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Spotlight Report


At cross-purposes?

In covering the sex abuse crisis, the Catholic press must reconcile Church and fourth estate

By Mark Jurkowitz, Globe Staff, 4/25/2002

 On the Web
Visit the websites of Catholic publications mentioned in this article:

America magazine

The Catholic Free Press

Catholic News Service

Catholic Press Association

Catholic World News

Catholic World Report

Commonweal magazine

National Catholic Register

National Catholic Reporter

The Pilot online

In a March 15 edition of The Pilot devoted to the mushrooming sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, executive editor Monsignor Peter V. Conley wrote an editorial that instantly made national news. Under the headline ''Questions that must be faced,'' The Pilot - the 173 -year-old paper of the Boston Archdiocese - wondered about the celibacy requirement for clergy, the prohibition against female priests, and the possibility that the priesthood attracts a disproportionate number of homosexuals.

Those words generated intense media and public interest as well as a statement by Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the paper's publisher, saying the editorial ''unfortunately created confusion.'' In the next issue, Conley published another editorial, explaining that the paper's desire to ''take notice'' of questions raised by lay leaders should not be construed as a desire ''to call for changes in Church policies.''

''I wasn't trying to make headlines,'' says Conley of the March 15 piece he thinks was misunderstood in the highly charged environment of a scandal centered in Boston. ''I'm trying to be candid. These are the questions that people are raising.''

Asked if he's ever been involved in a story this intense during his stint at The Pilot, Conley responds slowly. ''Nothing like this,'' he says. ''There is nothing like this.''

These are wrenching days for many members of the Catholic press, a number of whom are torn between journalistic impulses and faith and allegiance as they try to make sense of a rapidly developing story that strikes at the core of the institution they cover, which in many cases subsidizes and sustains them.

''We're journalists,'' says Margaret Russell, editor of the Worcester diocesan paper, The Catholic Free Press, which has two reporters on staff. ''We're not a house organ, but our publisher is the bishop. ... We are hurt by [the scandal] personally. What I think it makes us do is look for the whole truth. Just printing the truth is not enough.''

Karen Franz, president of the Catholic Press Association, recently penned a letter to her colleagues in which she talked, almost longingly, about the old days when a dearth of breaking news forced her paper, the Catholic Courier of Rochester, N.Y., to rely heavily on soft news and features.

''I've been feeling a lot like a pinball lately, reeling from one bumper to another as new allegations are revealed, and I'm sure you've felt the same way,'' Franz wrote. ''Compounding the chaos of unfolding news events has been the emotional toll on all Catholics.''

Dennis Heaney, incoming CPA president and executive publisher of the Los Angeles Archdiocese newspaper, The Tidings, seems fairly typical for a Catholic lay journalist. He used to work for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, then joined the Catholic press largely out of personal conviction.

''Getting into this work, as a lifelong Catholic, I came to think of it passionately as a ministry,'' he says. ''Our mission is very clear. It's about informing and educating our readers.''

Describing the balancing act between journalism and spirituality, Heaney says, ''At the beginning of every day, as I drive on the freeway, I know I'm working for the Archdiocese of LA.'' But he is quick to insist that his staffers are consummate ''professionals'' once they enter the office.

Like its mainstream counterpart, the Catholic press is far from monolithic. (The CPA is larger than one might expect, with almost 650 members.) From the Catholic News Service to wide-ranging journals of opinion, from diocesan papers to Web sites, the Catholic media function with very different mandates and philosophies.

Even as the weekly National Catholic Reporter calls for Law to resign, the weekly National Catholic Register argues that some secular media coverage reflects ''an agenda to discredit the Church.''

And the complexity of the issues has created crosscurrents that defy easy ideological stereotypes. Thus, while a liberal publication such as Commonweal treads carefully on issues such as reform and resignation, Philip Lawler, a conservative who runs the Catholic World News Web site and Catholic World Report magazine, aggressively assails the ''corruption in the hierarchy'' of the church.

One thing is certain. Given public interest in the sexual abuse scandal - a recent Pew Research Center poll indicated that 61 percent of Americans are following it ''fairly'' or ''very'' closely - much of the Catholic media feels obliged to jump into the story in some way.

''I think this falls into the purview of just doing our job,'' says the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor in chief of the weekly Jesuit magazine America, which dedicated much of its April 22 issue to the sexual abuse crisis. ''This is what everyone is talking about.''

''Yes, it's painful, it's tough for all of us,'' says Rebecca Drake, editor of The Catholic Observer, a diocesan paper in Springfield. But ''even if I weren't working in the Catholic media now, I would, as a Catholic, want the information.''

The diocesan papers - often run by lay editors with bare-bones staffs but subsidized by the Church and overseen by local bishops - are the ones most encumbered by obvious journalistic conflicts.

In an interview, Franz, who has worked in the mainstream media, says Catholic papers are similar to their secular counterparts in that the publisher is the boss. ''The unique situation in the Catholic press,'' she says, ''is that the boss is also the major newsmaker.''

Russell, a former assistant news editor at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, says the bishop in Worcester doesn't exert direct control over articles published in The Catholic Free Press. But ''we have had discussions since all this began on different approaches to take and things he'd like us to do. ... A lot of it is trying to undo misconceptions.''

In a lengthy article in the April 19 issue of Commonweal, a biweekly edited by Catholic lay people, Peter Steinfels laments the lack of a feistier church-sponsored press.

''An independent diocesan press might have saved the church from disaster, or at the very least prepared Catholics to put the recent revelations into perspective,'' Steinfels writes.

Lawler, who argues that only his outlets and The National Catholic Reporter have aggressively covered the sex abuse saga, says, ''You have to understand, in almost every case the publisher of [the diocesan paper] is the bishop, so you have a massive conflict there.''

A recent piece by Drake in The Catholic Observer epitomizes the delicacy of the diocesan paper's task as it mixes the disturbing news of the day with a dose of spirituality and solace.

The column began with her declaration that ''I face with dread each new headline,'' and ended with her quoting reassuring passages from Scripture.

''We try to focus on the mission of gospel teaching. ... There's a way of finding inspiration and strength in tough moments,'' she says. ''I also see the value of doing investigative reporting and getting the news accurately.''

Some Catholic publications are taking more unequivocal stances. In April, the National Catholic Register published a three-part series on ''Scandal in the Church'' that focused on the problem of homosexuals in the priesthood, chronicled what it considers to be an aggressive response by the Church to cases of sexual misconduct in the past, and examined the myths in mainstream-media reporting on the scandal.

''We've seen plenty of sex abuse scandals play themselves out in the secular media, and there seems to be a tendency to point fingers at the Catholic Church and make it seem that priests are more disposed to this than others,'' says executive editor Tom Hoopes. ''Step one is, we want to point out that it's a media frenzy.''

Conversely, Lawler, a former Pilot editor who broke the news that the Pope had summoned the cardinals to Rome to discuss the crisis, believes the Catholic press has been too passive. He's written several tough pieces for Catholic World Report assailing the corruption of Church officials and says, ''Our readers are very, very angry.''

The National Catholic Reporter, which has been covering clergy sex abuse stories for almost two decades, didn't mince words in its April 26 editorial, which called for Law to step down and warned that, due to ''a culture of secrecy, privilege, power, and exclusion,'' the Church hierarchy ''is now in danger of collapsing under the rot of its own corruption.''

Commonweal's pages have displayed some of the angst and uncertainty that is a natural byproduct of this scandal.

''We haven't directly called for the resignation of Cardinal Law,'' says editor Margaret O'Brien Steinfels. ''It's genuinely possible that for this thing to get sorted out, he might have to stay there for another year or so.'' An April 5 Commonweal editorial counseled ''perspective,'' warning that ''a rush to judgment is also a real danger.''

The headline accompanying that editorial was ''The Whole Story,'' a phrase that is frequently used in the Catholic press these days. The term also suggests that the real role for this specialized segment of the media is to seek context and meaning while mainstream journalism is engaged in the heated pursuit of breaking news from Rome, Boston, or elsewhere.

With small staffs and leisurely deadlines, many Catholic publications simply can't keep up with the daily rush of events. And many don't want to. America magazine's Reese, who holds a political science doctorate from Berkeley, is conflicted between his view that mainstream media coverage has been fundamentally fair and his fear that it is creating an impression that ''the Catholic Church is the only place where this is going on.''

In any event, he knows what his job is.

''We're not doing the hard news stuff,'' he says, but looking at ''how the church should respond to the theological implications of this.''

This story ran on page B13 of the Boston Globe on 4/25/2002.
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