Last week two long-anticipated studies were released on the sexual abuse scandal that has plagued the Catholic Church, and it is hard to believe that the reporters from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Washington Times received the same information, because they certainly didn’t get the same story.
After twenty months of research, the facts are clear, and the Washington Times was straightforward about it: “Eighty-one percent of sex crimes committed against children by Roman Catholic priests during the past 52 years were homosexual men preying on boys.” That’s in a study that looked at 10,677 cases of abuse from 1950-2002, in what is perhaps one of the most thoroughly researched sexual abuse projects in history.
Washington lawyer Bob Bennett, who reviewed the report for the press blamed seminary officials and bishops for not flagging at-risk homosexual seminarians. He acknowledged that there are “many outstanding priests of a homosexual orientation who live chaste, celibate lives, but … more than 80 percent of the abuse at issue was of a homosexual nature.” In other words, we are not sharing this information because we are homophobic. These, however, are the facts.
The reporter for the Los Angeles Times must have been distracted by something out the window as he was writing, (I can’t think what else could have happened) because he forgot to mention the homosexual connection in his article. Not one word. Not a breath. Not a hint. He got all the numbers right 4,392 priests – 4% of all clerics.
Who Else Does a Cover-up?
He remembered to take a dig at the conspiracy of secrecy from the church that surrounded this ugly problem for decades. In fact that was the gist of the article. He quoted Father Thomas J. Reese, editor of the weekly Catholic magazine in America, “It sends a message that the days of secrecy and cover-up are over.”
That’s a good thing. Yet, what is hypocritical is that the Los Angeles Times article manifested its own galling brand of cover-up. The reporter engaged in his own conspiracy of secrecy. It’s called let’s not mention the homosexual connection. It’s a sort of let’s pretend that the Catholic Church somehow causes sexual abuse and leaves out that possibility-which happened a mere 81% of the time-that there was a homosexual connection.
The L.A. Times reporters were in good company. The New York Times reporter forgot to mention it, too. Maybe she left the press conference for a minute for a drink of water and missed that fact? Perhaps she lost her notebook. It’s hard to say, because she got some important statistics. “More than 63 percent of the victims were abused more than once, and for some the assaults continued for years. Nearly 30 percent of the children were reportedly abused by the same priests for two to four years; 10 percent were abused over at least five and as many as nine years.”
Just this one little concept was skipped. The abusers were primarily homosexual. Oh wait. Perhaps we were to pick that idea up by implication because she did mention that the bishops were peppered with questions. “Should not bad bishops be removed? Should the celibacy requirement for priests be abandoned? Should seminaries bar gay men?”
Of course, the New York Times is used to side-stepping this issue. In March of 2002, Ann Coulter wrote as the Catholic Church scandal was hitting the front pages, “The overwhelmingly homosexual nature of the abuse prompted The New York Times to engage in its classic ‘Where’s Waldo’ reporting style, in which the sex of the victims is studiedly hidden amid a torrent of genderless words, such as the ‘teen-ager,’ the ‘former student,’ the ‘victim’ and the ‘accuser.'”
The Washington Post also played its own game of ‘Where’s Waldo’ on this story. It was just nine paragraphs down in the middle of the paragraph. That’s what an editor calls “burying your lead.” Most readers will simply miss it.
The Filtering of Truth
The Catholic Bishops certainly deserve their share of responsibility for overlooking the festering problem, but religion is always an easy villain for reporters and homosexuality is hands off. This omission isn’t just a case of lousy reporting by the top newspapers of the country-the ones who shape the way the rest of us perceive current events-it is a filtering of the truth, a contortion of the facts, which ultimately harms us all.
In a free society, we rely on an independent press to tell us the story. We make our judgments and form our ideas, from the news. We make our decisions as a citizenry largely based on what we are told. We can’t be there personally at the press conferences; we can’t take time to probe every report that is issued; we don’t always know the context of a story. We rely on the media to be forthright and to shine the light even in dark corners.
The media is powerful, an unparalleled opinion-shaper. It is also easy to be manipulated.
Even reporters who believe they are being objective are colored by their own philosophy. This bias determines what stories are covered and what are ignored, what article leads and what is lost on page eight, what quotes are used and who is quoted, and perhaps most important how a debate on an issue is framed.
The Press Has an Agenda
But let’s get real. It is not just invisible bias that seduces the press to “forget to mention” something as critical as the root of the sexual abuse problem in the Catholic Church. No, the press is being wielded for the sake of an agenda.
William McGowan in his book Coloring the News, How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism, notes that objectivity and integrity in the newsroom have been sacrificed to the great god of diversity. “The cause of diversity has become, he said, a crusade across the length and breadth of the American media.” Since the early 1990’s diversity has become “the new religion, and anybody who wanted to be anybody in the news industry had to rally behind it.
“To increase the racial and ethnic diversity of their staffs,” McGowan said, “almost every major news organization has mounted a ‘pluralism plan’ with aggressive hiring and promotion goals, and created a special ‘diversity steering committee’ to oversee it.” News organizations have been eager to increase the amount of their coverage of minorities and have asked reporters to attend sensitivity sessions so that they might create more sympathetic stories.
How has this translated into discussing homosexual issues in the press? McGowan said, “The commitment to increasing the visibility of gay reporters and editors in the newsroom has certainly not been a hollow one, especially at the larger daily papers such as the New York Times, where three of the paper’s top political reporters, an advertising columnist, theatre critic, film critic, architecture critic and classical music critic are all openly gay, along with the page-one picture editor and the top editor of its Sunday magazine.
“But the notion that the presence of more openly gay reporters in the newsroom has translated into both more and better coverage of gay issues is, I think, without foundation,” he said.
Why not? With their religion of diversity, reporters have become newsroom allies for gay activists. They shy away from any information-however factual–that they think might marginalize homosexuals. They have become squeamish before the truth.
This translates into a gag order before ideas that may be important for the public to know and therefore distorts the picture.
Advocacy Ahead of Facts
McGowan notes that many journalists now will admit that they put “advocacy ahead of the neutral pursuit of facts when covering AIDS during its beginnings.In the process, gay as well as straight reporters sympathetic to the cause screened out (as some of them have admitted retrospectively) those unflattering truths about AIDS and the effort to fight it which might have undercut public support and government funding. Elinor Burkett, author of The Gravest Show on Earth, wrote of her time as an AIDS reporter for the Miami Herald: “The experience reminded me how expendable the truth is when a wider agenda is being pursued.Dozens of stories didn’t make it into the paper or on the air because they might have offended the sensibilities of the pc police.”
“This was particularly true with respect to gay male sexual practices.Scientists studying the disease, as well as activists looking for government money, knew these gay male practices were the primary reasons for the soaring infection rate. Nevertheless, the gay community adopted the position that heterosexuals were just as much at risk as homosexuals, that AIDS was an equal opportunity killer and that “safe sex” would save us all. Journalists went along with this new orthodoxy and made the subject of gay sexual mores taboo.
“Some reporters put their fear of stigmatizing gay men ahead of their journalistic obligation to disclose scientific facts about AIDS and how it spreads. This taboo against candor made it very difficult to write about what was really driving the disease or to pierce public hysteria fed by the ‘everyone is at risk’ line.”
Since the press fuels public opinion, doesn’t it have an obligation to candor? Does it have to be considered homophobic to ask hard questions or report hard facts about the health or risks of a lifestyle-especially when the nation is in the throes of considering whether it is something to be enshrined in marriage?
Look at what this compromise of journalistic integrity creates: a world of half-truths posing as social justice. The Catholic Church has been widely excoriated for its sexual abuse scandal-which seems to have homosexuality at its heart, but the Boy Scouts have been blasted for their stance against allowing homosexual leaders. Scouts have been denigrated and disdained as city councils have attempted to bar them from public land and buildings, United Way chapters have de-funded them, and their public respect has dwindled.
Something doesn’t add up here, but who mentions it? On the issue of homosexuality, the press is disingenuous and dishonest. The reporting of the Catholic Church’s abuse problems underlines that-but it has bigger implications. Will the hard questions be asked as we enter the marriage debate? Or will the press, in the name of sensitivity and intolerance, play a sidestepping game again?
Next on Meridian we will explore how the press is framing the marriage debate and examine the questions reporters refuse to ask.