Good news and bad news: The role of online journalism in the Catholic sex-abuse scandal


EDITOR’S NOTE: I am happy to announce we will be carrying occasional posts on Catholic news coverage issues by veteran New York City journalist Clemente Lisi. He is one of my journalism faculty colleagues at The King’s College in lower Manhattan and is best known as a reporter and editor at The New York Daily News, and elsewhere.

— Terry Mattingly


“Proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear.”

Those words by Saint Catherine of Siena appear most fitting this summer as the Catholic Church in the United States grapples with allegations of widespread sex abuse by priests going back several decades.  

In July, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick after it was revealed that the 88-year-old former head of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., had allegedly abused a teenage boy for years starting in 1969. It was also made public that McCarrick had been accused in three other sexual assault cases involving seminarians.  

Last month, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a shocking report filled with decades of allegations regarding sexual abuses by clerics with children and teenagers — and cover-ups by bishops — that reopened a wound within the church regarding pedophilia and homosexuality among the clergy. It also sparked debate for reform regarding whether priests should be allowed to marry like clergy in other Christian denominations.  

The incidents came on the heels of sex-abuse scandals that rocked the church in Chile and Australia.

If that wasn’t enough, a whistleblower named Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano released an 11-page letter (full text here) on August 25 describing a series of events in which the Vatican — and specifically Pope Francis —  had been made aware of McCarrick’s immoral behavior years ago.

Vigano claimed Pope Benedict XVI had placed restrictions on McCarrick, including not allowing him to say Mass in public. Vigano alleges Pope Francis reversed those sanctions. In the letter, Vigano, a former papal ambassador to the United States, said Francis “knew from at least June 23, 2013 that McCarrick was a serial predator. He knew that he was a corrupt man, he covered for him to the bitter end.” 

Unlike in 2002 — when an investigation by The Boston Globe unearthed decades of abuse by prelates never reported to civil authorities — accusations of wrongdoing within the Catholic Church these days are mixed with sacred and secular politics.

When it was revealed that two Catholic journalists had helped Vigano edit and distribute the letter, those actions shed a light on the increasingly polarized Catholic Church and the growth and influence of conservative news and opinion websites that oppose Pope Francis and what they believe is the pontiff’s assault on orthodoxy. 

Much in the same way The Drudge Report attacked President Bill Clinton in the 1990s (blogger Matt Drudge was the first to report on the Monica Lewinsky affair after the mainstream press had passed on it) and wrote stories attacking Hilary Clinton during the 2016 US presidential election, so too are several anti-Francis sites in Italy and around the world fueling criticism of how the Vatican has been operating since he was made pope in March 2013. 

When Vigano’s letter called on Francis to resign — an unprecedented move in the Vatican’s history — the power of these journalists was revealed. Two of those journalists, Aldo Maria Valli and Marco Tosatti, acknowledge that they met with Vigano before the memo was made public. What happened from there is at the heart of the debate and credibility of both Vigano and the journalists.  

“I did not help Vigano,” Valli said. “The memo is all his own.” 

It depends on what one’s definition of “help” is. 

Valli would not comment further for this article. Instead, he referred questions to a September 2 post on his blog, where he details how the American press treated Pope Benedict differently compared to Francis regarding clergy sex-abuse allegations.

Compare the past with the present: The Boston Globe won a Pultizer Prize in 2003 for its reporting (an investigation later made into the 2015 Academy Award-winning movie Spotlight). These days, many in the press — and among liberal Catholics — have tried to discredit Vigano. 

Continue reading “The role of online journalism in the Catholic sex-abuse scandal,” by Clemente Lisi.

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