Media Unfair to Priests, Bishop Says

By Beth Silver
The News Tribune [Seattle WA]
Downloaded September 6, 2003

Oversaturated coverage of the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal has falsely painted all priests as child abusers, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Friday.

While much of the reporting on the church's problems has led to positive reforms, Bishop Wilton Gregory said many of the stories have also created a false impression.

"Media coverage last year did help to take some steps that will wring this terrible stain out of her (the church's) life to the extent that sin and crime can ever be fully eliminated," Gregory said in a 30-minute speech to a journalism convention in Seattle. "However, the way the story was so obsessively covered resulted in unnecessary damage to the bishops and the entire Catholic community."

The reporting, he said, made it appear that ridding the world of Catholic priest abusers would eliminate all sex abuse involving minors. Instead, he said, reporters should investigate child sexual abuse in all facets of society, including at home and in schools.

Gregory also said that reporters often focused on abuse cases that had been closed for a decade as "breaking news." Missing from those reports was whether Catholic children were safer now from abuse by clergy than they were a decade earlier, he said.

Hundreds of victims have come forward alleging abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. The church has been accused of covering up those priests' behavior, in some cases, by moving them to new parishes. Last year, Gregory led the U.S. bishops' revised sex abuse policy that requires church leaders to bar priests who sexually abuse children from ministry.

Representatives from a victims' rights organization sitting among the reporters at the Crowne Plaza Hotel said Gregory was trying to deflect the problem by blaming the messengers.

David Clohessy, national chairman of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said Gregory's comments departed from the responsibility the Catholic Church accepted just a year ago by focusing on a few sensationalistic news reports.

"That just pales in comparison to the tremendous social good news outlets have contributed by exposing this scandal," Clohessy said.

Meanwhile, capitalizing on the captive audience of reporters attending the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association, Clohessy's organization called on the archdiocese of Seattle to change the way it deals with clergy abuse victims.

He said the Seattle archdiocese sends alleged victims first to speak with the church's lawyer. But Clohessy said they should provide the victims with a trained abuse counselor instead.

In a written statement, Seattle Archbishop Alex Brunett said only that the archdiocese has demonstrated a willingness to talk with victims and that he remains open to discussing alleged abuse with victims and their families.

In his speech Friday, Gregory said some reporters and the general public have misunderstood the Catholic Church's reaction to the scandal, in part because they believe the 195 individual dioceses in this country act as a group. In reality, he said, they have much more autonomy than that.

"There is no American Catholic Church," Gregory said.

Indeed, many Americans, including American Catholics, have a misperception that the Catholic Church in the United States is a corporation that speaks with one voice, said Patricia O'Connell Killen, a professor of religious history at Pacific Lutheran University.

"The Catholic Church in the United States is not General Electric," Killen said. "The CEO cannot simply announce X and it will happen."

Gregory said that audits due at the end of the year will outline how dioceses have implemented new policies that prohibit abusive priests from the ministry.

Beth Silver: 206-467-9845


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