success stories

The Media and the Scandal

By Tom Rowan

Printed in the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington

For the media, a sex scandal involving Catholic priests is like a bowl of cream placed before cats.

Let it be said right at the beginning that the sexual abuse of children, by a priest or anyone else, is a horrendous crime, recognized as such by church and state. The media has not only a right to report and comment on such crimes, it has a duty to do so. It also has a duty to report and comment accurately and fairly.

That's not easy for the media because in general it doesn't like the Catholic Church. Its reasons include the fact that the church is not a democracy, nor was it established as such by its founder some 2,000 years ago. So the media tends to regard church teachings (what it likes to call church "policies") as arbitrary and autocratic.

Then, too, the church takes unpopular positions on moral issues and stands by them. Undoubtedly, the one that rankles the media the most is that the church is pro-life.

Affirming the unique dignity of all human life, it opposes abortion, artificial contraception, illicit sex, human cloning and assisted suicide -- all of which the secular media regards as acceptable, even desirable.

So when a bona fide scandal involving Catholic priests comes along, a legitimate news story, the media does more than report and comment on it. While quick to denounce "simplistic" thinking in every other area, it denounces not only those involved in child abuse, but the entire church, its structure, its practices and its hierarchy from the pope on down. Time magazine is in step with its media colleagues when it asked in a recent cover story, "Can the Catholic Church Save Itself?"

While screaming headlines and blanket condemnations are abundant, you'll have to look long and hard in the media to learn that:

-- Pedophile priests are a tiny percentage of the priestly population, certainly no higher and maybe a bit lower than that of the general population. The overwhelming majority of priests, probably 97 percent, are innocent of child molestation, have never been accused of it and are devastated by the actions of the small number of their brother priests.

-- Pedophilia was recognized as a disease only about 20 years ago. Before that it was considered a moral problem to be treated through spiritual means. That's what society thought, that's what the medical profession thought, that's what psychiatrists thought, and that's what the church thought. Many of the current cases go back several decades, before such behavior was classified as a disease requiring medical treatment.

-- Since then, nearly all dioceses (in particular this archdiocese) have adopted procedures to ensure that help is offered the victims, that accused priests are reported to the police, face criminal charges and get psychiatric evaluation and needed treatment. Certainly any attempt by a bishop to ignore these procedures is indefensible. Young people have been hurt by those who betrayed their trust.

The media has a solution. With absolutely no evidence to support its position, it insists that celibacy undoubtedly propels priests into molesting children. This ignores the fact that by far the largest number of molesters are family members, including fathers, along with live-in boyfriends (mom's man of the week).

Priestly celibacy has been in effect for a thousand years, and if it is a major cause of molestation, why is it that the huge majority of molesters are non-celibate?

The latent anti-Catholicism in much of the media spills over into unrelated stories. A review in The Washington Post of a TV documentary about a man falsely accused of murder said that the story should "incite against the American justice system the kind of long-simmering rage that is finally breaking out against the Catholic Church in the current pedophilia scandals." The show had nothing to do with the church, but the opportunity to take a swipe at it apparently was irresistible.

Another story reported the arrest of about 100 men in an FBI sting operation against child pornography. It said those arrested included police officers, lawyers, teachers, doctors and six clergymen, "including two Catholic priests." What denominations were the other four clergymen? Episcopalians? Baptists? Jewish? We don't know. But the story made sure we know that two of them were Catholic priests.

It strikes me that Andy Rooney, the resident crabby know-it-all of "60 Minutes," revealed the media's hope for the church. After lambasting priestly celibacy, he said the church should abolish it but probably won't because, if it is shown to be a wrong idea, people might wonder how the church also might be wrong about other things.

These "other things" undoubtedly refer to its moral teachings the media finds distasteful. The media would be more kindly disposed toward the church if it would accommodate its teachings to the times, something it will never do.

Some priests and some bishops have done great harm. They have wounded not only the victims of child sex abuse but also the clergy and the laity. What has happened is a scandal and a crisis. But it is well to remember that historically the church, made up as it is of saints and sinners, has been through worse times. Whatever the sins of some of its members, the truths taught by the church remain intact. To those, like Time magazine, who wonder if the church can survive, the answer is yes. We have the assurance of its founder, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, (who, by the way, was celibate) that the gates of hell will not prevail against it and that he will be with us always. That means the church will be around until the end of time.

Which is more than you can say for the media that delights in attacking it.