From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune comes a story on an event that the reporter calls "a first in Minnesota, and perhaps a first in the nation": a visit by Catholic Archbishop John Nienstedt to a support group for survivors of clergy sex abuse. Although the reporting is mostly solid, the article has a notable factual error that betrays a near-universal problem with mainstream-media stories on clergy abuse: an over-reliance on the authority of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
The lede aims for drama:
It was a first in Minnesota, and perhaps a first in the nation. A support group for survivors of clergy sex abuse hosting the man who represents the church they believe betrayed them — Archbishop John Nienstedt.
The ground rules for last weekend’s meeting quietly were laid in advance. No media allowed. No robes or collar on the archbishop. The survivors would be respectful.
Held in a suburban library conference room, the unlikely meeting allowed survivors to share their painful stories with Minnesota’s top Catholic leader and provided Nienstedt a rare and inside look at the impact of abuse.
“I really didn’t think he’d be there until he actually showed up,” said Shawn Plocher, a Minneapolis man who was abused as a child. “This is a group of hurting people who want some sense of healing or closure. … I’m hoping things are heading in the right direction.”
Next there are some good quotes from Nienstedt expressing how moved he was by the meeting. After that come the obligatory remarks from SNAP's spokesman:
David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said he was unaware of any similar event elsewhere. Former Twin Cities Archbishop Harry Flynn met with Louisiana clergy abuse victims in a prayer group several times, he said. And SNAP met with some bishops at the 2002 U.S. Conference of Bishops meeting in Dallas that hammered out the church’s policies on clergy sexual abuse.
“In Dallas we heard, ‘This isn’t the last time you hear from us,’ ” said Clohessy. “Without exception, we heard nothing when we got home.”
If Clohessy is "unaware of any similar event elsewhere," he would do well to look at the website of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., which has been hosting similar events for several years running. He could also read Catholic San Francisco's September 2012 feature about how two auxiliary bishops of that diocese met with six victims to develop a policy for helping victims. That article quotes one of the survivors, Paul Fericano:
“For the first time, survivors and bishops sat down with one another to discuss and forge new policy that governed how a large Catholic diocese would better serve those who had been hurt by the church. That’s huge: Clergy abuse survivors and bishops working together to create better church policy. We did this with the resolve to do no harm and cause no suffering on either side."
All things considered, it is clear that Nienstedt's meeting with a group of victims is unusual, but, contra SNAP, it is certainly not unheard of.
I'll grant there are legitimate reasons why SNAP would be a go-to source for reporters covering clergy-abuse. It is by far the largest organization advocating for those who suffered abuse by Catholic clergy, and the only one with a national presence.
That said, what reporters don't get about SNAP is that it has an institutional antagonism toward the Catholic Church. Watchdog website The Media Report, which is a kind of anti-SNAP, has ample documentation of such antagonism.
I must add that I am not a fan of The Media Report's polemic tone, nor can I support its defenses of institutional behavior that sometimes (perhaps often) prove to be indefensible. However, there is no arguing with its claim that SNAP actively promotes "a radical, 'progressive' social agenda in direct opposition to that of the Catholic Church." Hence, regardless of whether SNAP may be a reliable source for information on what the Church is doing wrong, it is certainly not a reliable source for information on what the Church is doing right.