Do it for the children

Pope Benedict XVI sprinkles holy water during the Pentecostal mass in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican May 23, 2010. REUTERS/Max Rossi (VATICAN - Tags: RELIGION)

In response to some of the outcry over the New York Times attack on Pope Benedict XVI, there have been a couple defenses worth discussing. The first comes from Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. Winston is huge in the religion and media universe and is a well respected scholar and former Godbeat journalist. She is thoughtful and thought-provoking. But I can't say much in favor of her defense of the Times. Here's a key chunk of that:

Critics complain that the Times is out to get the Church and Pope Benedict, in particular. They cite theological inaccuracies, historical misunderstandings and editorial intimations to justify their stance. But they miss the forest for the trees. The intricacies of priestly ordination, Vatican law and institutional preservation are important to the story, but they're not the point. The point is the church's choice: opting to safeguard the institution, its priests and reputation at the expense of children and families. The Times is, as any news outlet should be, interested in making sense of this decision and, of course, grabbing readers' attention.

Put another way: inaccurate reporting is awesome because of -- the children!

There are many problems with this statement. First off, if the point is making sense of how an institution didn't do enough to protect children, how in the world can that objective be obtained by providing false and inaccurate information? I can't look into anyone's heart, of course, but I like to believe that everyone -- from the harshest Vatican critic to its strongest defender -- seeks to protect children from those that prey on them. Wanting accurate theological information, a proper understanding of history and context and a removal of tendentious reporting from stories does not in any way mean you support child abuse. This is such an obvious point but one that needs reasserting.

I mean, I'm Lutheran. We're not known for thinking the Vatican is infallible. When I look at these stories of how child abuse was perpetuated, it disgusts and revolts me. I still don't think that factually inaccurate hit pieces are constructive or appropriate.

Besides, did the article actually show what Winston alleges (the Vatican choosing to hurt children) or did it present a history of the debate regarding who had competence to try cases of sexual abuse? The only part of the story where it comes close to showing "the church's choice: opting to safeguard the institution, its priests and reputation at the expense of children and families" is the section concerning the 2000 meeting where several cardinals downplayed the significance of the issue. And yet that same section shows Cardinal Ratzinger standing up, speaking for reform and, then, moving to gain control of sex-abuse cases within a year.

And there's the rub. Because that contradicts the assertion made at the top of the Times story that "the future pope, it is now clear, was also part of a culture of nonresponsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction." A GetReligion reader described Winston's defense as "just emotionalism." It is certainly telling that a critic of Winston's intelligence and stature is unable to defend the Times piece except through abstractions.

Winston attempts to reimagine the story not as it stands but as something different. If it were, as she argues, an attempt to show that the Church at all levels wasn't just slow to respond but too concerned with its own reputation at the local level to effectively care for victims and the larger Catholic community, that would be unassailable. The pope himself has said:

"Certainly, among the contributing factors [for the present crisis] we can include ... a tendency in society to favor the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person."

But that's not what the article said. The problems that critics have cited with the article deal with quite specific claims made by the reporters that go much further then general concern with Vatican culture. How in the world is it not appropriate to point out that those allegations weren't proven by the reporters who made them -- indeed, that they were refuted by their own reporting? This piece fails to respond to the actual criticism of the piece.

It's not as if there is a debate about whether the abuse happened or whether the bishops handled it horribly or that Rome was too slow to respond. Critics of the coverage in general -- and this particular Times story -- take issue with the specific manner in which reporters are attempting to pin the story on Benedict.

Good journalism should use clearly reported facts to scrutinize how the Church (and other institutions, such as public schools) have handled child abuse. Good journalism should provoke helpful reforms. That's simply not going to happen if the reporting is biased, sensationalistic, lurid and patently unfair.

This Times article wasn't even subtle in intimating that the Pope is bad and that the Church itself is a sinister force. Winston defends the piece on just those grounds -- essentially she says the church is a horrible institution so accuracy is optional. And the church is powerful, so journalists must afflict it any way they can.

I just can't agree with that. Facts always matter. Context always matters. Get the story straight.

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