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Reflections on the Vatican 2010 sex abuse crisis

Here at GetReligion, we respond to the news of the day. Sometimes that means we don't get a chance to reflect on broader themes. We spent a lot of time discussing how the mainstream media handled the Vatican sex abuse crisis earlier this year. The Ethics and Public Policy Center hosted a gathering of journalists from mainstream secular outlets to reflect on what went right and what went wrong with that coverage. It sounds like it was a fascinating discussion. Veteran Vatican reporter John Allen, who we've been mentioning a bit this week, was one of the facilitators of the discussion and he wrote up a report for the National Catholic Reporter.

The conversation ranged from the Vatican's poor state of crisis communications to whether the news media got the story right. Among the reporters present was Laurie Goodstein, whose New York Times work on the matter fueled much of the controversy.

George Weigel was the other facilitator for the conversation. He laid out seven "flawed assumptions" that permeated this year's coverage. These were: a notion that the papacy wields total control over Catholic life, that the Roman Curia is highly competent, that there is a will to deceive at the highest levels of the Vatican, that the church has institutionalized hypocrisy, that Catholic priests have a higher-than-average sex abuse rate, a lack of skill in reading church documents, and confusion over who is and is not a reliable source.

Weigel also noted that the church has two chronic problems -- communications and the lack of a mechanism for dealing with incompetence -- or worse -- from bishops.

Allen talked about the paradox of Benedict -- regarded by insiders as the great reformer on the sex abuse issue and yet painted as the global symbol of the problem:

Measured not against the sweeping programs for reform that some critics of the church have advanced, but against what was realistically possible, Ratzinger moved the ball farther and faster than most people anticipated, often against strong internal opposition.

If that's so, then why did a handful of cases from decades ago, which came to light earlier this year, cause such an earthquake in public perceptions?

He suggests two additional factors that impeded the Vatican from making a better case: The first case that came to light was the worst; when it broke, the Vatican's instinct was to protect Benedict rather than empathize with the victims and restate what reforms had taken place. The other issue is that the Vatican may have been hampered in pointing out Benedict's record because it would indict other senior Vatican officials or have the effect of tainting the memory of Pope John Paul II.

Okay, so let's get to the juicy part. Goodstein said that when she began reporting, she accepted the "Ratzinger the Reformer" idea:

Yet, she said, the 2010 stories upended that narrative, which placed the responsibility entirely on bishops for the failure to report and remove abusers. This year we learned of one case after another, she said, in which bishops were pleading urgently with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Ratzinger to laicize a known molester, and the CDF rejected those requests. And, she added, we were always told that the CDF had nothing to do with these cases until 2001, but that turned out to be false also. In fact, they were handling them all along.

As a footnote, Goodstein said that much of the reporting was based on documents -- though she didn't add this herself, usually documents obtained from victims' lawyers. Those documents, she said, are the most revelatory evidence we have. The documents come from attorneys, she said, because the church sure is not handing them over.

Allen said that the additional 2010 reporting didn't fundamentally alter his views on how the Vatican reformed. He explains some of the specific reasons why and adds:

One can certainly argue that his awakening came late, and that not enough has yet been done -- perhaps especially in terms of matching the new accountability for priests with similar accountability for bishops. The fact remains, however, that the Vatican is today more committed to a "zero tolerance" policy because of Ratzinger's impact, both before and after his election.

If that point sometimes got lost earlier this year, it's probably one part a media failure to keep the whole picture in focus, and one part the Vatican's inability to project a different narrative.

There's a lot more, if this type of conversation interests you. Weigel gets into some nitty gritty about the end of John Paul II's time in office. The group also discussed why there never seem to be consequences when someone in Rome screws up.

These reporter insights that Allen mentions are also interesting:

One [journalist] said that while such insider scoop is interesting, it's of limited journalistic value. Editors won't tolerate sticking in four paragraphs of "Vatican context" into stories to explain every statement or decision that comes down the pike, this reporter said, because it smacks too much of apologetics -- i.e., trying to get the Vatican off the hook.

Another reporter made the point that when it comes to the crisis, media outlets have a limited appetite for nuance, because of the stark moral nature of the underlying issue — the sexual exploitation of vulnerable children. In that regard, this reporter said, the media can be as "unchanging and relentless as the church."

Allen says the take-away is that unless the Vatican wants a perpetual war with the press, it needs to become better at explaining its culture to the outside world.

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