The Media's Coverage of the Abuse Crisis

GetReligion has an interesting post on how the media handled one aspect of the abuse crisis engulfing the church.  The story, and their analysis, is complicated but worth reading.  Here we go:

For Catholics and non-Catholics alike, it’s difficult to read the stories attempting to link Pope Benedict XVI to abuse of children. For our purposes here at GetReligion, I hope that it’s possible to simultaneously condemn the abuse of children that has taken place, to criticize the Vatican’s handling of the problem over the years, and to hope that the media work to cover this story more responsibly than we’ve been seeing.


A couple of days ago, I was reading this Associated Press article about the Vatican claiming that the media was engaged in an anti-Catholic “hate” campaign. The article was not a great example of evenhanded reporting. Or even informed reporting, really. It claimed that when Cardinal Julian Herranz talked about the church’s “defense of life” it was code for anti-abortion efforts. Opposition to abortion is certainly an important part of sanctity of life efforts, but not limited to that, of course. Oh, the story also claimed that Benedict had ignored abuse victims.

But it was another part of the story that intrigued me. It was about Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone:

Bertone, now the Holy See’s secretary of state but formerly Benedict’s deputy when the future pope, then-called Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, headed the Vatican’s morals office, has himself been swept up in the scandals.

During a May 1998 meeting at the Vatican, Bertone told Wisconsin bishops to halt a church trial against an ailing priest who was accused of sexually abusing 200 deaf children, according to a Vatican transcript. The priest died soon afterward.

“It’s not true, it’s not true! We have documented the opposite,” ANSA quoted Bertone as saying in Chile. “Let’s not talk about this topic now, because otherwise we’ll be here all day verifying precisely the action taken by me and by his eminence.”

And then the report moved on to more imbalance. But why didn’t we learn what this “documentation” of the opposite was about? Was it true that the Vatican had proof that hadn’t been published by the Associated Press or New York Times or other media outlets? If so, why wasn’t it discussed in this story. And if not, why didn’t the reporter make that clear?

Well, I think I may know what Bertone was talking about. And I’m rather surprised that none of the major media outlets — all billing their current stories as attempts to uncover the truth about a possible Vatican cover-up — have written about it.

The rest, on GetReligion, is here.

Also a story about the Vatican's (or at least some curial officials') response to the media coverage.  It comes from John Thavis, the veteran Vaticanologist who writes for Catholic News Service, and is entitled Vatican Campaign to Defend Pope Not Orchestrated at Top.

The Roman Curia's headline-grabbing defense of Pope Benedict XVI's handling of the clerical sex abuse scandal has demonstrated that when it comes to Vatican communications, the pope is not a micromanager.  Twice during Holy Week liturgies, the pope was caught unawares when his aides spoke passionately about the barrage of criticism the pontiff and other church leaders have faced in recent weeks on the sex abuse issue.  One official compared the attacks on the church and the pope to "the most shameful aspects of anti-Semitism," while another said the church would survive the "current petty gossip."  What Pope Benedict thought of these interventions was not clear. But in both cases, the remarks had the unintended effect of upstaging his own spiritual message about the meaning of Christ's Passion and Easter. 

From the outside, the Vatican's verbal rallying around the pope was viewed as an orchestrated campaign to counter his critics. If there was orchestration, however, it wasn't directed by the pope.Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, basically has an open mike every time he steps up to sermonize for the pope and the Roman Curia. He also has a penchant for weaving in current events, so it was probably not a complete surprise when he began talking about the priestly sex abuse scandal at the pope's Good Friday liturgy April 2. But when, quoting a Jewish friend, he likened criticism of church leaders to past efforts to pin "collective guilt" on Jews, he sparked an outcry heard around the world.

Amazingly, Pope Benedict and other Vatican officials had no inkling that Father Cantalamessa would put forward such a comparison. "No one at the Vatican has ever demanded to read the texts of my homilies in advance, which is something I consider a great act of trust in me and in the media," Father Cantalamessa said afterward. As usual, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, was assigned clean-up duty. Hours after the liturgy, he issued a statement saying the Capuchin's analysis "was not the position of the Holy See."

On Easter Sunday, at the beginning of the papal Mass in St. Peter's Square, another salvo came from Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals. In an unprecedented salutation to Pope Benedict, Cardinal Sodano extolled the pontiff as the "unfailing rock" of the church, praised the 400,000 priests who serve generously around the world and then said: "Holy Father, the people of God are with you, and they do not allow themselves to be impressed by the current petty gossip, or by the ordeals that occasionally strike the community of believers."

The pope rose and embraced Cardinal Sodano. But in this instance, too, the pope was not informed ahead of time about a text that soon would be making headlines. "I can exclude that the pope requested or saw in advance the text of Cardinal Sodano's greeting," Father Lombardi told Catholic News Service.

Whether in Rome or abroad, the pope simply doesn't have time to personally preview the many speeches or brief greetings that are addressed to him, Father Lombardi explained. Considering that this one came from the dean of the College of Cardinals, it was probably not subject to revisions by anyone else, either, he said.

Cardinal Sodano's remarks got more news coverage than the pope's own words, leading some to complain that the Vatican couldn't manage to stay on-message even at Easter. But that didn't bother Vatican officials, who said it was important to let the pope and the world know that his church supported him at this moment. One source said the decision to add the greeting to the pope was reached the evening before, based on a growing sense that to say nothing might leave the impression that the pope was isolated in the face of criticism.

Critics of the Vatican's communications apparatus have long argued that not enough attention has been paid to the way comments by individual cardinals or other Vatican officials will play in the media.But to date there have been no serious efforts to muzzle these officials or vet their public remarks. Indeed, for such a hierarchical organization, the Vatican has an amazing plurality of voices.

James Martin, SJ

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Kate Smith
8 years 9 months ago
This is an interesting blog post.
The title, "The Media's Coverage of the Abuse Crisis" reminded me of a story I read this morning.   The article is from the Associated Press, and it's at .
The article covers the impact the current stories of abuse is having on victims who are re-living their own experiences of abuse.  This is what I noticed:  four of the five victims who were interviewed were abused as girls.  One victim is male.   And I read through the story twice to make sure it was not about female victims.   I think this is a great media improvement, covering both female and male experiences, together, and including several women.   It will help stop false statements that this is a homosexuality issue, or "the victim was a seducer".  
Vince Killoran
8 years 9 months ago
"The pope rose and embraced Cardinal Sodano."  That was a telling gesture.
"[F]or such a hierarchical organization, the Vatican has an amazing plurality of voices."  Maybe-but the message is the same.
Carolyn Disco
8 years 9 months ago
Actually, Bertone is wrong about the May 30, 1998 meeting with Weakland, and his cancellation of the trial. Bertone DID call it off, much to the consternation of Weakland. If there had been any discretion or wiggle room at all, Weakland would have gone ahead with a trial, so strong were his feelings on the matter. A Vatican archbishop does not need to expressly forbid something in the minutes in order for a US prelate to get the message.
Even so, when Bertone concludes the meeting, he does so by noting the “two central points TO BE FOLLOWED,” which are territorial restrictions on saying mass, and the need to secure remorse by Murphy. Bertone does not refer to two central points that “MAY be followed” or “SHOULD be followed” or are “SUGGESTED” in some way. There is nothing conditional about what shall be done, and a trial was not among them.
Why would Weakland be so upset about the difficulty of informing the deaf community of their deliberations if a trial was among the outcomes? It was precisely because the trial was cancelled that Weakland was so concerned. He and the victims wanted a trial on principle, so Murphy could be buried as a layman. Weakland says in a recent BBC interview that “the request at the end of the meeting was to put him under more restrictions.” That’s all. It was not a request Weakland believed he had the ability to deny.
Bertone and his deputy favored sending Murphy for a psych exam and spiritual direction, hoping he would feel remorse afterwards. Never mind that no remorse was evident decades later. A possible reinstatement of a trial was to be the penalty if Murphy did not cooperate. But why delay? A second trial would have the same evidentiary burden as the one being dismissed. Either there is “insufficient information to instruct a canonical process” or not.
Carolyn Disco
8 years 9 months ago
My suspicion: Bertone did not want a trial, period, so just impose restrictions of various kinds. Why not run out the clock on Murphy’s health and then the whole problem is avoided.
I find Bertone’s comment interesting: “Let’s not talk about this topic now, because otherwise we’ll be here all day verifying precisely the action taken by me and by his eminence.” I believe the claim is that no action was taken by his eminence (Ratzinger) on this case. Or was there? Does the buck stop with no. 1 or no. 2, or does the deputy act in accord with his superior’s policy directives or not?
As for Bertone saying “we have documented the opposite,” meaning no halt to a trial, well the minutes and the understandings and actions of Weakland dispute that.
Carolyn Disco
8 years 9 months ago
Re: Bertone saying he did not stop a trial: the judicial vicar on the case now retracts his earlier statement and says Bertone did indeed stop a trial. So, now we have Weakland and the canon lawyer both contradicting Bertone's statement, ''It's not true, it's not true.''
Priest Who Oversaw Church Trial in Wisconsin Abuse Case Acknowledges Error
''The Rev. Thomas T. Brundage, a Roman Catholic priest and an ecclesiastical judge who presided over the church trial in Milwaukee in the 1990s of a priest accused of abusing deaf boys, has acknowledged that he was ordered to stop the proceedings in 1998, after a request from the Vatican.'' In the Vatican's indirect parlance, a request is an order, as the minutes quoted above indicate.
''I do admit to being wrong on this issue and I apologize for my mistake''


The latest from america

Like most public writers, I was used to getting notes that were crude, crazy or even mildly threatening. Normally, I would say a quick prayer for these obviously troubled people and get on with my day. This time it felt different, precisely because the author wasn’t insulting or obviously deranged.
Rachel LuJanuary 21, 2019
In cities across the country, local activists marched in support of a progressive agenda centered on economic justice, racial justice and immigrant rights.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 20, 2019
Pope Francis has suppressed the Ecclesia Dei Commission, a significant decision with consequences for the Holy See’s relations with the priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 19, 2019
Photo: IMDB
A new Netflix miniseries brings out the story’s aspects of adventure and conflict, with occasionally pulse-pounding results.
Rob Weinert-KendtJanuary 19, 2019