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Media frenzy over abuse said to expose flaws in several institutions

By Michelle Martin
Catholic News Service

When the Boston Globe kicked off the media frenzy about clerical sexual abuse of minors earlier this year, it exposed systemic ethical flaws in several institutions, including the media itself, said Catholic scholar R. Scott Appleby.

The scandal was not so much about the small minority of priests who abused children and teens as about the practice of reassigning them, in effect covering up their misdeeds and allowing them to continue, Appleby said.

Appleby, director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and a history professor at the University of Notre Dame, kicked off the yearlong "Ethics in America" lecture series at St. Xavier University in Chicago Sept. 4 by addressing "The Sex Abuse Scandal: Implications for the Roman Catholic Church."

Overall, Appleby said, the media did the church a service by exposing the scandal.

"They made it impossible to ignore the problem," he said. "Even if it affects only a small minority, it is a grave sin."

Where the media failed was in some reporters' determination to write sensational stories without troubling themselves to understand all the facts, and an overall neglect of the larger context of the good work done by the church and its people, he said.

"Priests and religious have nurtured the weak, fed the hungry, educated and formed the children of immigrants. Priests, women religious and lay ministers have built vast social service structures," he said, adding that the bishops themselves have championed unpopular truths about human life and dignity to political leaders and legislators.

"How could the church seemingly become unsafe for the innocent, the young, the vulnerable?" he asked.

The main answer lies not with the media, he said, but within the church itself.

"If I had one word, I would say the source of this conflict is clericalism," Appleby said, "the idea that because you are ordained, you are superior in ethical judgment and spiritual life."

Such thinking created blind spots among some priests and clergy, making them slow to respond to victims and to the loss of trust among the faithful.

On the hopeful side, Appleby said, the bishops made a "credible beginning" at repairing the damage when they overwhelmingly approved the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" June 14 at their Dallas meeting.

He added that the abuse crisis could help make the church a leader in addressing the much more widespread issue of sexual abuse of children, which happens most often at the hands of family members.