Church policy of secrecy or confidentiality?

You may have read last week about a California jury awarding $28 million in damages to a Candace Conti, a woman who said the Jehovah’s Witnesses allowed an adult member of her congregation to molest her when she was a child. The media tend to highlight stories about random predators, even though almost everyone abused as a child was abused by someone in a position of trust. This usually means a family member or someone in a relationship with a family member. But it also happens in schools or other institutions of trust. We've seen most of the media interest in this topic focused on the Roman Catholic Church, although there's no evidence that it had a greater incidence of abuse than the general population. What it does have, however, is bigger pockets than most. It's much harder to get millions of dollars from your mom's ex-boyfriend or your math teacher from the 7th grade than it is from large, centralized entities.

This story deals with another church. It's a huge settlement and one of the keys to the large award was a church policy. Here's how the Associated Press put it:

Ms. Conti also said in her lawsuit that the Christian denomination’s national leaders formed a policy in 1989 that instructed the church’s elders to keep child sex abuse accusations secret. Congregation elders followed that policy when Mr. Kendrick was convicted in 1994 of misdemeanor child molestation in Alameda County, according to Mr. Simons.

When the reader who sent in this story read that, he was outraged. He thought the policy couldn't sound more nefarious. When he read the San Francisco Chronicle's version of the same issue, he said he had a different reaction:

One of the prime disagreements in the case was over a letter the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society sent to congregation elders around the country in July 1989, at a time when churches of many denominations were facing slander lawsuits from worshipers.

The letter stressed "the need for elders to maintain strict confidentiality" in personal matters involving congregants, including criminal investigations, and to follow the direction of the organization's leaders.

"The legal consequences of a breach of confidentiality by the elders can be substantial," the letter said.

An attorney for Conti, Rick Simons, said it represented a policy of keeping sexual allegations secret.

[Jim McCabe, an attorney for the Jehovah's Witnesses] said Simons "did a great job of spinning it into a policy of secrecy, and this jury bought it."

In fact, McCabe said, the letter was a run-of-the mill reminder that some communications must be kept confidential. He noted that a section of the letter devoted to child abuse instructed elders to report all allegations to church lawyers so victims can be "protected from further damage."

The former excerpt is from a short wire story where you have to write with economy. The latter is from the local paper.

It makes sense that it would be much more fleshed out in the local paper. But I thought it worth highlighting to show how the same issue can be presented in different ways. It reminds me a bit of a story the New York Times had late last month that suggested Cardinal Timothy Dolan had done something wrong in the way he handled oversight of certain priests accused of sexual abuse. One writer at the National Catholic Register argued that the story itself was what was wrong.

These are always difficult issues to write about, but because they're so widespread it's important to report them well. It's worth noting that many religion beat reporters have had to deal with these beats for years, under very trying circumstances. In many cases, they've set a great example for education beat reporters and others who are dealing with the same topic.

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