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  Beneath the Fold
"I" in "I-Team" Stands for "Incomplete"

By Tricia Hempel
The Catholic Telegraph [Cincinnati OH]
Downloaded November 13, 2003

When you've worked for the Catholic Church for more than two decades, you grow accustomed to a fair number of erroneous reports in the news media about the institution and its leaders and issues. Few networks, stations or publications have religion correspondents these days, and even when a reporter is well-versed in religious beliefs and institutions, space and time don't often permit a comprehensive look at complex subjects.

And then there are reporters who are simply looking for a scintillating story with ratings to match fair and balanced journalism be damned.

If you caught the local ABC affiliate's "I-Team" investigative report on the Archdiocese of Cincinnati last week, it's not too hard to figure out which of the above prevailed.

And since the point of view of the archdiocese and some of its leaders and faithful were not presented, I'd like to use this space to do that. Too many erroneous "facts" have been reported in the media to leave uncorrected.

In the first of three episodes, reporter Laure Quinlivan stated that "Church leaders apparently protected David Kelley for more than 20 years as he abused children." She does not balance that statement by noting that while there are currently allegations against Kelley, he has not been convicted of any crime. Innocent until proven guilty? Apparently not at WCPO.

She added that "parents of another Little Flower student reported Kelley's abuse to the church back in 1980. But nothing happened."

The investigative reporter didn't bother to ask the archdiocese about this "fact." But there is no evidence the archdiocese received any report in 1980 on David Kelley, and the date precedes the administration of the current archbishop.

Quinlivan goes on to explain that the archbishop removed Kelley from Elder but failed to report "a felony sex abuse to police as required by Ohio law." But Kelley was not removed because of an abuse allegation; the archdiocese did not receive one. He was removed because his behavior around young people was suspect.

She reports that critics of the archbishop "say he must also take responsibility for assigning Kelley to be chaplain at Mercy Anderson Hospital without warning the hospital that Kelley was a pedophile."

That statement is disingenuous, at best. Quinlivan herself received confirmation from Mercy Hospital, via an a-email, that Kelley's superiors were aware that the archbishop wrote them about the situation in 1994.

The reporter also asked neighbors of David Kelley if the archdiocese should have let them know of his situation, and she naturally received a resounding chorus of "yes." But while Megan's Law applies to persons convicted of sexual abuse crimes, it does not apply to persons who have never been formally accused, tried or convicted of such crimes. To "warn" neighbors of a situation that is unproven would be slanderous and defamatory.

Quinlivan also cited a statistic from a poll of area Catholics that WCPO conducted. She said that 61 percent of Catholics think the archbishop should resign. The accompanying graphic did not clarify that this number was 61 percent of the 52 percent (of 421 persons polled) who did not think he was handling the sexual abuse crisis well.

The second night of the "I-Team" report began with the cheery observation from the news anchor that "the archbishop is refusing to turn over priest personnel records to the Hamilton County prosecutors, isn't that right, Laure?"

"That's right," the reporter concurred.

But that statement is false. The archdiocese has not refused to turn over priest personnel records subpoenaed by the prosecutors. In responding to the subpoena for the documents related to child abuse, the archdiocese has only challenged the Hamilton County prosecutor's access to privileged communications with legal counsel. The right to confidential communications with one's attorney is a right that belongs to every citizen, from a Roman Catholic archbishop to journalists. And by the time this issue is decided in court, a trial judge and three appeals court judges will have seen the materials in question to determine whether they are indeed privileged.

Quinlivan also stated that "many credible people in Dayton tell the I-Team they complained to the archdiocese about Tom Kuhn .. . but our investigation finds the archdiocese did very little until police got involved."

Complaints made over the years alleged nothing illegal against this man. The behaviors cited were strange, discomfiting. But not illegal. There was nothing that could be done by the archdiocese, other than to tell the priest that his behavior was sending the wrong message to people. In a letter to Kuhn, then-chancellor Father Christopher Armstrong cited two specific young men (who were named on the I-Team's program), telling Kuhn to stay away from them. The parents received copies of the letter.

The investigative report also failed to mention that Kuhn was investigated by Montgomery County Children's Protective Services as early as 1997, with nothing coming from that investigation. And the report said that files relating to Kuhn have been withheld from local prosecutors. That is also not true. These files, like all other requested files, have been produced with the lone exception of attorney-client communications.

Prior to the airing of the third installment, Laure Quinlivan gave the archdiocese an opportunity to respond to what had been aired so far. Andriacco sent her this statement:

"Every I-Team investigation requires a target, and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and its archbishop are clearly the targets of this one. Nevertheless, we were hoping for some fairness. That has proved to be lacking. The series presented without challenge several claims from plaintiff's attorneys that the archdiocese is prepared to fight in court. It also attempts to attribute an awareness of information from 20 years ago that only today is starting to come to light and has not been tested yet for its reliability. Every single allegation of abuse set forth in the recent lawsuits occurred before 1988.

"In addition, the I-Team series creates the perception that there has been an ongoing course of clergy abuse in this archdiocese. From all the information available at this point, that is simply false. Archbishop Pilarczyk was a national leader in adopting strong and effective child protection policies a decade ago. Their implementation in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in 1993 has created a healthier and safer environment ever since.

"The Archdiocese of Cincinnati has never held itself to be above criticism. Archbishop Pilarczyk has expressed regrets about the way some aspects of this sad crime of child abuse were handled in the past. He has apologized a number of times to victims in person, in print, and on camera. It is regrettable that Channel 9 News has chosen to exploit this very painful situation to pump up its ratings for 'sweeps month,' the period during which TV stations are in heavy competition to build maximum audience.

His statement was reduced to Quinlivan's paraphrasing: "We offered the archdiocese the opportunity to respond, and in an e-mail, they told me they did not think our report was fair."

That is truly an amazing editing job.

Much to my staunchly Republican father's chagrin, I admired Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward during their coverage of Watergate, and their work prompted several of my friends and me to pursue careers in journalism. Later on, Sidney Schanberg's coverage of the genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge, and other journalists' attempts to expose the horrors of the famine in Ethiopia and the tragic civil war in the former Yugoslavia all shaped my idea of what journalism was meant to be about. There was Veronica Guerin, who lost her life trying to expose drug traffickers whose greed was slowly killing young people. (Interestingly, Guerin's career got its start when she covered the clergy sexual abuse scandals in Ireland in the early 1980s). All of these reporters helped to inform people and motivate them to work for change.

The Boston Globe, to give that publication its due, brought the problems of clergy abuse into the public's eye and has prompted reform that will undoubtedly benefit generations to come and not only of Catholics. Other institutions and organizations, realizing they are not exempt from this problem, are looking to the church's policies to model for their own needs. The Globe reporting exposed a valid problem and forced a climate of change.

But this? This is not investigative journalism, not by any stretch. While preparing this report, Quinlivan obtained unlisted phone numbers and harassed clergy. She knocked on neighbors' doors looking for dicey details and filmed at least one priest as he answered his door, stating it would go better for him if he cooperated with her. She called the elderly mother of one priest one who is not accused of sexual abuse hoping to get a scoop. She ambushed priests and others in their cars as they left church.

When Quinlivan initially contacted Archbishop Pilarczyk for an interview in September, she told him she wanted to interview him "to discuss your thoughts on the future of the Catholic Church and of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in particular. Your thoughts are very important to area Catholics, and it's a timely topic with the 40th anniversary of Vatican II. We also want your view of groups such as Voice of the Faithful, which meet in area church facilities."

But as the archbishop found when Quinlivan arrived for the interview, her real agenda was quite different. She spent the entire two 30-minute sessions grilling him about sexual improprieties by priests and how the archdiocese handled them over the decades. That's a deceptive tactic, and it was a "journalistic" ambush.

And as Father James Bramlage, rector of St. Peter in Chains Cathedral in Cincinnati wrote to William Fee, general manager of WCPO-TV this week, Quinlivan was out to conduct "a smear campaign."

"It is not investigative reporting, it is a witch hunt, with the pre-determined conclusion that the archbishop is guilty of evil and malicious behavior."

Father Bramlage went on to recount his own experience with the reporter's deceptive tactics: "I was contacted by one of your videographers to come to the cathedral on Oct. 22 to tape some footage of a concert that evening, a concert featuring the St. Paul Cathedral Choir, London. I asked the videographer why he wanted to make the tape, and he told me it was for use on the 11 p.m. news. It did not appear that evening on the news. It did, however, appear as the leading footage for your smear of the archbishop. It focused on the innocent faces of young boys in a choir from England as though they were choir boys (which we do not have) from the cathedral while the voiceover is speaking about the way the Catholic Church (not some individual priests) has abused children.

"This is yellow journalism at its worst," Father Bramlage concluded.

Last month, the bishops of England and Wales criticized the British Broadcasting Corp. for airing two programs deemed "hostile to and biased against" the Catholic Church. One of the programs focused on sexual abuse of children by two priests. The bishops said that while the program featured some significant disclosures, it also included biased and unreliable reporting and unsubstantiated statements against the church.

"For many decades, the BBC has deserved and enjoyed a worldwide reputation for fairness and objectivity, especially in its news and current affairs. This reputation is increasingly tarnished," the bishops said. "In England and Wales, there is considerable concern that elements within the BBC are simply hostile to religious belief and to any traditional sense of the sacred."

And as the British Catholic weekly The Tablet said in an editorial, the BBC had a "responsibility to resist an unthinking chase after ratings; sex and the Catholic Church are always good box office." The newspaper added that while the clerical sex abuse scandal had caused great harm, the church had "acted decisively to put its house in order."

"That fact may get in the way of a good story, but it is true, and journalists with integrity should recognize it."

WCPO should be ashamed of itself for its distorted reporting of this situation, and an apology is owed not only the Archbishop of Cincinnati, but also its viewers.

 
 

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