The Conservative Media: Unfair and Unbalanced toward Clergy Abuse

Marci A. HamiltonThe conservative pundits persistently castigate the "liberal press" for its political and social coverage in, for example, the New York Times and Washington Post. The conservative media, though, has its sacred cows, as well. For example, the conservatives of today often use kid gloves when dealing with hard news involving religious institutions, figures, and issues.

This is especially true when it comes to child sex abuse by clergy. Despite the growing mountain of facts regarding the bad actions of religious leaders when it comes to child sex abuse, these news organizations continue to act as though it is in bad taste to fully (un)cover the religious leaders' illegal and immoral actions.

The Wall Street Journal, FOX News, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity, among others, routinely skew reporting on religious issues, and suppress stories that might put religious leaders in a bad light. As they read this, they are puffing themselves up and declaring that they do no such thing. That would be incorrect.

There is only one way that thousands of children can be sexually abused by clergy in every conceivable religious denomination for decades (more likely centuries) in secret: all of the adults have to enter into a tacit pact of confidentiality. When the child goes to the parent, the parent has to discipline the child for saying "naughty" things about their revered priest, minister, or rabbi. When the prosecutor receives a report of abuse, and the bishop asks him to permit the Church to "clean its laundry in private," he has to choose the bishop's way. When the newspaper editor is contacted by a parent who wants to blow the lid on his church's protection of a pedophile priest, and then an elder calls with the same line as the bishop, he has to defer to the elder.

The adults protect each other—and most of all, the perverts, who move onto the next child, expecting anonymity as the leaders of the community sit quietly, like Pollyannas expecting religious leaders to produce rainbows for everyone.

Over there sit the victims, in the dark, waiting.

This is the true history of clergy abuse in the United States (and elsewhere): the high-level clergy in power pressure the others in power (parents, prosecutors, State Departments, lawmakers, editors, reporters, and pundits) to shield them from embarrassment. And they defy anyone to question their character. Their cohorts on the A-list graciously acquiesce. There will be no justice for the victims of religious organizations until this unspoken pact is irrevocably broken. The "liberal press" has become better about reporting facts in this field, but the conservative press continues to act as though offending religious actors is immoral, regardless of the depravity of their behavior.

There were sporadic reports of abuse by abusive Catholic priests before 2002 when the Boston Globe took a giant step forward by publishing its investigation into the Boston Archdiocese's orchestrated cover-up. Though there was redundant coverage of their report, most newspaper editors continued to be deferential to the pressure imposed by religious leaders on the clergy abuse issue. Newspapers across the country, as victims came forward singly and in groups, too often treated new waves of victims of new perpetrators as "old news" and, therefore, limited coverage.

In part due to the extraordinary persistence of David Clohessy and Barbara Blaine with SNAP and the dogged determination of, along with the sheer weight of the emerging evidence, newspaper reporters became more insistent on covering these issues, and editors more willing to tune out the objections of the clergy leaders. Eventually, many newspapers took the issues more seriously: the Los Angeles Times, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Washington Post. So coverage in the so-called "liberal press" has become more fact-based and less inclined to cover up for the religious higher-ups.

Not so with FOX News, the Wall Street Journal, or the pundits. True, they have covered the stories they could no longer pretend to ignore, but their coverage is routinely biased in favor of giving the religious groups the benefit of the doubt, as opposed to employing the very journalist ethics they use to demonize the "liberal press." Anyone who sits down to do a newspaper-by-newspaper comparison of these stories can see the pro-religious editorial hand at work in the WSJ, FOX, and radio shows.

A great example occurred last week, when two letters from the Vatican to bishops in Ireland (the topic of my column lastweek) and in Tucson, Arizona established nothing less than a patently concerted plan to cover up child sex abuse by priests. The former forbade reporting to the authorities the crimes, and the latter rejected releasing files to the courts or the victims. With this cauldron boiling over, what does the Wall Street Journal run on Friday? An apologist's op-edcomparing the wondrous current pope and his predecessor.

1/26/2011 5:00:00 AM
  • God vs Gavel
  • Children
  • Law
  • Media
  • politics
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Marci Hamilton
    About Marci Hamilton
    Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge, 2008) and God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge, 2005, 2007).