What strange times we live in, in terms of mainstream journalism about religion.
It feels strange to praise a New York Times news story because it contains perfectly normal, clearly attributed response material from an organization like the Vatican and other officials -- at various levels -- in the Church of Rome.
In a way, my praise for this particular story -- "Amid Pornography Case, Vatican Recalls Priest From Washington Embassy" -- is a commentary on tensions that still exist in many Catholic offices about investigations of the sexual abuse of children and teens by clergy. At the same time, there are tensions between the Times and many Catholic leaders.
Nevertheless, this story doesn't contain the gaping holes we saw the other day in news coverage of another clergy sexual-abuse case. Click here for that post, which noted some mainstream news stories that lacked quotes -- any quotes, at all -- from:
* The Vatican.
* Legal representatives of the church, at any level.
* The local archdiocese in which this newsroom is located.
* Conservative Catholics who are highly critical of how many church officials have handled clergy-abuse cases.
I noted -- this was really bizarre -- that the stories didn't even include references that told readers reporters tried to reach church officials, as in: "Leaders of so-and-so group declined repeated requests for interviews."
So what did Times professionals -- and church leaders -- get right in this basic news story on what remains a hot-button, controversial subject? First, here is the story's overture:
VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican has recalled a high-ranking priest working as a diplomat in the Holy See’s embassy in Washington after American authorities sought to strip his immunity and potentially charge him with possession of child pornography, the Vatican said Friday.
In a statement, the Vatican said that it had been notified by the State Department on Aug. 21 of “a possible violation of laws relating to child pornography images” by a member of its diplomatic corps.
The Vatican said the priest would face an investigation and potential trial in Vatican City. But some critics saw in the Vatican’s move a reflexive step to protect its own by whisking a priest away from a justice system in a foreign land.
OK, so the Vatican responded with a print statement (either digital or analog). At least that's something. The Times also alerted readers that critics have reacted to the contents of that statement and that critics will -- as they should -- be interviewed and quoted.
Then there is this basic, but in this case laudable, material:
The statement did not identify the cleric, but Italian news media reports and an American official familiar with the investigation said it was Msgr. Carlo Alberto Capella, who was ordained in Milan in 1993 and entered the diplomatic corps in 2004. ...
Efforts to reach Monsignor Capella through the Vatican on Friday night were unsuccessful.
When it comes to critics of church actions in these cases, the Times went to the usual source. That would be the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. This is predictable, but understandable.
Yes, I do think it would be interesting if journalists, from time to time, sought commentary from church conservatives who are also highly critical of many church actions on this hellish topic. They are out there -- a fact that underlines the gravity of this issue. When sources on the left and right are furious about the same topic, that says something.
The Vatican statement is quoted again and again. However, there is also this:
A leader of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States also seemed frustrated by the Vatican’s announcement.
“This is a serious issue,” Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement that called for an immediate and transparent investigation in cooperation with law enforcement. “We hope the Holy See will be forthcoming with more details.”
Yes, this Times story also has a long, long stretch of background material built on passive-voice, vaguely sourced material -- the kind that drives many Catholic readers into rage.
It's safe to say that Times pros have their own Catholic sources in Rome and elsewhere, sources that -- another sign of tensions between the church and this newsroom -- are not anxious to be quoted by name in the pages of the world's most powerful newspaper. You could call them "New York Times" Catholics.
Thus, we see wordings, such as "even some of his supporters have said," when dealing with the actions of Pope Francis on this topic. Other references of this kind included noting that a church action "is seen by some analysts as progress," or, that "Defenders of recalling the priest argue" this or that.
Still, it's important that church officials were willing to comment, to one degree or another.
It's also important that Times reporters sought input from church officials at several levels.
Reason for praise!
We live in strange times, journalistically speaking.
FIRST IMAGE: From the website of the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C.