Many in the news media compared the Penn State scandal to the scandal in the Catholic Church, but the biggest difference has been the news media itself.
“If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.” (Mark Twain)
In “SNAP’s Last Gasp!” a post on my blog at www.TheseStoneWalls.com. I wrote briefly of a ridiculous and short-lived protest by SNAP leaders who voiced opposition to the appointment of Bishop Peter Libasci to the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire. SNAP leaders ridiculed the appointment first because they find it necessary to ridicule any development in the Catholic Church, and second because as Auxiliary Bishop of Rockville Center, New York, Bishop Libasci served under a bishop who had once been an Auxiliary Bishop of Boston under Cardinal Bernard Law.
The thin thread of guilt by association was a stretch, even for the vigilantes of SNAP who exhibit a shameless desperation to grab any news headline, true or false. I don’t blame them for the misinformation. Misinformation seems to be SNAP’s raison d’être. I blame a news media ever ready to give them the last word in any article on this topic, but never ready to fact-check the SNAP judgements.
Reporting on the installation of my new Bishop early last month, a New Hampshire Union Leader reporter distorted the story even further. He wrote that the appointment of Bishop Libasci was opposed by some “victim-advocates” (aka, SNAP) because he served under Cardinal Bernard Law during the sex abuse scandal in Boston. Bishop Libasci has never served in Boston. He has never served with or under Cardinal Law. He has never served as a priest or bishop anywhere in New England.
Mark Twain was right. Much of the mainstream news media seems to limit our choices to being either uninformed or misinformed. When such distortions are obvious in a story in which I just happen to know the facts, I’m left to wonder what other facts have been distorted.
These distortions are not limited to newspapers. As described in my post, “Gloom and Doom in America’s Newsroom” last February, a CNN commentator said that “100,000 victims of sex abuse by priests” gathered in protest at the Vatican. The true number, as TSW reader, Dorothy Stein, pointed out and documented, was thirty, and they were outnumbered by reporters two to one. “Though one can see how easy it is to confuse such numbers,” Dorothy Stein chided in the e-mail she fired off to CNN.
But these sins of commission are as nothing compared to the news media’s glaring omissions. In another post, “Catholic Scandal and the News Media,” last year, I wrote of how the news media let pass an opportunity to serve society by exposing the true context and scope of sexual abuse in our culture. Instead, the media opted for a spotlight on the Catholic Church instead of a floodlight that could have exposed a societal plague.
I mentioned the Penn State Scandal in passing in my recent post, “A Book Every Priest Should Read,” in which I reviewed David Pierre’s new book, Catholic Priests Falsely Accused. Here’s what I wrote:
“I’ve been following the news media’s newest sound bite, “Scandal at Penn State.” Now come the contingency lawyers, and some of you may have noted some familiar names among them. Jeff Anderson – the same lawyer who became a multi-millionaire when he vowed to ’sue the sh–- out of the Catholic Church everywhere’ (his own words) – is leading the media charge to restate the Penn State scandal in its inevitable monetary terms . . . But I welcome the media pursuit of the truth. Despite all the efforts by SNAP leaders to drag the Catholic Church into the Penn State story . . . the effort is failing under the sheer weight of sexual abuse in the American education system. If this lid is peeled back fully, what just might be exposed is the extent to which the Catholic Church and priesthood have been wrongfully vilified and scapegoated.”
In a comment on that post, and an e-mail message to follow, I was privileged to hear from Ted, a new reader of These Stone Walls. Ted first learned of TSW in December when www.SpiritDaily.com posted a link to “A Book Every Priest Should Read.” Ted described to me that he was a victim of sexual abuse by a priest, but decided to sever ties with SNAP and reconcile with the Church. Ted explained that he parted ways with SNAP because its stress on vindictiveness no longer represents his interests or spiritual needs.
Ted wrote that he has been distressed by some of the suppression of due process and civil liberties for priests as I have described at These Stone Walls, and he reaffirmed something I have long believed and have stated many times in these pages. The people who are most offended by the proliferation of false and financially driven claims are the real victims of sexual abuse.
This is why SNAP is now such a suspect organization. As became clear in “SNAP’s Last Gasp! The Pope’s ‘Crimes Against Humanity‘,” SNAP’s public face and agenda flatly denies the very existence of false claims. For Ted, SNAP’s original purpose has been sacrificed for the continuance of an agenda that has nothing to do with advocating for victims or protecting children and young people. The agenda is simply to attack the Church. Ted made the very same point that I made above about the news media letting pass an opportunity to truly expose and effect sexual abuse:
I hope the pendulum swings back to some degree. I never agreed with zero tolerance. There has to be some respect for priests as basic citizens presumed to be innocent . . . The lack of balance in regards to the Globe and NY Times coverage indicates that they have clearly missed a chance to address societal child abuse. This belies a more sinister agenda by people who want to destroy the Church. Since the level of sexual sin in our society is so great, it makes people somehow feel good to persecute the Catholic Church for its abuse problem as a way to feel absolved of their own sin in some way.”
I’m indebted to Ted for his honest, soul-searching assessment of the way the news media has singled out his Church and his faith – and even his victimization – for an agenda that has robbed a societal problem of all context. Ted has echoed a sentiment voiced by a growing number of sexual abuse survivors who now read These Stone Walls.
For an example of just what Ted was describing, consider this quote from NBC Nightly News Correspondent Anne Thompson as she evaluated the Penn State scandal by equating it with accusations against Catholic priests:
“Critics say these are institutions of power, secrecy, mythology, dominated by men who circled the wagons in a crisis.” (NBC News, November 9, 2011).
“Critics” say a lot of things, but when the news media attributes a point of view to unnamed “critics,” it’s often a clue that the news you are about to hear or read is just editorial spin only barely masked as news. You could use the identical quote by NBC’s Anne Thompson to describe the news media itself, and Anne Thompson might even agree.
Some of the media coverage of the Penn State scandal’s fallout has been alarming. But what is especially alarming is what the news media is NOT covering. I recently came across an example in this paragraph from one media venue:
“Anyone who spends a few minutes online can find a high school or middle school coach in their state who has been charged with some form of sexual abuse. One blog that tracked such arrests from May 2007 to May 2011 tallied 625 coaches who had been charged with everything from propositioning a student for sex to child molestation to statutory rape . . . And these were only the cases in which victims came forward and charges were filed.”
Without doubt, as that paragraph describes, there has been a cover-up. But this time, the cover-up has been orchestrated by the news media itself. I didn’t read the above paragraph in The New York Times, or The Boston Globe, or the Kansas City Star – all media venues that have vilified and scapegoated the Catholic Church while those 625 coaches were arrested just outside the field of view of the mainstream media’s spotlights. The paragraph I quoted above is from an article entitled “Not My Coach, Not My Town, Not Anymore” by Wayne Drehs in the December 26, 2011 issue of the sports journal, ESPN Magazine. The “blog that tracked such arrests” cited in the article is www.BadBadTeacher.com, described as “a site created to bring awareness of inappropriate actions by teachers.” The site tracked the arrests of those 625 coaches – and a much larger number of teachers – over the last four years.
During that same four-year period (2007-2011) the mainstream news media bludgeoned the Catholic Church with accusations harvested from another site, Bishop-Accountability, that takes no responsibility for the accuracy of its content. It reports and publishes all accusations against priests, the vast majority of which were claimed to have occurred thirty to fifty years ago, and for which no direct evidence could possibly exist.
There are some obvious questions raised by the ESPN article. How do you think The New York Times or The Boston Globe would have handled the story if 625 U.S. Catholic priests were arrested and charged with sexual abuse over the last four years? The truth is that not even a tiny fraction of that number of Catholic priests were charged with sexual abuse between 2007 and 2011. So how is it that the mainstream national news media has entirely missed the story of 625 coaches being criminally charged in the United States with sexual abuse over just the last four years? Also, I had never before heard or read of www.BadBadTeacher.com despite the fact that it is at the news media’s fingertips just as is the Bishop-Accountability site that the media has been pointing readers to for a decade.
In 1994 – the same year I was brought to trial and sent to prison, Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft published a study for the U.S. Department of Education that reported on 225 cases of sexual abuse by teachers in New York alone that year. All of the accused had admitted to sexual abuse of students, but none of them had been reported to authorities by school administrators. This revelation was documented well by David F. Pierre in his earlier book, Double Standard: Abuse Scandals and the Attack on the Catholic Church.
Writing for USA Today last year, Penn State professor Philip Jenkins published, “How serious is the predator priest problem?” (The Forum, June 7, 2010). Professor Jenkins cited another study, this time in 2004, by Charol Shakeshaft entitled “Educator Sexual Misconduct”:
“Among other findings, we read that about 10 percent of secular school pupils in grades eight to eleven report having been at the receiving end … of sexual misconduct. That does not mean that 10 percent of teachers misbehave, rather that a tiny number offend frequently, and egregiously: very much the same situation, in fact, as among Catholic priests.”
This is no doubt true, but where are the demands to publish the accused teachers’ names? Where is The New York Times and The Boston Globe and the Kansas City Star to report on this story? Where are their “Spotlight” Teams to ferret it out and to chase down a Pulitzer uncovering it all? Why has no one reported that while all those accused teachers were being shuffled around, Catholic priests were subjected to zero tolerance because of uncorroborated decades-old claims?
Last month, the Lodi (California) News-Sentinel reported that a 64-year-old man has accused a Catholic priest there of raping him when he was 13 years old in 1960 or so (Ross Farrow, “Controversial group SNAP targets local priest,” December 17). The newspaper quoted a local social worker, Anna Winn, as saying that “it’s possible” for sexual abuse victims to recall childhood molestation years later. “It can be triggered by a smell, or a song – something that familiarizes you with it,” she reportedly offered. It can also be triggered by contacting SNAP and “learning the number of zeros on the check you can expect,” as the ever vigilant Dorothy Stein commented on the article.
In commenting on the accuser’s fifty-one year old repressed, but lucrative, memory, social worker Anna Winn opted to disregard decades of professional studies discounting the validity and reliability of repressed and recovered memories. A visit to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation website will tell you of the great danger posed to justice when junk science becomes evidence. For a chilling example of such a “trial by therapist,” see Ryan MacDonald’s “How Psychotherapists Helped Send an Innocent Priest to Prison.”
Only Catholic priests, and no one else, need worry about accusations that are decades old, and a news media that shuns today’s stories of rampant abuse for those of the past. The orchestrated effect is to cast a single venerable religious institution in the harsh glare of a spotlight while leaving the rest of the truth in darkness. Every witch hunt in history has been propelled in just this way.
Father Gordon J. MacRae is a Spero News columnist. He writes from the New Hampshire State Prison at www.TheseStoneWalls.com, an award winning blog sponsored by the National Center for Reason & Justice – www.ncrj.org.