Peggy Noonan opens a vein

It could not have been easy for Peggy Noonan to write her Good Friday column on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. She is, after all, a person who made a return trip into Catholicism that was both joyful and painful at the same time. If you don't know that part of her story, check out her criminally overlooked memoir, "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

But the key right now is that Noonan is the author of "John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father," a tribute to the late pope that was as much a journal of her emotional responses to his papacy as a volume about his remarkable life. At one point, Noonan states simply, ""John Paul walked into my life and served, unknowingly, as my spiritual father. He had led me like a light in the dark. ..."

With that in mind, it is best to look at the end of her column first -- before we get to the material that I think is so relevant to journalists and other GetReligion readers who are trying to figure out a way to aim criticisms (positive and negative) at the Vatican and the New York Times at the same time. What are we to make of the papacy during these decades -- repeat decades -- of scandal in which so many bishops actively hid priests who abused young children and many, many teen-agers (the vast majority of the latter males)?

Some blame the scandals on Pope Benedict XVI. But Joseph Ratzinger is the man who, weeks before his accession to the papacy five years ago, spoke blisteringly on Good Friday of the "filth" in the church. ... The most reliable commentary on Pope Benedict's role in the scandals came from John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, who argues that once Benedict came to fully understand the scope of the crisis, in 2003, he made the church's first real progress toward coming to grips with it.

As for his predecessor, John Paul the Great, about whom I wrote an admiring book which recounts some of the scandals -- I spent a grim 2003 going through the depositions of Massachusetts clergy -- one fact seems to me pre-eminent. For Pope John Paul II, the scandals would have been unimaginable -- literally not imaginable. He had come of age in an era and place (Poland in the 1930s, '40s and '50s) of heroic priests. They were great men; they suffered. He had seen how the Nazis and later the communists had attempted to undermine the church and tear people away from it, sometimes through slander. They did this because the great force arrayed against them was the Catholic Church. John Paul, his mind, psyche and soul having been forged in that world, might well have seen the church's recent accusers as spreaders of slander. Because priests don't act like that, it's not imaginable. And he'd seen it before, only now it wasn't Nazism or communism attempting to kill the church with lies, but modernity and its soulless media.

Only they weren't lies.

Before readers get to that part of the column, Noonan has already written a statement that could only have been made by someone who genuinely loves journalism and its valid, protected role in public life -- public life wherever free speech, freedom of the press and religious liberty truly coexist in painful, but necessary, tension.

Catholic leaders, she argues, are in attack mode at the moment because they believe that journalists are in attack mode. Many Catholics are simply blaming the current crisis on media bias.

Now, read very closely. This next passage contains a statement that I believe simply must be made. To make sure that readers get it, Noonan says it twice.

... (T)his is not true, or to the degree it is true, it is irrelevant. All sorts of people have all sorts of motives, but the fact is that the press -- the journalistic establishment in the U.S. and Europe -- has been the best friend of the Catholic Church on this issue. Let me repeat that: The press has been the best friend of the Catholic Church on the scandals because it exposed the story and made the church face it. The press forced the church to admit, confront and attempt to redress what had happened. The press forced them to confess. The press forced the church to change the old regime and begin to come to terms with the abusers. The church shouldn't be saying j'accuse but thank you.

I hope that the blog's many Catholic readers are still reading.

Noonan isn't done yet. She argues that many mainstream journalists were actually reluctant to cover this story. Why spend years digging in this filth (the pope's word), only to have thousands of Catholics accuse your paper of bias -- no matter how accurate the coverage -- and respond with protests or boycotts or both?

But, but ....

Without this pressure -- without the famous 2002 Boston Globe Spotlight series with its monumental detailing of the sex abuse scandals in just one state, Massachusetts -- the church would most likely have continued to do what it has done for half a century, which is look away, hush up, pay off and transfer. ...

An irony: Non-Catholic members of the media were, in my observation, the least likely to want to go after the story, because they didn't want to look like they were Catholic-bashing. An irony within the irony: some journalists didn't think to go after the story because they really didn't much like the Catholic Church. Because of this bias, they didn't see the story as a story. They thought this was how the church always operated. It didn't register with them that it was a scandal. They didn't know it was news.

It was the Boston Globe that broke the dam, winning a justly deserved Pulitzer for public service.

Yes, that needed to be said.

It's one thing to criticize some of the current coverage -- which I think deserves criticism. It's something else altogether to ignore the heroic efforts that many journalists have made, for whatever motives, to uncover the filth (there's that word again) in the offices of far too many shepherds.

Please respect our Commenting Policy