Shortcomings, but Not Bias in Paper’s Church Abuse

By Kenneth J. Moynihan
Telegram & Gazette [Worcester MA]
Downloaded September 24, 2003

Catholic Bishop Daniel P. Reilly last week accused the Telegram & Gazette of being "unbalanced and inaccurate" in its coverage of one of the alleged child abuse cases by a member of the clergy. The diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Free Press, in an editorial titled "Bias," joined in the complaint.

"Obviously," the newspaper said, as a publication of the diocese, it was "in a delicate position when it comes to accusing another newspaper of bias against the church," but that "should not stop it from saying what is true and what is fair and what is not."

The case in question is the one filed by Sime J. Braio, 53, against Auxiliary Bishop George E. Rueger, for allegedly abusing him when he was a teenager, and against the diocese for aggravated sexual assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud or fraudulent concealment and conspiracy. In a ruling released Sept. 12, Superior Court Judge Leila R. Kern dismissed the diocese as a defendant. She said no factual basis had been established on which to hold the diocese liable.

At that same hearing, the man who had been representing Mr. Braio, Houston attorney Daniel J. Shea, was allowed to withdraw from the case, since his client was seeking to dismiss him. Mr. Shea is seeking a lien on any awards that might be made to Mr. Braio, charging that his former client was being coerced into a secret settlement, and he had already advanced Mr. Braio several thousand dollars in the case.

There were fascinating differences between the ways the two newspapers reported the story. The Telegram & Gazette’s headline on Sept. 13 was "Shea withdraws from Braio case." The weekly Free Press’s headline on Sept. 19 was "Diocese dropped from lawsuit."

The Telegram’s lead sentence was: "A Houston lawyer representing a Shrewsbury man charging sexual abuse at the hands of a Roman Catholic bishop was allowed to withdraw from the case yesterday, but is charging that his former client is being coerced into a secret settlement." A couple of paragraphs later came two sentences reporting that the diocese had been "dismissed as a defendant" by the judge.

The Free Press story began with: "A Superior Court judge has dismissed all counts against the diocese contained in a civil lawsuit against it and Bishop Rueger." It then reported the ruling that "allowed the plaintiff’s lawyer to withdraw from the case."

There was considerably more to the difference than the matter of choosing which of two events should be headlined. Both papers reported that Judge Kern ordered Mr. Shea to turn the files in the Braio case over to Mr. Braio within 10 days, and called to the bench two lawyers who were observing the proceedings to inquire whether they were interested in taking on the case, receiving no firm reply.

The Free Press, but not the Telegram & Gazette, reported that one of those lawyers characterized Mr. Shea’s attitude toward them as "threatening." The Free Press was also alone in reporting that Mr. Braio "told the court that Mr. Shea had harassed him at his home on several occasions and that he had called the police to have him removed." In a later interview with the Free Press, Mr. Shea reportedly denied any harassment but acknowledged one "unprovoked" call by Mr. Braio to the police to have the lawyer removed. Based on a police report, the Free Press reported that Mr. Braio on July 18 told the police who responded to his call that Mr. Shea was threatening to have him committed to a state hospital and that he was afraid of Mr. Shea.

Both newspapers reported that Mr. Shea said he had learned from several sources that the diocese was seeking to make a secret settlement with Mr. Braio. Only the Free Press asked the diocese to comment on Mr. Shea’s claim, and it received a vigorous denial.

Only the Telegram reported in detail additional claims by Mr. Shea that the diocese had been obstructing his efforts to establish that Mr. Braio had been a student at the Lyman School for Boys when he was assaulted and that there was some connection between Bishop Rueger and the Scituate address where the alleged assault took place. Only the Free Press asked church officials to comment on the significance of the dismissal of charges against the diocese.

The point of greatest friction, at least for the diocese, seems to be Mr. Shea himself, and for good reason. From all appearances, he has been among the most available and most quotable sources for writers covering this story, and he has been quoted repeatedly on conspiracies and "sex rings" and other tantalizing hypotheses. The Free Press editorial called him "the T&G’s most popular source for all matters pertaining to the clergy sex abuse crisis." It complained that the Telegram & Gazette’s coverage of the Sept. 12 hearing ignored repeated assertions that Mr. Shea’s behavior had been threatening, adding that the judge herself asked him to alter his tone because she, too, found it threatening.

Even when it got to "the most disturbing" aspect of the Telegram & Gazette’s coverage, the Free Press editorial was drawn back to Mr. Shea. What was "most disturbing" was that merely two sentences were devoted to the dismissal of charges against the diocese. "Two sentences after at least a dozen articles in the last year ... in which Mr. Shea accuses the diocese of a variety of conspiracies and frauds that, according to a Superior Court judge, he could not substantiate."

I think the diocesan people have a pretty good case when they say the daily paper neglected the importance of the dismissal of charges, though I doubt that stemmed from a general "bias against the church." I am less impressed with their apparent desire to strike back at Mr. Shea personally - though what they said about him pales beside what he has said about them.

It’s a good time for all of us to remind ourselves that what we say or write should not only be true; it should also be fair, a judgment considerably more difficult to make.

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.