Guest Commentary
Church Sex Abuse Story Lacks Context

By Patrick Mattimore
Grade the News [United States]
March 2, 2004

The lead story in the New York Times on Feb. 27th headlines with the following: "Two Studies Cite Child Sex Abuse By 4% of Priests," and "Number of Victims Is Put in Thousands." The opening paragraph begins, "Two long-awaited studies have found that the Roman Catholic Church suffered an epidemic of child sexual abuse…"

The San Francisco Chronicle ran the Times story and led with "Enormity of abuse by Roman Catholic priests revealed."

Surprisingly, it is hard to glean from the Times and Chronicle a context in which to measure the extent of the "epidemic." In fact, the authors of the studies are clear to point out that "…it is not possible yet to determine whether Catholic priests are more prone to molest children than any other professionals who work with youngsters." In other words, there is no way of knowing whether priests are any more likely to sexually abuse children than teachers, volunteer sports coaches, Girl Scout leaders, nuns, rabbis, or "any other professionals who work with youngsters."

It matters not. The Times, Chronicle, and other newspapers lurid coverage of the Catholic Church's own self-examining mea culpa will anoint the public to once again crucify the Church.

When the country's leading newspaper, the New York Times, publishes a sensational story, it has a responsibility to its readers and indeed, the nation's news readers, to contextualize the story to the extent that is possible. A single sentence fragment buried amidst a 36 paragraph lead story complete with a companion article about the city with the highest rate of clergy sexual abuse hardly satisfies that ethical requirement.

The studies were commissioned by the American Catholic Bishops and according to the Times, "provide the most comprehensive examination ever of child sexual abusers in any institution." So, the American Catholic Bishops, who have admirably opened the Church to inspection, have borne the cross that no other group wishes to carry.

The Chronicle continued its account Saturday with the following headline: "Clergy abuse report cites 'homo-erotic culture'." What makes the Chronicle's account even more questionable is that the newspaper repeatedly quotes psychologist, Thomas G. Plante, a professor at Santa Clara University, to support the Chronicle's view of the news. The Chronicle takes Professor Plante's quotes wholly out of context.

Standing apart amidst those who would stone the priests is the San Jose Mercury News. On Thursday, the day before the John Jay Report on clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church was due to be released, an opinion in that paper warned, "Priests are not the only abusers." The author of that opinion was Dr. Plante.

He suggested that the spotlight which the media was casting at the Church should also be shared by other groups. In the current frock hunt climate, other more salient information would be missed, cautioned Dr. Plante, specifically that "80% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members" and that available research suggests "other groups who have access to and unsupervised power over children victimize children at percentages similar to those of Catholic priests…"

Dr. Plante makes it clear that he is not absolving the Church but that sexual abuse by priests should be kept in perspective, a lesson on perspective that was apparently lost on the Times and the Chronicle.

The author retired as the chairman of the social studies department at South San Francisco High School in 2002 and now writes about a variety of issues. His letters and opinions have been published in the New York Times, the San Jose Mercury News, and the San Francisco Chronicle.


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