The Vatican didn’t talk. A critic talked. Guess how the story turned out?
USA Today's story, on a layman who says the church's effort to stem child abuse is a sham, is defensibly derogatory. As I've said often, you usually can't stop a story by stonewalling media. You only succeed in giving your foes the sole say.
That's one thing. It's another thing to link the commission piece with a previous story on an anti-abuse training session for bishops. It's still another thing not to make sure you have the latest info.
Here's the top:
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — A member of a commission set up by Pope Francis to advise him on child abuse says the group is a "token body" exercising in "smoke and mirrors" that won’t help children stay safe from abusive priests.
Peter Saunders, the commission member, is now on a leave of absence as he considers whether to continue with an effort he says he has lost faith in.
Meanwhile, new Catholic bishops are still being taught they’re not obliged to report cases of child abuse by priests to the police.
The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which Francis set up with much fanfare in 2014, was supposed to issue guidelines for the Vatican on how to deal with child abuse. But the body was never consulted about the training for new bishops on exactly that topic.
These are just some of the signs that Francis’ reform efforts, and his pledge to clean up the Catholic Church’s most damaging crisis, seem to be unraveling before they’ve even really gotten started.
The article is a reprint from GlobalPost, a news site based in Boston. GlobalPost partners with older media including NBC News and NPR, as well as USA Today. The piece on Saunders is a spinoff of the site's yearlong investigation of accused priestly abusers, saying several from America and Europe were sent to "poor, remote parishes." GlobalPost evidently saw Pope Francis' visit to the continent as a good time hook.
Apparently, the news site also called Saunders, rather than wait for him to call them:
Reached by phone in London this past week, Saunders said the last meeting of the commission was extremely heated and culminated in the group essentially forcing him to take a leave of absence. Saunders said he had lost confidence in the commission’s mission, makeup and sincerity.
"I very quickly realized that I’m surrounded by a group of lovely, kind, caring people whose primary loyalty is to the church," Saunders said. "When Jesus walked into the temple 2,000 years ago and found people trading, gambling and up to all sorts of no good, he didn’t form a committee and say ‘let’s discuss this,’ he just picked the bastards up and threw them out."
GlobalPost concludes that Francis' efforts to clean up the church's act are "more cosmetic than concrete." It gets David Clohessy, national director of the anti-abuse group SNAP, to accuse the bishops of listening to expert advice -- victims, psychologists, law enforcement officials -- then ignoring it. Clohessy even says the pope's long "honeymoon period" is "eroding, and justifiably so, and more quickly than many church officials would hope."
So, a gold star to GlobalPost for giving it more than two tries. The news site finally gets to another abuse survivor and member of the commission. Here is what Marie Collins says:
Collins said the commission is working extremely hard on complicated policy changes that, once put into effect, will have a tangible impact on child safety. That work is incremental in nature and therefore takes time to do right, she said. Saunders doesn’t seem to be willing to put in that time, she added.
Collins also stressed that the commission isn’t supposed to be looking into individual abuse cases, something Saunders has been pushing for. But she said she still believes in the overall mission of the body, and she thinks tangible change can come out of it.
"I wouldn’t stay there for five minutes if I didn’t think so," she said. "I would have liked things to happen overnight, but I realize that this is such a global issue that if we’re going to make any progress towards change, we have to have policies that, once they’re put in place, will stick."
I wish mainstream media had that kind of tenacity in creating balanced stories. Usually they just try a call or two, or worse, pluck a lone quote from the other side's website.
So it appears that Saunders had a basic problem with the intent of the commission. He wanted a policeman, but the commission is about setting broader systemic changes.
If only the GlobalPost/USA Today article had tried that kind of setup for its next section: an allegation that "The Vatican" has told its bishops they don’t have to report abuse cases to law enforcement, only to the church. That story, based on a story by John Allen of Crux, was all the rage last week; but it wasn't true then and it's not true now. As Allen himself pointed out, it was the opinion of a psychologist consultant during a presentation to new bishops, but was not set as Vatican policy.
To me, it looks like that week-old story -- on which GlobalPost did no original reporting -- was added just as padding for the interview with Saunders. But assuming that it was worth six of the GlobalPost article's 27 paragraphs, the news site should have stayed on top of it. Crux ran an update on Monday, the same day as the USA Today rerun.
The Crux follow-up carries a statement by O'Malley, saying that bishops have “a moral and ethical responsibility” to report suspected abuse, regardless of legalities:
“As Pope Francis has so clearly stated, ‘The crimes and sins of the sexual abuse of children must not be kept secret for any longer. I pledge the zealous vigilance of the Church to protect children and the promise of accountability for all’,” the statement said.
“We, the president and the members of the commission, wish to affirm that our obligations under civil law must certainly be followed, but even beyond these civil requirements, we all have a moral and ethical responsibility to report suspected abuse to the civil authorities who are charged with protecting our society.”
And Crux wasn't the only one who noticed. ABC News, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, The Tablet, even the India-based Deccan Chronicle carried O'Malley's comments.
Unfortunately, GlobalPost may have stopped paying attention for now. I just checked its religion page, and it says nothing of O'Malley's statement.
That should be a reciprocal lesson for media: When a source does open up, be ready to quote them. Otherwise, you look like you're falling behind.
Photo above: Protester on behalf of abuse victims waves sign in September during Pope Francis' Mass in Philadelphia. Photo by a katz / Shutterstock.com.
Thumbnail photo: Close-up of Pope Francis by giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com.