PB16: Getting the story on pope's visit

pb16 And on the fourth day of coverage of Pope Benedict XVI's visit, reporters gave their readers accurate and insightful characterizations and interesting quotes. Now if only they would give their readers a bit more context. The pope was very busy Friday -- he spoke at the United Nations, he said Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, he met with abuse victims, he appeared at a Jewish synagogue. So reporters should be cut some slack if they did not mention everything he did or said; if they didn't, part of the blame should go to their editors or publishers, who should have assigned more reporters to follow the pontiff.

The big story was the pope's meeting with the victims of clerical sex abuse and mention of the topic during his homily at St. Patrick's Cathedral. On this topic, I thought reporters did memorable work. Take this summary by Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post about Benedict's U.N. speech:

As is often the case with Benedict, a longtime theology professor, the speech was short on specifics and long on broad themes. The remarks were timed with the 60th anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights and viewed by Vatican experts as the pope's message to the world, not something specific to the United States.

Boorstein's description of the manner of Benedict's oratory and his background hit the nail on the head. No matter the topic -- the Iraq war, giving Holy Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians, bishops who transferred abusive priests -- Benedict does not speak in specifics. In fact, I wonder if readers can come up with an example in which the pontiff did mention a controversial person by name or call for a specific remedy.

Similarly, Julia Duin of The Washington Times characterized Benedict's emphasis on the sex-abuse theme accurately and with context:

In stark contrast to his predecessor John Paul II, who rarely mentioned the scandal, Benedict has raised it repeatedly on this trip in both word and deed: expressing his shame on the flight to the U.S., chiding the American bishops for their mishandling of the crisis, mentioning the indescribable damage the scandal has done during his homily at Nationals Park, meeting with several Boston abuse victims at the Vatican Embassy, and this morning's homily.

Jacqueline Salmon and Alan Cooperman of the Post wrote a fine story about Benedict's visit with four sex-abuse victims. The reporters described the pope's meeting in detail, adding several novelistic details and stimulating readers' curiosity about the impact of his visit. The story is worth quoting at length:

Olan Horne, a Lowell, Mass., abuse victim who participated in the meeting, was similarly affected. "For the first time, the pontiff put the responsibility of the Church and the suffering and the needs of the survivors first," said Horne, 48, who added that the pope was in tears when they met.

Even more than the pope's repeated references to the sex abuse scandal during his visit to Washington this week, his meeting with McDaid, Horne and the others packed a wallop, according to bishops, lay Catholic groups and sex abuse victims. It could be a turning point for an American church whose leaders, many say, have moved haltingly to institute reforms from the scandal.

"When the pope gives this much attention to it . . . that communicates to the bishops that 'you'd better get on this and make this a priority, and I'm going to pay attention,' " said Robert Bennett, a D.C. lawyer who served on a lay panel created by U.S. bishops to monitor reform efforts. He met with Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in 2004 to discuss the scandal.

Still, Catholics around the country questioned whether McDaid and Horne were right: Would the pope's repeated professions of shame and anguish this week, culminating in the first publicly known meeting between a pope and sex abuse victims, be more than an emotional balm? Would it also lead to new steps to address the biggest crisis in the history of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States?


Asked if the pope's emphasis on clergy sex abuse this week would likely lead to any specific changes in how the church handles the subject, Colleen Dolan, spokeswoman for Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the USCCB, said she didn't see reason to assume that. She viewed the pope's comments as an affirmation of current policies.

"I don't think that the ramifications will be any different than they already are," said Dolan. "The U.S. church has already put in many safeguards."

Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin, who heads a clergy child-abuse task force for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he has met defiance from some bishops to the diocesan audits.

"I hope his words will give us the opportunity to reach out again to the bishops who have been resisting participating in what we're doing," Aymond said.

The quote from Robert Bennett was intriguing, the one by Bishop Aymond revealing. Salmon and Cooperman did a great job getting these quotes from experts on the topic.

My only quibble with Cooperman and Salmon's story is that it's not clear what the pope can do with recalcitrant bishops. There is no question that the pontiff has the authority to fire a bishop or pressure him to resign. Yet when has it happened before and under what circumstances? I don't expect the reporters to answer those questions in this story, though providing this information would have been great.

Tracy Wilkinson and Maggie Farley of The Los Angeles Times had a tough task: they described both the pope's U.N. speech and his visit to the synagogue. I think the reporters, besides paying too much attention to cheering U.N. diplomats and schoolchildren, erred in casting the mission of the U.N. and that of the Vatican as similar:

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon introduced the pope to the world body, a secular institution of 192 member nations that is "home to men and women of faith around the world."

Like the Vatican, the U.N.'s mission is to fight poverty, make peace, halt the spread of nuclear weapons and to stop those with greater power from violating others' rights, Ban said.

"Your Holiness, in so many ways, our mission unites us with yours," he said.

The pope said human rights "at all times and for all peoples" had to be "principally rooted in unchanging justice," which he asserts as a product of religious belief.

"The victims of hardship and despair, whose human dignity is violated with impunity, become easy prey to the call to violence, and they can then become violators of peace," he said.

The two institutions differ, of course, in one major respect: one seeks to save souls, the other doesn't.

Yet the coverage overall yesterday was fair, balanced, insightful, and accurate. Except for more context, you can't ask for much more.

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