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Spotlight Report

  The Ombudsman  

Bias on the church scandal?

By Christine Chinlund, 4/29/2002

EVEN THE REPORTERS and editors at the epicenter of the Globe's pedophile priest coverage are stunned at how the story has reverberated around the world.

What began in January as a Spotlight Team account of one errant Roman Catholic priest and the Boston Archdiocese's failure to contain him has unleashed similarly embarrassing stories in dioceses across the United States and in at least three foreign countries. Every major newsweekly has put the story on the cover, and international media attention has been intense since the ripple effects reached the Vatican.

For the Globe, it's the biggest local story at least since the school desegregation busing battles of the 1970s. It's arguably the biggest story the Globe has ever broken.

It's also a source of considerable pain for many Catholics in the Boston area. Some have responded by faulting the Globe's aggressive coverage. It's just fresh proof, they say, that the Globe is ''anti-Catholic.'' From others, the critique is more nuanced, suggesting (among other things) a Globe attempt to impose a liberal agenda on the church.

It was through the eyes of these critics that I went back and reread the 80-plus stories on the topic that have appeared on page one since Jan. 6. I looked hard for signs of bias - or at least journalistic insensitivity - to support the ''anti-Catholic'' charge. I could not find it.

I did see an occasional lapse that could feed the perception of bias - the unnecessary additional quote from the lawyer representing victims, for example - but it was rare.

More often I found careful, restrained use of language and an attempt to balance the coverage of deviant priests with stories about dedicated church servants harmed by the revelations. I found stories seeking to explain pedophilia as a disease and on the determination of most Catholics to affirm their faith at the deepest personal levels. The coverage has focused on the church's institutional response - shifting offenders from parish to parish - rather than individual acts of molestation.

To an unusual degree the story has been fact-driven, shaped by events, or documents, rather than the opinions of, say, political foes, as is often the case with ''gotcha'' stories on Boston powerbrokers. Yes, the Globe has pushed hard to uncover the facts, but because the issue involves criminal activity - the sexual abuse of children - such zeal is warranted.

There is no lack of support for that view among Catholics. Perhaps precisely because the crisis involves the abuse of children - the ultimate innocents - much of the public's anger has been directed at the institution that could have stopped it, rather than the media messenger of that failure.

For each reader who called the ombudsman to complain about the coverage, there's been a reader - often a Catholic reader - applauding it and asking for more. Other parts of the paper, notably, Spotlight, and the Letters to the Editor page, report that incoming calls are lopsidedly in favor of the aggressive coverage.

Since January the paper has published more than 200 news stories on the topic and dozens of opinion pieces. The opportunity for error in that amount of verbiage is significant. With a few lamentable exceptions - such as a photo caption (quickly corrected) that had the wrong bishop accused of sexual abuse - the reporting has avoided the potential pitfalls.

Yet the scores of critics who have contacted the ombudsman's office should not be summarily dismissed. Many of them are thoughtful readers who raise worthy questions of journalistic context. Consider the words of John Donovan, a lifelong Catholic and the organist at St. Michael's in Lynn.

''I am happy the Boston Globe has been ferocious in its coverage, but - and this is a big but - I do think that the Globe is reporting this whole scandal through the lens of its own ideological preoccupations. It's not making an effort to sample the diversity of opinion in the Catholic Church.'' Referring to a noted liberal theologian from the University of Notre Dame, he added, ''If they cite Father McBrien one more time, I will throw up.'' (For the record, the Rev. Richard P. McBrien has been quoted in eight stories in the past four months.)

Donovan echoes the views of several other readers when he says the Globe coverage has built a call for reform on sexual abuse into a call for broader reforms on such issues as celibacy and ordination of women.

Not so, says Globe editor Martin Baron. While columnists may have an ideological agenda - ''that's their job'' - the news staff does not, says Baron. But when someone in the community raises the issue of reform, he says, ''it is our obligation to cover'' it.

Another reader points to the Spotlight Team's book contract as evidence that the paper's interest in the story is self-serving. ''Talk about a conflict of interest,'' he says.

From the point of view of a reader, that response is understandable. A book contract - even one in which the proceeds will go to a charity, as is the case here - can send a mixed signal. The paper, initially engaged in the pure pursuit of news, makes itself vulnerable to suggestions it is hyping the story to boost book sales. If nothing else, producing a book distracts from pursuing the day-to-day story.

So why write the book? ''A book allows us to put the story in broader context ... deal with it more comprehensively and in greater depth,'' says Baron, and it keeps the Globe in ''a leadership position'' on the story.

''We recognized that some would perceive a conflict of interest,'' he says, ''and that's why we said from the beginning we'd donate the profits to charity.''

Unfortunately, that distinction is lost on many readers. Although Baron's arguments are valid, I would say that, on balance, the book project is not worth the cost in credibility and focus.

Finally, readers raise questions about the Globe's editorial calling for Cardinal Bernard F. Law to resign. ''How can the Globe have any right to tell any person in the Catholic Church to resign? I don't get it,'' says one woman indignantly. ''It's totally offensive,'' says another caller.

To my surprise, I've found this criticism the hardest to respond to. There is a case to be made that only the Catholic flock is qualified to declare its leadership too flawed to lead, and that for the Globe to do so is patronizing, or at least irrelevant.

But it's also true that the church is a powerful institution in this city; it influences public policy and helps shape the quality of life here. When its actions collide with the law - and that's the key difference - the church moves from the ecclesiastical to the public arena.

Better to base the call for resignation on Law's failures as a public citizen, on the belief that his actions have facilitated criminal acts, rather than on the perceived views of the church's rank and file. The Globe's editorial page has made both points.

It is also notable that the Globe's editorial call for Law to resign came relatively late - nearly a full month after the Boston Herald's and weeks after prominent conservative Catholics began publicly questioning whether Law could continue in office. All of this is further counterargument to readers who suggest the Globe has been out to discredit the archdiocese from the start.

The church may have been put on the defensive, but its public silence has helped put (and keep) it there. For much of the last 16 weeks, Law has refused to talk with reporters or take to the airwaves. Law also erred when, early in the crisis, he confidently declared no priest accused of child sex abuse was known to be still working for the archdiocese. That statement was proved wrong with each of 10 priests subsequently removed.

Looking back, there have been two crucial developments in the Globe's examination of pedophile priests.

One was the Globe's court challenge - ordered by Baron within days of assuming the editorship last July - to the confidentiality order that sealed documents in the case of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan. The resulting documents ''showed the extent of church knowledge and coverup,'' says Ben Bradlee Jr., the deputy managing editor who oversees the Spotlight Team.

The second, overlapping development was the unexpected flood of calls from readers, more than 200 in all, with their own accounts of victimization. Those calls eventually helped drive the story. ''We began to realize we struck a nerve,'' says Spotlight editor Walter V. Robinson. ''There were so many people calling us, they were so angry and crying on the phone, telling us what they hadn't even told parents or spouses, things that had happened to them.''

Giving voice to a community's long-suppressed grievances is one of a newspaper's most important missions.

The ombudsman represents the readers. Her opinions and conclusions are her own. Phone 617-929-3020 or, to leave a message, 929-3022. E-mail:

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 4/29/2002.
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