How far back should coverage go in clergy sex scandals? Two Penn newspapers differ

Child porn charges against a Pennsylvania priest are yielding coverage with a different kind of ghost" -- the specter of past crimes illustrated with a literal list in a newspaper. But is such a focus always warranted? Do journalists use this with the Catholic sins, alone?

After a Faithful Reader brought this up, I looked at the examples sent in. Here's what I saw.

The focus is retired Monsignor John S. Mraz, charged with collecting and viewing child porn on two laptops. Two local newspapers do a fine job on the story -- to a point. 

Both of them do what newspapers do best: narrating the chilling details. Take the Reading Eagle account:

A senior Allentown Catholic Diocese priest who began his career in Reading was caught with child pornography on his computer, Lehigh County District Attorney James B. Martin said Tuesday.
Officials said Monsignor John S. Mraz admitted that he sought out and viewed the images for his sexual gratification. They said the investigation began after a parishioner of Mraz's Emmaus church reported uncovering a file with a name along the lines of “naked little boys” while performing maintenance the priest had requested.
Mraz, 66, is the former pastor of the Church of St. Ann, a neighborhood church with an on-campus elementary and middle school. He taught at the former Reading Central Catholic High School from 1975 to 1980 and was an assistant superintendent of the diocesan school system.

The 1,000-word story is a model of fact, narrative and multisourcing. It includes the story of how the volunteer found the images on Mraz's machines, then reported that to the diocese. In turn, the diocese reported it to law enforcement authorities, who investigated and indicted Mraz.

Even the obligatory parishioner reactions are vivid and heartbreaking. “My stomach hurts from just thinking about it,” says one. Another is upset that while Mraz was under investigation, the diocese said he was out sick. “Why didn't they just tell us the truth and have it over with?” she asks.

Diocesan reaction is OK. Although the paper didn’t get a live interview, it quotes a statement that the diocese "immediately notified law enforcement officials and cooperated completely with the investigation.” 

The Morning Call takes more of a narrative style, which, if possible, heightens the horrific effect:

EMMAUS -- In late July, Monsignor John Stephen Mraz, pastor of St. Ann Catholic Church in Emmaus, asked a parishioner to help him update his two laptop computers.
Images the parishioner, identified by police only with the initials D.M., found in the priest's files and online search history made him feel "uncomfortable," authorities said, and he reported it to the Diocese of Allentown.
Now Mraz, whose 41-year career has included posts as a chaplain at Lehigh University and a theology teacher at Central Catholic High School in Allentown, could face a jail term if convicted of charges of viewing and downloading child pornography.

If anything, "D.M." must have understated how he felt. Another parishioner tells the Morning Call that "she expects it will take some time for the parish to heal. She said she was concerned about the kids in the neighborhood, including her own three children who are now teens." 

"Mraz sat quietly in a wheelchair during the arraignment," the paper says. (He's been living in frail health at a retirement home for priests.) He then said "Thank you, judge" when dismissed on bail, according to the paper.

The Morning Call also contributes a couple of good videos:  the press conference by District Attorney Martin and the response from Mraz's attorney.

Both newspapers, the Morning Call and the Eagle, quote Martin confirming that the diocese cooperated with the investigation. They also specify that Mraz been accused not of actual molestation but of collecting child porn (which of course is heinous enough). However, the Eagle also has Martin asking anyone to come forward if they know of any other misconduct by Mraz.

So, two exemplary articles. Problem?

That would be the sidebar to the Morning Call story: a list of six other priests from the diocese who have been charged with similar crimes. Charges include molestation, indecent assault, soliciting sex and even embezzlement against a church. Two of the men apparently died before trial.

Why the list? Was it occasioned by a rash of priestly abuse cases? Not really. They go back more than three decades, the most recent in 2004. The only exception was one former priest who was permanently removed from ministry in 2002. He was charged in 2013 for having molested a child back in 1981. Is the Catholic Church uniquely guilty in these sins and crimes, in comparison with public schools and other groups? No.

Says Faithful Reader: "I can’t think of another institution in which, outside of evidence of a crime ring or a closely grouped series of arrests, the news media would list every known employee of that institution who has ever been charged with a crime."

Now, no one, including myself, is saying to sweep anything under the rug.

Everyone who presides over crimes should be made to account for them. But I see no constructive use for literal recriminations. Not when a newspaper itself quotes praise for the diocese from the district attorney. 

That's my view, and that of a Faithful Reader. But I'm interested in other views as well. What do you think of the coverage? Was it good? Did it go too far? Not far enough? Can you imagine a similar sidebar approach of other major -- including secular -- institutions? Let me know.

 

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