Solid Scottish abuse reporting from the Herald

Solid Scottish abuse reporting from the Herald March 20, 2013

I have written a number of articles acknowledging and bewailing the manifold sins and wickedness, which the press, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, in their reporting on the Catholic clergy abuse scandals.

Bias, selective reporting of facts, hyperbole, one-sided sourcing, lack of context coupled with a mendacious glee in some stories has provoked most justly my wrath and indignation against the Guardian, Der Spiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung, The Australian, the Associated Press, the Irish Times just to name a few.

One might ask, “well, what would satisfy you?” To which I would respond this story in Sunday’s Herald from Scotland on the latest concerning Cardinal Keith O’Brien.

The Herald reports:

CARDINAL Keith O’Brien is being investigated for sexual misconduct in the Vatican on the very night he was made a cardinal, The Herald can reveal. The cardinal is alleged to have assaulted a priest at the Scots College in Rome in October 2003, hours after being awarded the red mitre by Pope John Paul II. The priest, who is Scottish but now based in London, made a formal complaint to the Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops last September, after which Cardinal O’Brien was summoned immediately to Rome.

The complaint, which was dealt with by Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec, who was one of the early front-runners this week to become Pope, was the first which eventually led to the cleric’s downfall and is not from one of the four complainers whose allegations were made public last month. It is understood the complaint involved an attempt to grope the priest, who was known to Cardinal O’Brien. Alcohol had been consumed at an event in the Scots College attended by many priests who had travelled to Rome especially for his elevation. Scots based at the Vatican also attended.

The article has a crisp lede that sticks to the facts. It doesn’t inflate the story by trying to tie it into every church scandal since that unfortunate business with Cain and Abel. The Herald has a great story here and keeps it great, from a journalistic point of view, by sticking to the story. The article then provides context, demonstrating the author’s knowledge of the subject.

The Herald understands the complaint has been taken seriously. Within a few weeks of the claims being made, the cardinal had cancelled all public engagements and stood down as president of the bishops’ conference, the decision-making body for the Catholic Church in Scotland. It also coincided with a bout of ill health which led to him being hospitalised for nine days in October 2012.

Senior sources within the Catholic Church have said allegations of sexual misconduct within the Vatican, more so than any other claims he is facing, could lead to the former Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh becoming only the fourth cardinal in 200 years to be stripped of the position. …

The authors professional competence is further demonstrated through the skillful linking of Cardinal O’Brien’s statement following his resignation last month with this breaking story.

Following the revelations, he was relieved of his post as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh and subsequently admitted his sexual conduct had “fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal”. It is understood the reference to his time as cardinal refers, in part, to the allegations from Rome to which Cardinal O’Brien is believed to have confessed in the aftermath of the revelations.

The article closes by noting the reporter has done his homework and contacted the people who needed to be contacted.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland said: “A number of complaints have been passed directly to the Vatican. The detail and nature of them is not known to the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland.” No-one from the Papal Nuncio’s office in London or the Vatican press office was available for comment.

What’s missing from this story? Cardinal O’Brien’s comments– but the story tells us the cardinal is in seclusion. A rehash of the Catholic clergy abuse scandal? That’s not really necessary in this piece as it focuses on one man who is alleged to have violated his priestly vows and abused his authority by sexually exploiting those less powerful than he. The first sentence could be improved so as to be clearer–the investigation did not begin on the night he became a cardinal. The abuse is alleged to have happened that night.

What else is missing is the cynicism, snarkiness, hyperbole, and anti-Catholic bigotry so often found in these sorts of stories. By playing this straight down the middle, the Herald has written a more powerful indictment of abuser clergy that if it had resorted to the tricks performed by other newspapers reporting on this topic. Three cheers for the Herald, it should be proud of having run this story.

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7 responses to “Solid Scottish abuse reporting from the Herald”

  1. Thank God someone finally got it right. The state of things journalistic is such that one has to look a lot to find a newspaper REPORTER actually REPORTING the facts rather than editorializing and rehashing. Some saying about needles in haystacks comes to mind.

    • Agreed, Thomas, though the more thorough reporting here suggests that previous articles criticized here for using the word hypocrisy might not be so far off the mark. Note also this quote:

      The cardinal is alleged to have assaulted a priest at the Scots College in Rome in October 2003, hours after being awarded the red mitre by Pope John Paul II.

      Assaulted is a strong word, one with connotations of attempted rape.

      One thing which leapt out at me was the absence of any suggestion that he might be a closet (or not closet) alcoholic, capable of controlling his actions while sober but losing those inhibitions when inebriated. Every article reported inappropriate sexual activity without exploring factors that might have facilitated his actions. By explore, I mean ask a direct question.

      • Agreed, sari, though the use of the word “hypocrisy” in news reporting should be verboten unless, of course, it’s a direct quote.

        One nit pick — O’Brien was not awarded a “red mitre” but a red hat. The miter is the ceremonial pointy hat used during liturgical celebrations, especially the Mass. The red hat, the biretta, is used when a cardinal is in choir dress (the scarlet cassock, with rochet and mozzetta) or in non-Mass settings, such as the Liturgy of the Hours.

  2. And there’s very little in the way of opinion voices, which is often passed off as “analysis” when if fact it is merely spin. The article is about who did it, what he did, where, when, and what happened afterward. While it would be better if “senior sources” and the “spokesman” could be named so we have greater confidence it’s not made up, the information relayed from these sources is factual, not spin; that and the article as a whole both come off as credible so that attribution is almost not even necessary.

    And you’re right: It makes for a strong and interesting story about what readers ought to know, not what they ought to think. Letting people think for themselves begins with not crowding the facts with what other people think.

  3. It is, indeed a good, sober responsible story. The only thing I would question is whether the Scots College could precisely be said to be “within the Vatican.” It appears to be one of the many national “colleges” in Rome, intended for seminarians studying at various pontifical universities in the city, as well as a home away from home for clergy, bishops and cardinals of that nationality. I don’t think any of these institutions are actually within the walls of Vatican City. Of course, the presence of Vatican personnel at the soiree in question might make it seem more like part of the Vatican, and it is part of a system of pontifical institutions. So it is a little bit of nit-picking, but it could have been made clearer.

  4. Great to see straight reporting separate from editorializing.

    And again I’m told that I’m commenting too much. What is the time frame that is allowed?