Breaking Silence

Editorial in Sun.Star [Philippines]
December 11, 2006

Srewardship is hardly a term some will associate with the media in its coverage of sex abuses allegedly committed by members of the clergy.

During the third quarterly en banc meeting of the Cebu Citizens-Press Council (CCPC) last September, Cebu Archdiocesan spokesperson Msgr. Achilles Dakay criticized the practice of local media to make public the name and photograph of priests accused of abuses but whose guilt has still to be established by the courts or church authorities.

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As a community forum reviewing concerns raised about the media, the CCPC appointed during the same meeting its members, Mia Embalzado of St. Theresa's College and Fr. Aloysius Cartagenas of the San Carlos Seminary, to consult members of the community, including the church and the media, to draw up standards guiding coverage of priests and religious officials.

The resulting guidelines, presented by the committee and commented upon by media members and religious leaders, was adopted by the CCPC during its fourth quarterly en banc meeting last Dec. 5, (story published last Dec. 6 in Sun.Star Cebu).

With these guidelines, the CCPC encourages journalists and religious leaders to dialogue and interface to become better stewards of truth and justice.

Giving voice

Of the three conditions proposed by the CCPC as preconditions for the media identification of an erring religious official, it is the second on the press' determination of probable cause that stirs debate.

During the Dec. 5 CCPC meeting, Cebu Daily News' Connie Fernandez and GMA's Bobby Nalzaro explained that the press investigates complaints of abuse when the victims don't have the resources to file a case in court or the religious organization chooses not to comment on the issue.

Citing the Nov. 13-14 case involving 19 Abellana National School students allegedly harassed by a priest, Nalzaro asserted that the church's "code of silence" trammels on the victims' rights, as well as those of the rest of the clergy on whom the public will impute guilt by association or due to the non-identification of the erring member.

The stance of these veteran journalists defends two guiding principles of media in covering religious officials like other public figures. To "seek truth and report it as fully as possible" enshrines media's responsibility to "give voice to the voiceless" and "hold the powerful accountable." (


But as Bob Steele, senior editor of The Poynter Institute, observes: "Good ethical decisions require individual responsibility enriched by collaborative efforts."

The stewardship role of a free press in an open society is not compromised but even enhanced when journalists take precautions to minimize harm. Publishing unverified claims harms the good name of a priest who, because of his spiritual and communal responsibilities, is even more vulnerable to public opinion. This was observed by Fr. Fidel Orendain of Don Bosco.

Dr. Pureza Oņate, CCPC president, noted that, contrary to misconceptions of inaction and cover-up, the church implements a process of probing, counseling and assisting erring priests. She explained that the church's timetable is different though from newsroom deadlines.

Recognizing the differences in structures and processes, both Orendain and Fr. Marnell Mejia of the Lungsoranon and Christ the King Parish suggest a continuing dialogue for media and religious institutions.

This is in keeping with the CCPC's guidelines recommending religious literacy for media workers and even mass communication students, as well as for a corresponding communication literacy that will have religious institutions set in place "clear procedures in giving information to media."

Certainly, the importance of truth-telling for social justice cannot be compromised.

But as the CCPC and community stakeholders have shown last Dec. 5, there are many alternative but ethical paths to arrive at the truth.


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