When I wrote “Due Process for Accused Priests” for the Catholic League last summer, I pointed out the enormous challenge to due process faced by priests when sexual abuse accusations are decades old – which is just about all of them. Since then, it seems, the calls to abandon all due process for any priest accused have become louder and more numerous. The calls for an emotional mob response abandoning all reason and justice are not at all unlike the chant we heard during Holy Week: “We want Barabbas!”
The news media coverage of it all reached its highest frenzy as the Church celebrated Easter. The New York Times and The Boston Globe led the media charge, and the timing was no coincidence. The Globe’s Easter Sunday edition had the Archbishop of Canterbury denouncing the Church of Ireland’s handling of sexual abuse claims.
As I wrote last week, sex sells, and sex scandals sell best of all. We’ve all read that newspapers are desperate for readers and struggling for survival. About the last thing our culture needs right now is a news media that’s self-serving and desperate.
But there are some stand-out exceptions, and Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn is one of them. He brought justice and truth to the fray two days after Easter in a column entitled “The Pope and the New York Times” (April 6). If you haven’t read it, I hope you will. It’s rare that people in the news media openly criticize the work of other people in the news media. Mr. McGurn took New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein to task, and rightly so. The result was the truth, and you’ll know it when you see it.
ABUSE OF THE ABUSE SCANDAL
William McGurn is one of very few American journalists to actually name the elephant in the sacristy that reporters pretend not to see in the clergy sexual abuse claims. Most of the rhetoric calls for retroactive and draconian measures against priests accused, and open contempt for bishops for not acting in 1960 as they would in 2010. Most of the rhetoric also comes from people who have a stake in plundering your Church’s assets. The news media has a duty to report that fact, but it doesn’t.
William McGurn filled in an essential part of the story that Laurie Goodstein conveniently left out of the New York Times. Jeffrey Anderson, a lawyer quoted at length by Ms. Goodstein isn’t just a lawyer “for five men who have brought four lawsuits” against the Church. He is a lawyer who has become ravenously wealthy suing Catholic institutions for decades. He is a lawyer who once boasted to a newspaper that he is “suing the sh– out of them everywhere.”
The information that Jeffrey Anderson has made a long career of suing the Catholic Church was well known to Goodstein and The New York Times. As far back as 1988, Mr. Anderson spoke of receiving referrals from other lawyers with clients interested in suing Catholic dioceses and religious orders. He appeared on the “Geraldo [Rivera] Show” on November 14, 1988 to speak of his representation of a man who had been in prison and was then suing a priest for sexual abuse. I wrote of this in “Sex Abuse and Signs of Fraud” (Catalyst, Nov. 2005):
“Writer Jason Berry, and contingency lawyers Jeffrey Anderson and Roland Lewis all appeared live on “Geraldo” on November 14, 1988 to announce the existence of secret Church archives, cover-ups by bishops, and out-of-court settlements of Catholic clergy sex abuse claims across the country.”
Essentially, they exposed in 1988 what lawyers and reporters claimed to have exposed in 2002. Some might respond to this by suggesting that Mr. Anderson’s 1988 “Geraldo” appearance should have put the Church on notice that it was vulnerable to lawyers seeing dollar signs. That might have been true with serious – and fair – journalistic treatment of the subject.
By the way, some of the “Geraldo” titles in the weeks just before Jeffrey Anderson’s appearance in 1988 included, “Housewife Hookers,” “Digging Up Dirt on the Dead,” “Teens Who Trade Sex for Dope,” “Gang Rape: Macho Gone Mad,” “Doctors’ Sex Abuse,” and “Chappaquiddick: What Really Happened?”
Since then, Mr. Anderson has reportedly reaped more that $60 million in contingency fees “suing the sh–” (his own words!) out of the Catholic Church, but none of this was reported in the New York Times. William McGurn was the sole media voice to spell this out in the Easter media rush to slander the Pope and your faith.
THE MILLSTONE AROUND OUR CULTURE’S NECK
Before you read another news media opinion about the ills of the Catholic Church and priesthood, I have some hard questions to ask if you grew up in the Catholic Church. Were you ever sexually abused by a priest? While growing up, did you ever hear of one of your friends being sexually abused by a priest? Most people to whom I have asked these questions answer no to them. Yet many of the same people are willing to equate the Catholic priesthood with sexual abuse, and for only one reason: it’s what the news media has told them to do.
It’s the same kind of “availability bias” that I described in “Pop Stars and Priests.” And the media-with-an-agenda bias is not just on the left. There are far too many people manipulating this issue for their own ends on both sides of the culture wars (see “Postcards from the Edges“).
Do you remember my post “In the Land of Nod, East of Eden“? It profiled just a few of the people I keep company with these days. The point there is badly understated. I live daily with the effects of child abuse. This prison is filled with men of all ages whose lives spiraled out of control after childhoods scarred and destroyed by the unspeakable acts of others. Every step of the way, these men have been held accountable for their mistakes and crimes even when justice calls for some context to the lives they led – or were led into.
A few days ago, a 40-year-old man in this prison came to speak with me in the prison library. He spoke of the deeply felt hurt and resentment he had when he overheard a television sitcom joke. “Don’t touch me; you’re not my priest!” The prisoner told me – with rage in his voice – of the relentless abuse he suffered growing up in a state residential school. What he described was emotionally and physically brutal, and yet there isn’t a dime to be had in recompense, and none of it mitigates his crime. This is the same prisoner I described in my 2005 Catalyst article. “Sex Abuse and Signs of Fraud” when he said:
“Let me get this straight. If I say that some priest touched me funny twenty years ago. I’ll be a victim; I’ll be paid for it; and my life will be HIS fault instead of mine! Do you have any idea how tempting this is?”
Have you read “Pornchai’s Story“? Please do before reading another New York Times headline about abuse in your Church. I live in a prison cell with a man who was brutally and routinely raped and physically battered when he was taken from his home and country at the age of eleven. As a preadolescent unable to even speak our language, he was driven into homelessness, hopelessness and despair on our streets. My friend summarized this when he first described it in “Pornchai’s Story.” “Welcome to America!” he wrote. It spoke volumes of the contradiction between what was promised to him and what was visited upon him in this country.
Pornchai is not the only one who lives with the wreckage of his stolen childhood and shattered life. I live with it too. I share a nine by twelve foot cell with him, and when he awakens violently in the night with panic attacks, I awaken as well. When his anxiety feels overwhelming, I feel it as well. Yet our society has held him personally accountable for every mistake he has ever made.
When Pornchai’s life fell apart, when he lost all control and killed a man who pinned him to the ground, no one – not a single soul – considered what he had endured as a child. No one cut him any slack whatsoever.
How do you think Pornchai Moontri feels when he reads that some unnamed man just remembered being touched by a priest thirty years ago and walks away with $200,000 for his “trauma”?
How do you think Pornchai feels when the Church in which he has found hope, and healing, and redemption is held up to open contempt and ridicule by reporters and pundits who don’t have a clue about what it means to be victimized by trauma?
On the very day of his Baptism as a Catholic, Pornchai read a story in the Easter Sunday edition of the Boston Globe about a Massachusetts priest removed from ministry by a claim of “fondling” alleged to have happened in 1971, and brought by a man who stands to gain a financial windfall for making the claim. His contingency lawyers and their enablers in the media are counting on you to have no frame of reference to put any of the claims of priestly abuse into context.
I do have a frame of reference, and I can tell you that the distortion being created by lawyers and the news media is deeply unjust – not only to Catholics and their priests, but to millions of adult victims of abuse whose suffering has been trivialized and cheapened by the distortion that only victims of Catholic priests are worth hearing and compensating.
I had a long conversation with Pornchai Moontri today. He’s angry at a lawyer who is suing the Vatican because the Pope didn’t throw out a priest accused between 1950 and 1970, and the news media has become this lawyer’s pawn. Pornchai wanted me to write about this, but I told him I was concerned that what happened to him should not be used to bring “perspective” to “our Catholic woes.”
Pornchai has been a Catholic for less than two weeks, and he just reminded me that these are his woes too. “It’s the truth,” he said today, “so write it! It’s time people heard the truth.” No one has a greater stake in the concept of healing from abuse.
This prison is filled with young men who have been robbed of their childhoods by physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. One friend to Pornchai and me is a physically powerful young man in prison for uncontrollable violence. For months every time I walked past him, he would spontaneously cover his face with his hands until I passed.
What do you suppose caused such an automatic response? So many people are afraid of this young man because he lashes out before anyone has a chance to lash out at him. How do you think this came about? He wasn’t born into violence. It was visited upon him by others and none of it was of his making. It was imposed on him as a child, and it shaped his life. Yet no one has even noticed this but me and Pornchai.
A few weeks ago, we sat down together and asked this man about his childhood. For the first time in his life, he told of the relentless beatings he endured from the only father he ever knew – a father who went to prison never to be seen again. This young man’s grief is very typical here.
Many prisoners lived their childhoods in a nightmare of abuse, but every step of the way they are held solely accountable for their own mistakes. No one was even remotely interested in hearing of what they went through as children. My friend still covers his face whenever I suddenly approach him. He declares himself to be a Moslem because it’s a faith that, he thinks, lets him live out his intense anger in a way that keeps others away and protects him.
As I described in “Fifty-seven Times Around the Sun,” Pornchai has helped many prisoners to come to terms with the wreckage of their stolen childhoods and ruined lives. He acquired this skill in the crucible of tormenting pain and suffering – suffering for which he has never acquired a dime and which society has not even acknowledged ever happened.
How do you think these men feel when night after night the evening news parades out lawyers claiming they are champions for the cause of victims by extracting “justice” from the Catholic Church for their clients? There is no justice in any of this. Most certainly, the lawyers and the news media have not brought anything like justice. It’s just one big profitable pretense, and Pornchai and our friend, at least, do not buy any of it. “What a scam,” Pornchai said today when he read the story of a lawsuit against the Pope.
“What a hateful, pitiful, destructive scam!”
PEGGY NOONAN ON THE PRESS AND THE POPE
I like Peggy Noonan, and always read her Saturday column in the Weekend Edition of The Wall Street Journal. She’s a gifted writer. Her commentary, “The Catholic Church’s Catastrophe” published on Holy Saturday was a tribute to her talent as a writer and observer of our culture.
On one point, however, I could not disagree with her more. Peggy Noonan absolved the news media of any dark motives in its continuing coverage of the Catholic Church’s woes. “The press,” she wrote, “has been the best friend of the Catholic Church on the scandals because it exposed the story and made the Church face it.” She stated that the media declined to pursue the story for a long time out of a possible fear of “a boycott from a few million Catholics.”
The truth seems just the opposite, and I wonder if Ms. Noonan truly believes what she wrote. In its arrogance, the news media seems to think Catholics will walk away from their Church, and not the newspapers, because of the relentless coverage singling the Church out as unique for its child abuse crisis. The news media had an opportunity to greatly impact the reality of child abuse in our culture, but it passed on that opportunity in favor of an illusion that this has been a specifically Catholic problem.
The news media issued an invitation to its open season on Catholic priests.
Peggy Noonan commended The Boston Globe for “winning a justly deserved Pulitzer for public service” for keeping the Catholic sexual abuse scandal in public view since 2002. She asserted that the news media has done a public service to both the Church and the world for its coverage of the scandal. This could have been true, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t because the Globe and the rest of the media put no context on the scandal.
They simply created an impression that Catholic young people are especially vulnerable to the predations of priests, and they left it there. Their service was not to the masses of victims of one of our society’s greatest social ills. The Globe overlooked the real wreckage left by child abuse in our culture.
The Globe served only the interests of contingency lawyers on a feeding frenzy.
From Pornchai’s point of view, only accusers of Catholic priests are seen as victims entitled to recompense. The irony for him is that he has found safety and hope in only one place – the Catholic Church – while recovering from the debilitating serial abuse he suffered. He’s not alone in that. I hear it on a daily basis from prisoners whose suffering has only increased under the distortion created by the news media and contingency bar. Strange bedfellows, that.
George Weigel, writing in First Things (March 29, 2010) cited a staggering statistic: “In the United States alone,” he wrote, “there are reportedly some 39 million victims of childhood sexual abuse.” According to the best available reports, there have been 11,000 claims of abuse by Catholic priests over a sixty year period. In other words, for every claimed victim of sexual abuse by a priest, there are 3,500 victims of childhood sexual abuse whose suffering remains unacknowledged and unaddressed because their abusers were not Catholic priests.
The Boston Globe and the New York Times had a chance to perform a monumental public service on behalf of the abused everywhere, but they let it pass. They left the impression that only victims of priests matter, and that only Catholic compensation brings justice. They left the reality of child abuse in our culture grossly distorted. They brought ample heat to the issues, but no light. None whatsoever.
The news media’s failure to pursue an open exploration of the extent of child abuse in our culture tells me that eradicating sexual abuse was never its goal. Its sole target was, and is, the Catholic Church. This has nothing to do with protecting children.