Propaganda vs. journalism in PBS Catholic abuse coverage

Propaganda vs. journalism in PBS Catholic abuse coverage March 12, 2014

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.

The link comes in through the discussion of repressed sexuality and the film’s advocacy for allowing Catholic clergy to marry.

As a religion reporter I have covered the clergy abuse scandals for over a decade, but my reporting has focused on the Episcopal and Anglican churches. The Church of England, the Episcopal Church in the US, and the Anglican churches in Australia and Canada have seen their fair share of abuse cases. The scandal even touched the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church who received into the priesthood of the Episcopal Church in Nevada a laicized Catholic priest who had been disciplined for abusing children while he was a choirmaster in Missouri and Minnesota — but did not tell the parish in Las Vegas where he had been assigned about his past.

But there has never been any evidence or study that I have read that substantiates claims that Catholic clergy are more likely to offend than Protestant clergy.

The Denver Post‘s Electa Draper addressed this issue in 2010 — and I have seen nothing that would challenge her reporting.

Draper states that while no studies comparing the rate of abuse between different denominations and faiths has been made that would substantiate the claim that Catholics are more likely to offend, the insurance companies who insure churches against abuse claims do not charge Catholics higher premiums than Protestants.

Wisconsin-based Church Mutual Insurance Co. has 100,000 client churches and has seen a steady filing of about five sexual molestation cases a week for more than a decade, even though its client base has grown. “It would be incorrect to call it a Catholic problem,” said Church Mutual’s risk control manager, Rick Schaber. “We do not see one denomination above another. It’s equal. It’s also equal among large metropolitan churches and small rural churches.”

Iowa-based Guide One Center for Risk Management, which insures more than 40,000 congregations, also said Catholic churches are not considered a greater risk or charged higher premiums. “Our claims experience shows this happens evenly across denominations,” said spokeswoman Melanie Stonewall.

She also reports that the:

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children President Ernie Allen said his organization has received more than 825,000 reports of child abuse and does not see any statistical indication the Catholic Church has a greater prevalence of cases than any other setting — after accounting for the size of the church, the largest Christian denomination in the U.S. and the world.

“There is a common denominator among those who abuse children,” Allen said. “They seek out situations where they have easy access and cover. It should surprise nobody that an abuser is a teacher, coach, youth leader, pediatrician, minister, priest or rabbi.”

This is what we call reporting. What we see in “Secrets of the Vatican” is called propaganda.


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31 responses to “Propaganda vs. journalism in PBS Catholic abuse coverage”

  1. That numbers quote is great: sure, you could say “90 Catholic priests versus 2 Protestant ministers have been accused of/prosecuted for sex abuse!” and yes, that’s bad. But if it’s 90 out of 1,000 priests and 2 out of 20 ministers, then that’s 10% each, which is not “Catholics are more likely”.

    I’d love to see proportional numbers on this. Anybody got any?

    As to the “If only women could be priests/if only priests could marry” argument about the cure to child abuse within the Church, I’m torn between tears and laughter. So al the teachers, sports coaches, fathers and mothers accused of sexually abusing children – oh, if only they could have married… wait a minute….

    Re: fathers and mothers committing incestuous abuse: here in Ireland, we are about to close a loophole in the sentencing for abuse cases, where women get shorter sentencing than men for incest. So if women can commit child sexual abuse, and married people can commit child sexual abuse, why on earth would permitting someone sexually oriented towards paedophilia/ephebophila to marry an adult solve anything? The only answer there is that all cases of clerical sex abuse are men preferentially picking on weak victims who cannot refuse or fight back – children, rather than adult women or men – in order to have sex, and I very much doubt that. I also very much doubt whether a sexual predator of any kind, whether oriented to be attracted to sexually immature individuals or not, would be stopped by getting (or having the opportunity to get) married.

    • And how do the Catholic-baiters reconcile “This would never happen if women could be priests” with all their own evilabusive nun horror stories?

    • Another problem is that attorneys have incentives to bring suits against the Catholic Church, they have little insentive to suit an independent Baptist congregation, and no one to sue with a small Pentecostal Church that ceased to exist 20 years ago.
      On the other extreme, there are groups like the Mormons who give almost everyone some role in the Church, and so have seen law suits over abuse done by someone who was a Sunday School teacher, where essentially the lawyers are trying to claim the fact that the Church did not 10 years ago screen Sunday School teachers at a level that even public schools did not adopt until more recently should make them liable for the abusive actions not at the church by someone who had never been before accused of abuse, and would not have been stopped by screening.

  2. I tried to watch it, but I got bored. I’ve covered these stories as well and that’s just the problem — the whole program was a rehash of what’s gone on before. There were no new revelations. The case of Father Maciel was well-documented long before PBS got to it. The case of Father Murphy, the priest who headed the deaf school in Milwaukee, has been gone over so many times elsewhere (like the New York Times — I don’t know, maybe the folks at PBS have stopped reading it as well) and on these pages that coverage almost reached saturation. Now how well it was covered is a completely different matter, and that’s why it was covered on these pages. So why this was being touted as some new, dark revelation about how horrible the Vatican is is beyond me.

    • I know, I mean if I have to read one more article or see one more documentary about how children were raped and abused by powerful men who were then protected by other, more powerful, men, I’m just going to lose it. Yawn

      • Yes, praxagora, what happened was horrible all the way around. There is no doubt about it and no denying it. But there is a lot of horror around the world that the press are content to ignore. We don’t see them, for example, raising a subject like the gulags of the Soviet Union when they’re talking about Putin’s takeover of Crimea.

        So if, as the PBS Frontline people were saying, this was supposed to be something new, then where was the new stuff?

  3. “Secrets of the Vatican” dealt with not one, not two, but three major Catholic crises: sexual abuse perpetrated by, and covered up by, Catholic clergy; improprieties (crimes?) in the Vatican banking system; and ongoing homosexual activity among the Roman Catholic clergy.
    The documentary produced sufficient facts to document these problems, even though many Catholic commentators deny the very existence of problems (eg, the Catholic League’s Dr William Donohue). The violations of clerical celibacy, perhaps even more than violations of criminal laws, contribute to the newsworthiness and spark a lot of debate, not all of which is even tempered.
    From my own perspective as a lifelong, active Catholic, I can say from my own experience that this PBS documentary is reasonable, fact-based, and not unfair to the Catholic hierarchy or church. I can also say that the church hierarchy has b taking these problems at all seriously, or acting pastorally with respect to victims. This needs to change, and fast!

  4. For one, pedophilia and otherwise homosexually have been noted as a feature of the Papist since the days of historical Lollardy. Also one cannot address the wickedness of that institution and spiritual realm without a ‘from the gut’ stance. Even though this anti-Catholicism is ‘secular’, it is a needed move.

    • This is the kind of view and comment that is unhelpful.
      I take it from your comment that you are a professing Christian of some sort. As long as you view this as a “Papist” problem rather than a human sin problem, you won’t be able to do anything to actually combat the scourge of child sexual abuse in any church, organization, society, family, country, etc.
      To view it as a problem of “others” is to be in the same state of denial as clergy who cover up such abuse crimes in their denominations.

      • Your view is a rationalization. You might be Catholic yourself. It is a historical revelation by God that we in his actual Church seen the Catholic soul as sick within their own peculiarity. Despite ecumenist ventures to our demise and destruction, it is still valid.

  5. Note to those who would like to comment … please don’t waste my time and yours by making personal attacks on me or others posting comments. Happy to hear your views about the issues and the reporting, but don’t write about what you believe others believe or what their motives might be. Please don’t paint yourself as a crank and spoil this for others.

  6. One big difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the fundamental or evangelical Protestants, including Amish, Baptists, Mennonites and others, is that the Catholic Church is hierarchical. For every priestly abuser, there’s a bishop right there to do the cover up and to a transfer the abuser to a place where he can abuse again. The Baptist and evangelical priest who abuses has no bishop to cover up for him and send him to another parish where he can abuse again. As was the case in Watergate, the cover-up is often more horrendous than the original abuse.

    Another point to make is that the Catholics never cease to proclaim their concern for the unborn child but don’t seem to mind abusing the already-born one. As has been said, Roman Catholics cherish life between conception and birth.

    • You’re wrong about other denominations not engaging in institutional/denomination coverup. Google Christa Brown’s website and blog “Stop Baptist Predators” about the Baptist/Southern Baptist scandal, equal in scale to that of the Catholic one.

      • To the Protestant believer, every man is his own high priest. There is no hierarchy of interlocutors between him and his God. No Baptist, for example, can remove another from the priesthood. Nor does he have a file on him to hide, nor can he assign him to any pulpit in another parish, especially in another country. to carry on his abuse.

        In short, the Roman Catholic has never been anything but a hierarchy characterized by secrecy and conspiracy. There is no such thing among Baptists.

        • The above spiel is the same that has been used over and over again by the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention to justify their do-nothing response to clergy child abuse and the shuffling of Baptist pedophile pastors to new churches after offending. While the RCC was forced to acknowledge wrongdoing after widespread media coverage, the SBC refuses to do even that.

          • If I join a Bridge Club, I can hardly be expected to answer to charges of supporting abuse by one of the members. I’m not even responsible for stepping in to stop his abuse if I know about it. Even if I’m the president of the Bridge Club.

            For me to be liable, I’d have to have some power over an abuser’srelationships or assignments, which I don’t. I’m not even liable if I refer him to a babysitting job, knowing of his past abuse, unless I have some fiduciary duty.

            I imagine that the appeals court will come to that conclusion regarding the Baptist abuser as well. To hold otherwise would cause folks to meddle in the affairs of others and subject them to charges of libel or slander. You are not your neighbor’s keeper. There has to be a nexus of employer-employee relationship or some such.

            Otherwise we risk living in a country of tattle-tales, like East Germany.

    • You should consider the ease with which all sorts of organizations, religious or not, hide sex offenders.

      • In fact, sometimes the worst actions come from the people closest to the problem. There have been cases when parishioners have protested the removal of their priest, students have protested in favor of their accused teacher and so on. Also, in some cases, the kick the bum out approach has not fared much better. The Baptists in South Carolina might fire the guy, but he would be received in Oklahoma in a Baptist congregation that knew nothing of his past. Is the problem less when there is ignorance of there being potential for abuse?

  7. This post expresses indignation at PBS over the documentary, but no anger over the crimes committed against the victims interviewed therein. As a Christian, my anger is at those crimes of child sexual abuse and assault.

    • That is because this is a blog about journalism. The focus is on the reporting on an issue, not the issue.

  8. For anyone who wishes to opine on the sex problem in the Catholic Church, there is some required reading.

    1.) Phillip Jenkins’ Pedophiles and Priests. It was written after the Dallas scandal of the mid-90s, but the script he details is, mutatis mutandi, identical to the Boston scandel of 2002. While his data is now obsolete, it effectively makes the same claim that other, more extensive surveys have since shown: Catholic clergy are no more likely to sexually abuse than other clergy, and perhaps somewhat less.

    2.) The John Jay reports commissioned by the Catholic bishops. Despite media screeds about “children” being “raped”, the data shows that the vast majority were not children, but sexually mature adolescents, and actual cases of rape were rare. Many of the accusations did not constitute prosecutable offenses anyway.

    3.) The actual facts of the Bishop Finn case preferably from a source other than the Kansas City Star, which had it in for him from the minute he showed up in town. Also, review the allegation against Archbishop Niensted, which have been investigated and not pursued by the local police.

    4. Finally, this from that notorious Catholic propaganda mill, Newsweek:

    The money quote:

    Experts disagree on the rate of sexual abuse among the general American male population, but Allen says a conservative estimate is one in 10. Margaret Leland Smith, a researcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says her review of the numbers indicates it’s closer to one in 5. But in either case, the rate of abuse by Catholic priests is not higher than these national estimates[something less than 5%]. The public also doesn’t realize how “profoundly prevalent” child sexual abuse is, adds Smith. Even those numbers may be low; research suggests that only a third of abuse cases are ever reported.

    Now, here’s the journalism angle. My day job is partly taken up with sex offenders, and I worry about comments like the one here that expressed weariness with the whole subject. Do these sorts of sensationalized, hyped, and sometimes false, stories, desensitize up to the seriousness of the problem? Does scapegoating Catholics do anything but point the finger away from the wider social problem?

      • Adolescents certainly are sexually mature, by definition. In my state, at least, the law differentiates sexual acts around the age of 14.

        And who said anything about “statutory rape”? Perhaps you think a 28 year old man kissing a 16 year old girl is “rape”, statutory or not, but that’s not the point. What matters is that by making all sex crimes, or sexual approaches, the same as rape, the media trivializes the real problem and inhibits helpful responses to sexual abuse.

    • FW Ken, please note that I said I got bored with PBS’s presentation because there was nothing new in its reportage. The ads said it would be “explosive” with “new revelations.” Everything they talked about in it had already been well-covered by the mainstream media ad nauseum. (By “well-covered” I mean that it was covered in abundance, not that it was covered well because these pages have repeatedly noted all the serious and slanted flaws in that coverage.) The weariness I expressed, then, was over Frontline’s presentation, not over the subject matter — though that is certainly wearisome in and of itself.

      • Fair point, but speaking as one with a professional interest in sex abuse prevention, it’s boredom, or “issue burnout”, I think it’s called, that I worry about. I agree that new information and serious analysis are important, but the last thing we want is for people to stop paying attention to a serious issue.

  9. The willingness of some people to spread lies to advance their theological views is disturbing. I fully believe that priests should be married, but I am not going to advance this view with bad manipulated statistics largely cooked up by trial lawyers aiming for huge payouts.

  10. Again, I know the Disqus format doesn’t permit comment moderating without investing more time than GR writers have available, but given a few of the most recent comments here wouldn’t it be a good time to turn this one off?

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