Leaders of the Religion Newswriters Association are not very happy (once again) with the leaders of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference. The last thing Godbeat professionals needed this week was yet another massive hard-news story. So along came the two massive reports on sexual abuse by U.S. Catholic clergy. It seems that the bishops circled the wagons a bit (surprise) and limited media contacts to only a few elite outlets.
Thus, RNA president Jeffrey Sheler of U.S. News & World Report fired off a protest that stated, in part:
. . . I must protest the exclusion of many of our members from last week's press briefing with Bishop Gregory. It is my understanding that a relatively small number of reporters based in Washington and New York were invited to participate in a telephone conference call with the bishop regarding the upcoming report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. As you are well aware, that report is a subject of much more than regional interest. And yet the vast majority of the nation's religion reporters, many of whom work in areas with large Roman Catholic populations, were not afforded the opportunity to participate. Many of us only learned about the briefing by reading the accounts of those of our colleagues who were fortunate enough to have been invited.
These two abuse reports are now out and should draw major coverage in the days ahead. This is the one story that could trump the Passion narrative. The Money Quote statistic is that at least 4 percent of all U.S. priests serving since 1950 have been accused of sexually abusing children. That's the lead.
But it is crucial how the word "children" is defined. So far, the evidence has indicated that this is a scandal rooted in sexual activity between men and teen-aged boys, not the very young. But the mainstream press has been hesitant to draw this line.
The Washington Post's report notes:
Overall, the study found, 81 percent of the victims were male and 19 percent female. About 40 percent of the alleged male victims were between 11 and 14 years old, the largest age and gender group.
Coverage should improve as more reporters have a chance to dig into the reports and then, hopefully, have opportunities to ask the tough questions.
Meanwhile, Dr. Debra Mason of the RNA has added the bishops to the early list of nominees for the 2004 "Into the Darkness" award -- given annually to the newsmaker who does the most to keep religion writers from doing their jobs.