USA Today buries lede (here we go again) in big report on sexual-abuse 'window' laws

Screen Shot 2019-10-02 at 9.56.10 AM.png

When it comes to criticizing the press, William Donohue is what he is. The president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has never used a flyswatter when a baseball bat will do.

This time, Donohue has released a statement about a USA Today story that had already caught my attention, one that ran with this headline: “The Catholic Church and Boy Scouts are lobbying against child abuse statutes. This is their playbook.

This feature is yet another cheap-shot attack that buries or blurs crucial information that readers need in order to understand this complex subject. How? Here is Donohue, with a metaphor that is blunt, to say the least. He starts by calling out the reporters, by name, and then pretending they are now in their sixties. This just in: They have both been accused of sexually abusing a cub reporter three decades earlier.

Nothing can be done about their alleged misconduct because the accuser came forward only yesterday, and the claim is beyond the statute of limitations. But a new law is being considered that would suspend the statute of limitations for one year. … The law, however, only applies to those who work in journalism. If someone was molested by a priest or a rabbi, the new law would not apply.
What would Marisa and John have to say about that? Would they protest, arguing that the law was unjust because it singled out journalists? What if they enlisted the support of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and it agreed to tap an army of lawyers to fight the bill — wouldn't they feel that was justified? And how would they react if their critics called them every name in the book, branding them and the SPJ "criminals" for skirting punishment for their outrageous behavior?
We all know what they would say. 

The Big Idea: This USA Today report hides or, at best, obscures the fact that Catholic leaders do not oppose sexual-abuse laws that apply to public institutions and nonprofits, as well as to churches and other religious bodies. The church opposes laws that single out religious groups.

To see what happened in this piece, let’s flash back to a GetReligion post on a similar story: “Big news on New York's child sexual abuse law – buried in 22nd paragraph of Gray Lady's story.” Here are two chunks of that:

There are crucial facts are in this Times report. Readers just have to dig way, way down into the body of the story to find them.

But let’s start with this question: If legislators in New York have been struggling for years to pass the Child Victims Act, why did it suddenly pass with next to zero opposition?

The find the answers, readers have to reach the 22nd paragraph. Here is the actual Times language:

The state’s bishops later declared that they would support the Child Victims Act so long as it applied equally to public and private institutions — a provision that the bill’s sponsors readily adopted.

I’ll say it again. That’s a rather big change in the law, right? This was why Catholics, and leaders in many other religious and non-profit networks, had opposed earlier versions of the bill. Why bury the lede here?

So what abut the USA Today story, which is part of a larger series on copycat laws across the nation, built on shared legislative termplates. Only this time, the investigative reporters focused on copycat patterns in opposition to new laws.

The overture is certainly dramatic. See if you can spot a crucial piece of information in this long excerpt:

Pennsylvania state Rep. Tom Murt slid into a pew at his childhood church, seeking a break from politics and the stress of work. 

Instead, Murt got an earful. In his sermon, the priest talked about a bill pending in the state Legislature that would give survivors of child sexual abuse more time to sue their abusers — and the institutions that hid abuse. 

The Catholic Church was being mistreated, the priest said. Legislators were being particularly harsh toward the church while leaving public school teachers who commit crimes off the hook. 

Then the priest singled out Murt. Tom Murt, the priest said, wasn’t defending the church in its time of need. In fact, the Republican and lifelong Catholic was supporting the legislation. 

Wait a minute. Did the church actually oppose new legislation affecting older child-abuse cases? Or did church leaders oppose a law that didn’t include public schools and other institutions that have abuse problems that are just as large, or even larger, than the horrors in the church?

The USA Today jumped right over that and went to business, focusing on the evils of Catholic leaders making strategic efforts to defend themselves. Read on:

Such efforts … were part of a coordinated effort by the Catholic Church to kill the Pennsylvania legislation. That effort extended from the halls of the statehouse — where church-sponsored lobbyists worked behind the scenes and testified publicly — to the very pews where some legislators bowed their heads in prayer. 

In an era when many advocates use social media and online petitions to garner widespread support, the Catholic Church instead focuses on the audience it already has. In Philadelphia, the archdiocese coordinated the distribution of letters to all 219 parishes that warned of "serious dangers" posed by the bill and urged people to pick up additional information at the exits after Mass — and contact their lawmakers.

Since 2009 alone, state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have tried at least 200 times to extend the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases, according to a USA TODAY analysis of legislation filed in all 50 states, part of a two-year look at model legislation in partnership with the Arizona Republic and the Center for Public Integrity. The bills have borrowed from and built on each other, sharing common phrases and ideas.

Here’s a journalism question: Have organizations linked to public schools and secular non-profits taken similar steps to fight bills that opened the door to flashback cases linked to sexual-abuse cases involving teachers, coaches, administrators and others?

A follow-up question: Is it evil when Catholic (or Jewish, or Baptist) leaders fight narrow legislation of this kind, but not so evil when public schools and other major institutions fight to remain exempt from these laws?

One more set of questions: When these “window” laws are broadened to apply to public schools, let’s say, as well as religious groups, who keeps fighting to defeat them? Do church leaders fight on or do they drop their opposition? Do the leaders of secular institutions fight on?

Way down in this long story, there is a section about the work of Maryland state Delegate C.T. Wilson, who, readers are told, a survivor of child sexual abuse in a context that his not named. Read the following carefully:

For years, Wilson’s legislation failed. He kept trying and, in 2017, lawmakers passed a version of it, but without the revival window. Caine said the Catholic Church backed that bill because it did not include the window and applied to both public and private entities. 

"At the time it was a start," said Wilson, who plans to try again, "but clearly not what it needed to be."

Getting laws through in other states required similar concessions, particularly relating to the revival window.  

In Michigan, for instance, under pressure from the church, Boy Scouts, universities and other groups, lawmakers removed provisions to extend the civil statute of limitations for all child sexual abuse survivors.  

That’s complex stuff and the USA Today team never really pauses to ask the crucial question: If legislators write sexual-abuse bills that apply to both secular and sacred groups — like the one in New York — is there any evidence that Catholic leaders keep lobbying to defeat them? Is there an example of that happening? If so, that would be big news.

I put that question to a veteran Catholic journalist and received this answer, via email:

“There is no such example. The case has always been made that if the legislators are genuinely interested in helping all sexual abuse victims and not just in going after the Catholic Church, then the legislators will write bills that will apply to all sexual abuse victims and not just to some of them.

”Now that would be an interesting story -- what about those states where unfair bills were passed and abuse victims from public schools or public health systems were not allowed the same opportunities as those who were victims of priests and scout leaders? What happens to them?”

Good question.

Attention journalists: There may be some interesting stories there to probe. I imagine that William Donohue would be willing to be interviewed on that topic, along with quite a few Catholic bishops who have led genuine reform efforts linked to clergy sexual abuse.

Who would protest these reporting efforts?

Please respect our Commenting Policy