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Spotlight Report

Meeting draws media, protest

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 6/14/2002

DALLAS - More than a dozen uniformed Dallas police officers stood sentry at the hotel elevators, blocking visitors without guest passes from reaching the rooms above. A dozen more officers hovered outside the hotel entrances in the Dallas heat - which had already reached 90 degrees by sunrise - monitoring the clusters of news photographers, television trucks, and sign-waving protesters assembled across the street, including one man dressed as Pope John Paul II and another shouting, ''Holy Pedophilia!''

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Inside the air-conditioned building, swarms of print, radio, and television reporters trailed by sweaty camera crews roamed the lobby, straining for a glimpse of a prominent cleric. Cardinal Bernard F. Law was the prize quarry, but his comings and goings were closely guarded, and sightings were rare. Access to bishops was severely limited by rules requiring the media to sign up in advance for interviews - or risk having their credentials yanked. So, many reporters turned their attention to victims of clergy sexual abuse and advocacy groups, whose frequent impromptu news conferences drew frenzied masses of lights, cameras, and microphones.

Controlled mayhem characterizes the scene this week at the Fairmont Hotel in downtown Dallas, where more than 300 bishops have gathered for their semiannual conference to debate a binding national policy on clergy sexual abuse, and where reporters clamor for tidbits of news in the tightly controlled environment like ants at a picnic.

Typical media attendance at the bishops' spring meetings numbers about 20 reporters and the event rarely attracts television attention, according to conference staff members and religion reporters who have attended the gatherings for years. This year, more than 750 members of the media received credentials to cover the meeting, including every major network and dozens of affiliates, and another 250 were turned away for lack of space. The only other church-related events to have drawn more media attention, conference staffers said, are papal visits.

''We've never had this kind of media frenzy or even public interest,'' said Richard N. Ostling, a long-time religion reporter for the Associated Press and Time magazine. One of the few other meetings that sparked similar press interest was held in November 1968, shortly after the Vatican issued its controversial encyclical on birth control, and even that session drew only about 200 reporters, according to Russell Shaw, who was press secretary for the bishops conference from 1969 to 1987 and now writes for Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic magazine.

The event has drawn protesters, too. Across the street from the hotel yesterday, where a row of tents is set up for television reporters to deliver live newscasts, about two dozen demonstrators were gathered, holding signs that read, ''Recovering Catholic,'' ''Homosexuality is the Cause of Sexual Abuse Scandal'' and ''Stop Infant Circumcisions in Catholic Hospitals.''

Many of the bishops, anticipating a media mob scene, arrived in Dallas with their communications staffs. Accompanying Law were his spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, and private secretary, the Rev. John Connolly.

To accommodate the phalanx of reporters and news crews, the hotel's ballroom has been transformed into a pressroom equipped with scores of phone jacks and electrical outlets and a closed-circuit feed that allows reporters to watch the bishops from afar. The scene resembles a national political convention.

The level of management is also considerably tighter than in past years. The press is barred from certain parts of the hotel, including floors on which the bishops are staying. Rules preventing reporters from speaking with bishops without a pre-scheduled interview, widely ignored in the past, are being observed. By yesterday afternoon, more than 1,000 interview requests had been received, according to Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the conference's deputy director for communications. The press material is also more voluminous and sophisticated than in past years.

Given the intense news coverage of the clergy sex abuse scandal that broke in Boston in January, the huge media presence isn't surprising, many observers said.

''We've had six months of buildup for this meeting, and that's unusual, to say the least,'' said Shaw.

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at

This story ran on page A41 of the Boston Globe on 6/14/2002.
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