Covering the priestly sex abuse scandal: How did Catholic media score this week?

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It’s certainly been a tortured Catholic summer here at GetReligion, what with our reporting on the scandals surrounding now-former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick –- that took up multiple news cycles from June 20 to mid-July -- and this week's explosive grand jury report out of Pennsylvania that with some of the saddest news that religion beat reporters have had to cover in ages.

I’ve talked about how the secular media are treating this disaster but what about Catholic media? There’s a bunch of other publications out there but many are weeklies or even monthlies. What I found most helpful in several of them had insider observations that secular media reporters might not have.

The two largest Catholic publications are the National Catholic Register and the National Catholic Reporter. I’ll start with the latter.

The Register’s reporting was heavy on analysis and blogs -- such as this one asking why no one listened to McCarrick whistleblower Richard Sipe –- and it tended to defend the bishops more; at least the ones it felt had been unfairly treated. Its breaking news was supplied by the Catholic News Agency, a wire service affiliated with the Birmingham, Ala.-based Eternal Word TV Network. (A screen shot of EWTN host Lauren Ashburn reporting on the grand jury report is atop this blog.)

CNA’s reporting included a piece on retired Erie Bishop Donald Trautman, who was excoriated in the grand jury report. Trautman said a great deal of details had been left out of the report; details that would have put him in a better light.

Bishop Trautman said that the report “does not fully or accurately discuss my record as Bishop for twenty-two years in dealing with clergy abuse. While unfortunate, these omissions are consistent with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s findings that the grand jury process that produced the Report suffered from 'limitations upon its truth-finding capabilities' and lacked 'fundamental fairness.'”

The news service had a similar article defending Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who was also criticized by the grand jury.

In question is whether Wuerl, who served as Pittsburgh's bishop from 1988-2006, knew about (priestly abuser Ernest) Paone’s past when he endorsed the priest’s continued ministry.
In 1991 Paone wrote to the Diocese of Pittsburgh requesting permission to move to Nevada, which was then covered by the single Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas. The request was granted and Wuerl gave no report to Reno-Las Vegas of Paone’s past.
But sources close to Cardinal Wuerl told CNA that in 1991, the bishop had no idea of the allegations that had been made against Paone.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh’s statement said that “At that time, neither Bishop Wuerl nor anyone in the Clergy Office was aware of Paone's file and the allegations lodged against him in the 1960s. Because he had been outside of the Diocese for nearly 30 years, Paone's files were not located in the usual clergy personnel file cabinet” and were not found at the time, the diocese said

Huh. Wonder where they finally were found.

Not all was pro-bishop at the Register. Matthew Bunson’s news analysis contained the following:

Who is ultimately responsible for policing the bishops raises a final issue emerging from the grand jury report. The scandal in Pennsylvania is but one small facet of the crisis facing the Church around the world over clergy sexual abuse, abuse of power, an active homosexual culture in seminaries, predatory prelates and widespread homosexual activity among the U.S. priesthood.  Pope Francis is facing pressure from Chile, Honduras, Australia, France and elsewhere to act decisively. Transparency, accountability, credibility and responsibility are all needed now more than ever. But the grand jury also serves as a gut-wrenching reminder of the lasting physical and spiritual toll of failure.

I want to give a shout-out to this column by the Rev. Raymond de Souza about an imaginary letter he’d like to send to McCarrick. It’s loaded with insights on what other bishops must be thinking right now.

The Reporter had a lot more original news pieces, plus it draws from the Catholic News Service for its wire. Most recent is their piece on the U.S. bishops’ call for an apostolic visitation regarding the McCarrick affair. 

The bishops proposed that the possible Vatican apostolic visitation would work "in concert" with a group of predominantly lay people identified by the bishops' National Review Board, which advises the bishops on preventing child sexual abuse, and who would be "empowered to act."
"Whatever the details may turn out to be regarding Archbishop McCarrick or the many abuses in Pennsylvania (or anywhere else), we already know that one root cause is the failure of episcopal leadership. The result was that scores of beloved children of God were abandoned to face an abuse of power alone. This is a moral catastrophe," DiNardo said.
An apostolic visitation is an investigation by the Vatican into any number of aspects of church, including dioceses, religious orders and universities… Fr. James Connell, a founding member of the Catholic Whistleblowers reform group, said he was skeptical of the plan outlined by DiNardo, including whether an apostolic visitation could have credibility. Instead, he has joined others in calling for more grand jury investigations nationwide, and that any investigation be handled by professionals, perhaps even the FBI.

(However, Commonweal, another Catholic publication, ran this piece saying such an investigation would be impossible and fruitless.)

NCR’s Vatican correspondent provided a piece on just how the Vatican might investigate the U.S. bishops and an editorial from a Religion News Service columnist, the Rev. Thomas Reese, that called the grand jury report “a new low” for the Catholic Church.

However Reese, not known for being a friend of the hierarchy, added that some of those named therein might have been unfairly targeted.

Among those is Cardinal Donald Wuerl, now the archbishop of Washington, D.C., who is criticized in the Pennsylvania report for his actions when he was bishop of Pittsburgh.
We need to remember that in 1993, Wuerl tried to remove Anthony Cipolla, a Pittsburgh priest, from ministry but was told to return him to ministry by the cardinals on the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, the church's supreme court. Wuerl refused. He appealed the decision, went to Rome and persuaded the Signatura to reverse itself. That does not sound like a bishop who was ignoring his responsibility to protect children.

By the way, here’s the link to the Archdiocese of Washington’s web page defending Cardinal Wuerl. It was its own web site, thewuerlrecord.com, but criticism forced the archdiocese to close down the site.

In terms of other Catholic media, I can’t forget the Whispers in the Loggia blog whose blogger, Rocco Palmo, lives in Philadelphia and has tweeted plenty about the news out of Pennsylvania. Palmo’s usually a step ahead of the rest of us, due to his clerical sources, and has been tweeting about the upcoming annual bishops’ meeting in November in Baltimore, which is sure to attract swarms of media. His tweet is below.

Our Sunday Visitor’s weekly news site only had one article on the grand jury report. LifeSiteNews.com had done some reporting on the Pennsylvania report, but it also has lots of McCarrick material, including this interview with the Rev. James Martin who said sexual abuse of seminarians is not “rampant” in the Catholic Church. And, LifeSite announced that Catholic laity had set up a web site, ComplicitClergy.com, to track who may have known about McCarrick and when.

I’ll cite a few other Catholic news outlets, as there are many. America magazine did a breaking news piece on the grand jury report and there’s a ton of diocesan newspapers out there as well, most of which used wire along with local opinion pieces. I'm aware that religious media don't have the staff or resources to carry out investigative work but the release of this report was anticipated for months, so there was plenty of time to prepare.

Of course I can't forget Crux, which ran this Associated Press piece on Thursday pointing out how Pennsylvania's bishops are mum on allowing changes to a state law that would allow more people to file lawsuits against them. It added this interesting tidbit:

Timothy Hale, a California lawyer who represents child sex abuse victims and helped successfully sue the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the San Diego Diocese for a combined $858 million, dismissed concerns about dioceses being bankrupted.
Seeking bankruptcy protection is a strategic move dioceses make to limit their financial exposure, and the vast majority of dioceses have insurance coverage and extensive financial assets that the public knows nothing about, Hale said.

So, due to weekly or even monthly deadlines, Catholic publications and web sites aren't going to be the first stop where one can look for the fastest take on news coverage. But they are the place to go when one wishes to see the church's take, because that's where the bishops go when they want their side aired with no opposing response. 

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