (Church of England), with most of the remainder christened into other denominations; in 2010 it was fewer than 20 per cent, and falling. Perhaps Kate Middleton can do for baptism what she does for Reiss dresses – bring it back into fashion.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a splendid little pep talk on video about the event, saying that he hoped it would inspire others to get their babies christened; at the same time he warned against thinking that it was something just for ‘special people’ as opposed to everyone.

Not among our usual lineup of religion reads, granted, but the Spectator’s story was interesting enough that I wanted to put it out there for discussion.

Back to our usual circle of coverage, Godbeat pro Elizabeth Tenety of The Washington Post does an excellent job of leveling things a bit, contrasting Prince George’s baptism with that of any baby:

George’s baptism and future role in the church make him both a typical British boy, as well as a historic figure in the Church of England.

And Tenety provides a good primer for infant baptism, a partial list of the faith groups that subscribe to the practice and the subtle differences:

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Imagine Pope Francis; help artists win prizes

So, unless you have spent quite a bit of time on another planet in recent months, you probably know that Pope Francis is a rock star in global mass media and that condition will probably continue until he stands up in some crucial public-square location — Comedy Central perhaps — and makes a bunch of statements defending Catholic moral teachings.

THe bubbly Jesuit from Latin America is everywhere right now.

With that in mind, the pros over at Religion News Service decided to celebrate wonder that is Pope Francis in a rather unique way, with a rather fun multi-media project. The online announcement for this operation saith:

Religion News Service readers will vote for the best artistic rendering of Pope Francis as part of the nonprofit news site’s first ever art contest.

Public voting online begins Tuesday, Sept 3, at: http://www.religionnews.com

Two-dozen artists from the U.S. as well as Canada, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia have submitted their artistic renderings. Submissions will be accepted until midnight on Monday, Sept.2. Winners will be announced on Sept. 9. First, second and third place winners will have their art published on religionnews.com. In addition:

* 1st Place will receive a $100 Visa Card.

* 2nd Place will receive a $25 Visa Card and an RNS gift package that includes an RNS zippered drawstring bag, golf towel and solar power pack.

* 3rd Place will receive an RNS gift package that includes an RNS zippered drawstring bag, golf towel and solar power pack.

Do the math. That means you have over the weekend to hit the RNS website and cast your votes. Trust me, there are images there that are both fun and graceful, as well as traditional and rather inspiring.

The direct link to the contest ballot is found RIGHT HERE. Just do it folks.

I put one of my favorite images at the top of this post (although I could have chosen one of several others that I liked a lot).

The caption for this particular entry says:

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#StandWithWendy? The Associated Press does

The Associated Press has a story about the Texas Senate passing a law that would protect some unborn children who had reached five months’ gestation. Or, as journalists always and forever frame it, “sweeping new abortion restrictions.”

So, just how sweeping? Well, not as sweeping as the abortion laws in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Norway, Romania, Slovak Republic or France. Or Italy, Poland, Spain or Ireland, for that matter. But more sweeping than Canada, the UK and the Netherlands.

Anyway, the picture accompanying the story has a bunch of protesters and front and center is a woman holding a large crucifix. But it was the tweet that directed readers to the story that got my attention.

There it is above, but it says:

Texas Sen. Wendy Davis, who filibustered abortion bill weeks ago, gives closing remarks: apne.ws/1aAU8VN -JM #StandWithWendy— The Associated Press (@AP) July 13, 2013

Or said, I should say. After a bunch of people (including me) reacted with abject horror, the tweet was deleted. I have no idea when the tweet was deleted (though it was at least deleted by the next day or so). As one of the AP’s 2.18 million followers, I can’t really ever recall seeing a tweet from the news organization that was accompanied by a hashtag, much less one that indicates brazen support for abortion rights. (The anti-abortion hashtag for the bill in question was #Stand4Life) One AP follower asked:

Will @AP formally come out tomorrow AM and explain why it decided to #StandWithWendy?

I, too, wanted to see how the Associated Press apologized for its tweet or why it deleted the tweet, a tweet that had to offend the majority of Texans (and Americans outside of newsrooms) who, well, don’t #StandWithWendy (“One of the clearest messages from Gallup trends is that Americans oppose late-term abortion.”) I went back through dozens upon dozens of tweets to see how the #StandWithWendy tweet deletion was handled. Did AP say something? Apologize? Explain itself? If the news organization did, it wasn’t on the AP’s Twitter feed.

Going back into the wee hours of July 13, I did find 35 tweets about the George Zimmerman trial. That got me thinking. I wondered how many tweets AP sent out about another hot-button trial, one that dealt with racism, poor treatment of immigrants, drugs, serial killing of children, abortion-related deaths, obscene health violations, politics and more. I speak, of course, of the Gosnell trial. Here’s the tally for the history of AP tweets that mention George Zimmerman and/or Trayvon Martin and tweets that mention Dr. Kermit Gosnell:

George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin: more than 272

Gosnell: 2

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German cardinal found guilty of being pro-natalist

One of the most common fallacies of our age is the assumption that simply because we prefer a certain set of social policies they must therefore be compatible.

For example, I like donuts and wish they were free. But I also like the people who make the donuts and want them to be able to make a living wage. The only way my two desires can become compatible is if there is a third-party who intervenes, say, by paying the bakers to give me free crullers.

But as economists will tell you, there is no free lunch (or free donuts). That’s why we don’t like economists. We don’t like to be told that we can’t have everything we want, and that we either have to make tradeoffs or give up some of our desires.

This is also the reason that we don’t like certain religious leaders. They too have a tendency to point out when our desires are incompatible. Even worse, they have the audacity to tell us which desire we — both as individuals and society — should put first.

There exists an entire subgenre of religious journalism dedicated solely to pointing out when religious leaders tell certain groups which desires they should prefer. Sometimes the media approves, such as when the pope tells us we should give preference to the poor over the wealthy. But most of the time, journalists are either annoyed or amused that some clergyman (and they are almost always a man) is trying to tell us that we can’t have it all.

Take, for example, a recent article that ran in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph and was distributed by Canada’s National Post Wire Services, titled, “Cardinal says German women should stay home and have ‘three or four children’ to avoid need for immigrants.”

Although the headline is both factual and neutral, it gives the impression the Catholic leader was asked, “So, what do you think about German women?” and answered that they need to get busy making babies. But the context is much more interesting:

German women should be encouraged to “stay at home and bring three or four children into the world,” rather than relying on immigration to solve the country’s demographic crisis, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cologne has declared.

Cardinal Joachim Meisner compared Angela Merkel’s government’s family policies to Communist East Germany, where, he said, women who stayed at home were considered “demented”.

Germany, which has the lowest birth rate in Europe, is seeking more workers from crisis-hit countries, including Spain, to solve its shortage of skilled labour.

In unusually direct criticism of the chancellor, Cardinal Meisner said: “Where are women really publicly encouraged to stay at home and bring three or four children into the world? This is what we should do, and not — as Mrs Merkel does now — simply present immigration as the solution to our demographic problem.”

So Germany has a demographic crisis (which creates an ongoing economic crisis) but the country’s government also, at least according to Cardinal Meisner, has policies that encourage women to work rather than solving the demography problem by having more children.

Germany’s solution is similar to my donut problem: In order to get both preferences, a third-party has to sacrifice. As Cardinal Meisner implies, the third-party in this case is Spain and Portugal.

Instead of having babies of their own, Germany’s plan is to import them when they reach working age. As a representative of a transnational organization with strong pro-natalist leanings, Cardinal Meisner feels an obligation to note that producing the source material for future German journalists and archbishops is an important a job that shouldn’t be outsourced.

This is a legitimate disagreement about policy preferences and could have been used as a starting point for a discussion on how to resolve Germany’s demographic crisis. But instead, the Telegraph uses Cardinal Meisner’s statement as a proxy for pointing out that the Catholic Church’s habit of telling people what they should do is out of touch with the times we live in:

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