The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has been having a run of bad press of late. The clergy pedophile scandal and the church's inadequate response has left it deeply wounded. The latest scandal involves Cardinal Seán Brady, the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, and his actions in the Brendan Smyth case.
Outrage over the Smyth case led to the collapse of the Irish government in 1994 and may force Cardinal Brady to step down. Smyth, a Norbertine priest who abused more than 100 children in Ireland and the U.S. over the course of 40 years, died a month after he entered prison in 1997.
In a 1 May 2012 documentary entitled "The Shame of the Catholic Church", the BBC reported that as a young priest in the early 1970's, Brady served as the notary to an investigative committee that reviewed complaints that Smyth had abused a 15 year old boy. Brady interviewed the 15 year old and reported the victim's testimony of abuse to his bishop. However the boy's parents were not informed. Smyth remained a priest and abused children for a further 13 years.
This is a terrible story of abuse, incompetence and inertia. Watch the BBC documentary if you can. But that is not the focus of this post. Newspaper reputations are established by consistently good work. When a newspaper engages in advocacy journalism on small stories, its readers are less likely to accept its version of events when the blockbuster stories come along.
The Brady/Smyth story is a blockbuster. But its importance -- and the Irish Times' credibility -- some would argue has been damaged by what has come before.
Last week's news article entitled "Fr D'Arcy 'saddened' at Vatican censure over articles" reports on moves against a priest with a newspaper column. The lede introduces us to Fr. Brian D'Arcy who reports he was:
"saddened and disappointed” at his censure by the Vatican over articles he wrote for a Sunday newspaper. The cleric and media commentator writes for the Sunday World, where he has been a regular columnist since 1976.
It emerged yesterday that he had been censured by the Vatican over four articles he wrote in 2010. The four articles by Fr D’Arcy concerned how the Vatican dealt with the issue of women priests; why US Catholics were leaving the church; why the church had to take responsibility for clerical child sex abuse; and homosexuality.
The Vatican is also understood to have complained about headlines on some of the articles, which would have been written by editorial staff at the Sunday World. Currently, in instances where he addresses matters of faith and morals in his writings or broadcasts, he must first submit these to a third party for clearance.
The article cites a statement from Fr. D'Arcy that speaks of his having to live with the "the pain of censure for 14 months and will have to live with it for the rest of my priestly life." The priest defends his journalism and his "ministry in communication," while the article notes that news of the censure came via the head of his order, who was summoned to the Vatican for a dressing down. A fellow Irish priest then speaks (in support of Fr. D'Arcy).
Fr Peter McVerry branded the Vatican’s actions as “horrific”.
“They are terrified that if they speak publicly they will get their heads chopped off,” he said.
And the article then closes with the names of five other Irish clerics censured by the Vatican. What the story does not have is any comment or explanation from the hierarchy or the Vatican.
Nor does the article question or substantiate the claims of censorship. A quick run through the archives of Fr. D'Arcy's articles shows that he has not been shy of criticizing the Catholic Church's leadership in Ireland and in Rome. If someone from the chancellery is reading Fr. D'Arcy's articles before they are published with an eye towards reigning him in, they have been somewhat lax. In a 23 April 2012 column that discusses popular attitudes toward married priests, Fr. D'Arcy states the hierarchy is deaf to the concerns of the laity:
Sadly in our church now, it has become impossible to be open and honest about what good people are convinced of. It's as if merely stating unpalatable facts is in itself disloyal.
In this article, an assertion is made, facts and opinion from one side are offered in support, but no contrary views are presented nor are the claims tested. On one side we have a supporter of Fr. D'Arcy saying his treatment has been "horrific" and that critics of the church's party line will have their head chopped off. Against that we have --- nothing. What are we to make of Fr. McVerry? Is he an idiot? Is he being prophetic? What is clear is the bias against the Catholic Church from the Irish Times.
Now we are in the midst of a newspaper feeding frenzy over the fallout of the Shame of the Catholic Church. What trust should a reader place in the Irish Times' coverage? The stories from the newspaper's religion correspondent Patsy McGarry on the Brady/Smyth affair are well written, well sourced and eminently readable. McGarry is a pro whose work I have enjoyed for many years.
But his latest round of stories will be read in conjunction with his 18 April 2012 opinion piece. In this pre-Shame of the Catholic Church story, McGarry takes a hammer to Pope Benedict XVI and beats.
Benedict was a "divisive figure" possessed of "rigid certainties" whose election "represented the final defeat of that liberal Catholicism ushered in following Vatican II."
Cardinal Ratzinger was an enemy of the "porous, inclusive Catholicism of the previous generation." As Pope John Paul II's "enforcer" he "closed many windows thrown open by Pope John XXIII and Vatican II" through such action as "infamous Dominus Iesus document of 2000."
On celibacy, women priests or women in the diaconate, he was immovable. Similarly on the use of condoms even to combat Aids. On homosexuality he was virulent. In 1986, he described it as a “strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder”.
Where dissent was concerned he brooked no hostages. It extended to former colleagues such as Hans Küng. In 1966, at Küng’s instigation, the Catholic faculty at Germany’s Tübingen university appointed Fr Ratzinger professor of dogmatics. In 1979, Küng was stripped of his licence to teach because he challenged papal infallibility. In 1981, when Ratzinger became dean of the CDF, he upheld that decision.
The pope continues to take a pounding from Mr. McGarry. But the story then takes a turn towards the Irish church where she speaks to the "silencing" of Irish clergy who had "sought their way to a more compassionate, Christian understanding of human life." He adds that:
In each case too, those of us in the media aware of it were asked not to write about this lest the sky fall and bring further misery on the already crushed. So Rome has had its way and through exploiting finer human emotions such as loyalty and respect. Clever? Yes, but hardly Christian.
Strong stuff this. One could say extraordinary when you consider that this was penned by the newspaper's religion correspondent. If this is the worldview through which the newspaper's religion reporter views the pope and the Vatican, how then should one read the Irish Times' news coverage of the Catholic Church?
The approach taken by the Irish Times has been self-defeating. By engaging in advocacy journalism, letting opinions drive the story rather than the facts, readers who are well disposed to the Irish Times editorial voice will find their views confirmed.
Those who object to its characterizations and treatment of the Catholic Church may respond to these latest scandals with a "well they would say that, wouldn't they" about the Irish Times' coverage. The truth winds up getting lost in advocacy journalism and it ultimately fails in its mission as no minds are changed or views shifted.
Read the Irish Times on Catholicism -- but read it with a jaundiced eye is my advice.