Pope Francis said a priest is like an airplane. He only makes news if he crashes. When the media is our judge, justice is different for Dr Huxtable and Fr Huxtable.
At the close of December, 2010, These Stone Walls published a post about my New Year’s resolution that resounded with lots of readers. Its title was, “Psst! Spread This Around: My New Year’s Resolution About Gossip.” It told a true story about how an innocent walk down Main Street in Keene, New Hampshire in 1983 became a lurid snippet of gossip that spread through town like a wildfire.
USA Today (December 23) had an unfortunate and embarrassing headline: “Pope Francis: Merry Christmas you power-hungry hypocrites.” The rebuke was front and center in what the news media presented as a blistering calling down of the Roman Curia two days before Christmas. The account was written by Josephine McKenna of Religion News Service, and, to my shock, so was that headline. At Father John Zuhlsdorf’s Fr. Z’s Blog, his December 22 post title was only Slightly less alarming, “Pope Francis greets Curia for Christmas, and rips them to shreds.”
On December 28, 2014, five days after the now famous rebuke, the TV news magazine, 60-Minutes, featured a segment about the life and leadership of Pope Francis. For television, it seemed a fair analysis presented with respect. One of the Vatican watchers interviewed alluded to a consensus in Rome that Francis does not pander to the media, but rather speaks directly to his audience, and personally dislikes the media attention that seems to follow his every word.
As I have written in previous posts, most notably in “Pope Francis and the Scandal of Listening,” I am among the many who have been assured and enlightened about Pope Francis through a free newsletter published by Robert Moynihan, editor of Inside the Vatican magazine. If you are among the many who wonder what to make of Pope Francis, you may subscribe (it’s free!) to the Moynihan Report at moynihanreport (at) gmail.com.
A CRACK IN THE MIRROR OF JUSTICE
Among the ailments Francis openly addressed was one he called “the terrorism of gossip” in the administration of Vatican affairs. He described it as “the sickness of cowardly people who, not having the courage to speak directly, talk behind people’s backs.” Pope Francis added a good deal about the downward spiral of scandal and was quoted in one news account:
“I once read that priests are like airplanes. They only make news when they crash, but there are many that fly.”
The problem is that not all those who crash and find themselves in the news are guilty of causing the crash. If Church officials judge the case of an accused priest by the news media version, or by information presented from a diocese without the priest’s right of defense intact – in many cases without even the priest’s knowledge of what he is accused of – this seems another example of succumbing to the terror of gossip. Having lived this, I can attest to one truth: what the Holy Father called “terror” is exactly that!
Just after Christmas a few years ago, I received a letter from a well known and highly published priest and canon lawyer on the faculty of an American Catholic university. I’ll not use his name because I haven’t been able to contact him for permission to do so, but I still have his letter. It was dated, “The Twelfth Day of Christmas,” and I quote from it directly:
“Don’t ever discount the real spiritual good that you accomplish with your writings. You make people like me, with consciences dulled by the repetitious prevalence of procedural abuse, face our responsibilities to protest and to act. You make it personal and compelling.
It seems that ‘penal dismissals from the clerical state’ are becoming a routine solution to the cases being sent to Rome from American dioceses after only preliminary investigation. The procedural injustice in this practice is obvious. In the preliminary investigation which takes place at the diocesan level, the accused priest has little or no opportunity to defend himself, to present his side of the story, or to even be aware of the specific accusations against him.
The cases are then sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which seems to be taking this terminal and drastic action based solely on the information provided by a diocese.”
In news of another “Pope,” I have long been a fan of Msgr Charles Pope’s blog. A TSW reader in Alabama often prints and sends me some of the more interesting inclusions. Msgr Pope also hosts the “Pastoral Answers” column in Our Sunday Visitor. In the December 14, 2014 issue of OSV, reader Cathy Andrzejewski raised a question that haunts justice for accused priests!
“How is the ‘Dallas Charter’ not against canon law which affirms the right to a good reputation? The charter seems to presume guilt.”
I applaud OSV for printing the question, and Msgr Charles Pope for his thorough, fair, and well researched response. He pointed out that the Dallas Charter is a resolution adopted by the U.S. Bishops in 2002 that suspends from ministry – both immediately and forever – all priests credibly accused. Msgr Pope pointed out that the charter is more of “an agreed upon framework and policy statement” of the bishops than it is a legal document. As such, he explained, it leaves in its wake a number of “unresolved canonical and civil issues”:
“A lot depends on a local bishop and his advisers. Many diocesan panels that review accusations are quick to presume they are credible and recommend removal… Due process and the presumption of innocence [are] alleged to be violated frequently.”
SHOULD THE NEWS MEDIA DRIVE JUSTICE?
In last week’s TSW post, “A Rolling Stone Gathers No Facts, Just Dirt,” I quoted a media commentator on the Rolling Stone story: In the end, “we all believe what we want to believe.” That is true, as far as it goes, but there’s more to it. The media shapes the news, and our perceptions of it, simply by what it presents, what it repeats, and what it withholds from public view.
In the end, what we tend to believe is what we have seen repeated in the news. In a 2009 article for the Catholic League Journal, Catalyst, entitled “Due Process for Accused Priests,” I mentioned the phenomenon of “availability bias,” the tendency to accept a premise as true merely because of how easily it comes to mind because the media has placed it front and center.
One example was a widely sold premise that statutes of limitations – the legal time limits for bringing lawsuits and other demands for financial settlement when Catholic priests are accused – should be extended because victims of sexual abuse are often not able to come forward for many years or decades. Among the challenges to that faulty premise is the fact that the prison system I live in houses almost 3,000 prisoners. An estimated 40% – about 1,200 – are candidates for the prison’s sexual offender program. It’s an extreme rarity that a prisoner here faced charges alleged to have occurred decades ago.
The nearly unique exceptions have been when the accused are Catholic priests, and only since it became clear in 2002 that the Catholic Church settles for “big bucks” without many questions asked. This point was demonstrated by Boston civil rights attorney Harvey Silverglate in his article, “Fleecing the Shepherds.”
I have mentioned USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham in two prior posts on These Stone Walls. As dean of Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication, Mr. Wickham has an instinct for what makes news newsworthy, and how to capitalize on “availability bias.”
In a recent column in USA Today, DeWayne Wickham applied a justice standard to claims against actor/comedian Bill Cosby that he denied to accused Catholic priests. In “Investigate before feeding Cosby to the mob,” Mr. Wickham called for media restraint, stating that the news media “is more interested in repeating the charges than reporting on them.” Wickham decried the Cosby media lynching stating that accusations alone are not enough; “we need evidence beyond a reasonable doubt before stringing him up.” Wickham added:
“But if Bill Cosby is to be forever branded a serial sex abuser, it should be based on evidence that he was guilty in specific cases – not by the sheer volume of accusations that fuel the lynch mob.”
Two years ago, however, all of those unjust standards of evidence and media hype were okay for DeWayne Wickham when the accused were Catholic priests. In “Penn State Case is Bad but Church Sex Abuse Worse” (July 30, 2012), Mr. Wickham denied to accused priests the very journalistic standards of restraint and fairness he called for in the Bill Cosby case. The conclusion is clear: Dr. Huxtable is not Fr. Huxtable, so his civil liberties remain intact.
The terror of gossip is no measure of justice, nor is trial by media. They defeat justice and downright clobber mercy. Under this Pope, concerned for the peripheries, the Church as a Mirror of Justice could reflect something thus far unseen in the experience of priests falsely accused. It could reflect justice carried out in the light of day.
Editor’s Note: In 2015, we’ll need to replace our aging publishing equipment. In your kindness, please take a moment to read the details and share the link on your social media accounts. Thank you for such a strong kickoff!