AP frames Benedict XVI in some warped timeframes

On one level, I am rather disappointed to note that the editors at the Associated Press have already fixed an awesome typo that a Beltway journalist sent to me early today, the one that said the Pope Benedict XVI has, as is common among elderly men, experienced “some prostrate problems” in recent years.

Yes, that’s certainly the truth. Arthritis can make it hard to do prostrations during liturgical prayers.

Perhaps that typo crept into the copy while members of the AP team frantically worked to turn the basic obituary story that they had stashed away in a digital file into a live, breaking news report about the pope’s stunning announcement that he was retiring.

The nearly 3,000-word report that quickly hit the wires today contains a sweeping overview of Benedict XVI’s life, just like an obituary. It doesn’t contain the kinds of errors that will make faithful Catholics scream and spill coffee into their computer keyboards. That’s good, since this AP story is the one that millions of newspapers will see in their local newspapers — the many, many local papers that do not have fulltime religion specialists.

What this AP story has, however, is the kind of framing language that always makes me think of those moments in sporting events — especially in soccer and basketball — when one player fouls another, forcing the angry person who was fouled to lash out in response. The referees then, inevitably, call a foul on the second player. We do live in a sinful, fallen world.

All too often in daily journalism, reporters (and especially editors) have a tendency to think that big important stories actually begin when they first realize that they exist, as opposed to when these stories actually start affecting life in the real world (as opposed to newsrooms).

Take, for example, that whole “Anglican timeline” thing, with all of the stories proclaiming that the Episcopal Church battles over doctrine, sacraments and sexuality started in 2003 with the election of an openly gay, non-celibate bishop in the tiny Diocese of New Hampshire. In reality, the battles had been going on — with international consequences — for several decades.

In this AP story about the retirement of Benedict XVI, the big story is the sex-abuse scandal. There are times, in this report, when the editors truly seem to realize that there is no singular scandal, but a series of connected scandals that have been unfolding since the early 1980s. Many of these flareups actually received attention in the mainstream press (as well as in Hollywood).

However, the headline at AP states the thesis: “Pope’s mission to revive faith clouded by scandal.” There are several places in which the AP team fits Benedict into this picture. For example:

The German theologian, whose mission was to reawaken Christianity in a secularized Europe, grew increasingly frail as he shouldered the monumental task of purging the Catholic world of a sex abuse scandal that festered under John Paul II and exploded during his reign into the church’s biggest crisis in decades, if not centuries.

That isn’t bad, but, actually, the scandal did much more than fester during the long, long tenure of the Blessed Pope John Paul II — it exploded into view several times. For example, didn’t The Boston Globe win its Pulitzer in 2003 for earlier coverage of the scandal, before Benedict XVI became pope? I am aware that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was already involved in the story, but it’s simply wrong to make it appear that the scandal began on his watch or that the worst abuses came to light during his papacy.

You can see the timeline struggle again a bit later in the report.

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A sexual abuse story, complete with a rare glimpse of faith

As strange as it sounds, the goal of this post is to praise The Los Angeles Times for a page-one story focusing on a single case history linked to the decades of sexual abuse of children and teens by Catholic priests.

At the center of the story are two brothers, Damian and Bob Eckert and the priest, Father Robert Van Handel, who led the community boys choir in which they sang while growing up in Santa Barbara, Calif. Damian was 9 or 10 when he joined and Bob was about 8.

But the key to this remarkable story, other than the painful memories of Damian Eckert, is a once confidential document. This quotable source surfaced in the legal proceedings linked to the wave of sexual-abuse cases in California, including the Van Handel cases and others linked to the now-closed St. Anthony’s Seminary in Santa Barbara.

Simply stated, the document is the 27-page “sexual autobiography” that the priest prepared for a therapist who was attempting to treat him. Thus, the tragically creepy voice of the priest himself — speaking in short, italicized bursts of text — serves as one of the narrators for this story. For example, there is this quote at the start:

There is something about me that is happier when accompanied by a small boy. … Perhaps besides the sexual element, the child in me wants a playmate.

– Father Robert Van Handel

The story focuses on the thoughts and emotions of Damian Eckert the first time he clicked into this document online and faced a series of new revelations about the priest who abused him and created some of the emotional and spiritual booby traps that have exploded at key moments throughout his life. The direct quotes from this therapy diary add a concrete, highly specific spine of facts to the narrative — as opposed to all of those news stories on this painful topic that were forced to lean on vague memories and disputed accusations.

This allows for passages such as this one:

I asked my best friend once if he saw anything “special” in pictures of [naked] children. He said, ‘No, not at all.’ I began to realize that I was different.

The product of an alcoholic, volatile father who served in the military and a scared mother, Van Handel was the third of five children, Eckert read. The priest went to high school in the 1960s at St. Anthony’s, a campus of sandstone facades and grand towers near Old Mission Santa Barbara run by the Franciscan religious order.

Years later, while attending graduate school in Berkeley, he started a boys choir at a local parish, despite his self-professed lack of musical skills. There, Van Handel wrote, he met one of his first victims. He was 7 or 8. Light hair. Blue eyes. His parents were divorcing and grateful for the priest’s interest in their son.

Always this was done under the cover of some “legitimate” touching. [The boy] never seemed to mind, and I wasn’t about to stop on my own.

Around this time, Van Handel wrote, he implied to a Franciscan counselor that he was sexually attracted to boys. The counselor quickly changed the subject.

In 1975, at age 28, Van Handel returned to St. Anthony’s as a teacher and founded the Santa Barbara Boys Choir.

So, besides the quotations from this “sexual autobiography” of a predator priest, what makes this Times story different? What, for me, makes it a better than the average news feature on this tough topic?

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