Separation of Church and Penn State: A Media Double Standard

Many in the news media compared the Penn State scandal to the scandal in the Catholic Church, but the biggest difference has been the news media itself.

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.” (Mark Twain)

In my post, “SNAP’s Last Gasp!” in October, I wrote briefly of a ridiculous and short-lived protest by SNAP leaders who voiced opposition to the appointment of Bishop Peter Libasci to the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire – my diocese. SNAP leaders ridiculed the appointment first because they find it necessary to ridicule any development in the Catholic Church, and second because as Auxiliary Bishop of Rockville Center, New York, Bishop Libasci served under a bishop who had once been an Auxiliary Bishop of Boston under Cardinal Bernard Law.

The thin thread of guilt by association was a stretch, even for the vigilantes of SNAP who exhibit a shameless desperation to grab any news headline, true or false. I don’t blame them for the misinformation. Misinformation seems to be SNAP’s raison d’être. I blame a news media ever ready to give them the last word in any article on this topic, but never ready to fact-check the SNAP judgements.

Reporting on the installation of my new Bishop early last month, a New Hampshire Union Leader reporter distorted the story even further. He wrote that the appointment of Bishop Libasci was opposed by some “victim-advocates” (aka, SNAP) because he served under Cardinal Bernard Law during the sex abuse scandal in Boston. Bishop Libasci has never served in Boston. He has never served with or under Cardinal Law. He has never served as a priest or bishop anywhere in New England.

Mark Twain was right. Much of the mainstream news media seems to limit our choices to being either uninformed or misinformed. When such distortions are obvious in a story in which I just happen to know the facts, I’m left to wonder what other facts have been distorted.

Gordon-MacRae-Falsely-Accused-Priest-Media-Lies

These distortions are not limited to newspapers. As described in my post, “Gloom and Doom in America’s Newsroom” last February, a CNN commentator said that “100,000 victims of sex abuse by priests” gathered in protest at the Vatican. The true number, as TSW reader, Dorothy Stein, pointed out and documented, was thirty, and they were outnumbered by reporters two to one. “Though one can see how easy it is to confuse such numbers,” Dorothy Stein chided in the e-mail she fired off to CNN.

But these sins of commission are as nothing compared to the news media’s glaring omissions. In another post, “Catholic Scandal and the News Media,” last year, I wrote of how the news media let pass an opportunity to serve society by exposing the true context and scope of sexual abuse in our culture. Instead, the media opted for a spotlight on the Catholic Church instead of a floodlight that could have exposed a societal plague.

I mentioned the Penn State Scandal in passing in my recent post, “A Book Every Priest Should Read,” in which I reviewed David Pierre’s new book, Catholic Priests Falsely Accused. Here’s what I wrote:

“I’ve been following the news media’s newest sound bite, “Scandal at Penn State.” Now come the contingency lawyers, and some of you may have noted some familiar names among them. Jeff Anderson – the same lawyer who became a multi-millionaire when he vowed to ‘sue the sh–_ out of the Catholic Church everywhere’ (his very own words) – is leading the media charge to restate the Penn State scandal in its inevitable monetary terms . . . But I welcome the media pursuit of the truth. Despite all the efforts by SNAP leaders to drag the Catholic Church into the Penn State story . . . the effort is failing under the sheer weight of sexual abuse in the American education system. If this lid is peeled back fully, what just might be exposed is the extent to which the Catholic Church and priesthood have been wrongfully vilified and scapegoated.”

In a comment on that post, and an e-mail message to follow, I was privileged to hear from Ted, a new reader of These Stone Walls. Ted first learned of TSW in December when www.SpiritDaily.com posted a link to “A Book Every Priest Should Read.” Ted described to me that he was a victim of sexual abuse by a priest, but decided to sever ties with SNAP and reconcile with the Church. Ted explained that he parted ways with SNAP because its stress on vindictiveness no longer represents his interests or spiritual needs.

Ted wrote that he has been distressed by some of the suppression of due process and civil liberties for priests as I have described at These Stone Walls, and he reaffirmed something I have long believed and have stated many times in these pages. The people who are most offended by the proliferation of false and financially driven claims are the real victims of sexual abuse.

media-frenzy

This is why SNAP is now such a suspect organization. As became clear in “SNAP’s Last Gasp! The Pope’s ‘Crimes Against Humanity‘,” SNAP’s public face and agenda flatly denies the very existence of false claims. For Ted, SNAP’s original purpose has been sacrificed for the continuance of an agenda that has nothing to do with advocating for victims or protecting children and young people. The agenda is simply to attack the Church. Ted made the very same point that I made above about the news media letting pass an opportunity to truly expose and effect sexual abuse:

I hope the pendulum swings back to some degree. I never agreed with zero tolerance. There has to be some respect for priests as basic citizens presumed to be innocent . . . The lack of balance in regards to the Globe and NY Times coverage indicates that they have clearly missed a chance to address societal child abuse. This belies a more sinister agenda by people who want to destroy the Church. Since the level of sexual sin in our society is so great, it makes people  somehow feel good to persecute the Catholic Church for its abuse problem as a way to feel absolved of their own sin in some way.”

I’m indebted to Ted for his honest, soul-searching assessment of the way the news media has singled out his Church and his faith – and even his victimization – for an agenda that has robbed a societal problem of all context. Ted has echoed a sentiment voiced by a growing number of sexual abuse survivors who now read These Stone Walls.

For an example of just what Ted was describing, consider this quote from   NBC Nightly News Correspondent Anne Thompson as she evaluated the Penn  State scandal by equating it with accusations against Catholic priests:

“Critics say these are institutions of power, secrecy, mythology, dominated by men who circled the wagons in a crisis.” (NBC News, November 9, 2011).

“Critics” say a lot of things, but when the news media attributes a point of view to unnamed “critics,” it’s often a clue that the news you are about to hear or read is just editorial spin only barely masked as news. You could use the identical quote by NBC’s Anne Thompson to describe the news media itself, and Anne Thompson might even agree.

Some of the media coverage of the Penn State scandal’s fallout has been alarming. But what is especially alarming is what the news media is NOT covering. I recently came across an example in this paragraph from one media venue:

“Anyone who spends a few minutes online can find a high school or   middle school coach in their state who has been charged with some    form of sexual abuse. One blog that tracked such arrests from May 2007 to May 2011 tallied 625 coaches who had been charged with everything from propositioning a student for sex to child molestation to statutory rape . . . And these were only the cases in which victims came forward   and charges were filed.”

Without doubt, as that paragraph describes, there has been a cover-up. But this time, the cover-up has been orchestrated by the news media itself. I didn’t read the above paragraph in The New York Times, or The Boston Globe, or the Kansas City Star – all media venues that have vilified and scapegoated the Catholic Church while those 625 coaches were arrested just outside the field of view of the mainstream media’s spotlights. The paragraph I quoted above is from an article entitled “Not My Coach, Not My Town, Not Anymore” by Wayne Drehs in the December 26, 2011 issue of the sports journal, ESPN Magazine. The “blog that tracked such arrests” cited in the article is www.BadBadTeacher.com, described as “a site created to bring awareness of inappropriate actions by teachers.” The site tracked the arrests of those 625 coaches – and a much larger number of teachers – over the last four years.

During that same four-year period (2007-2011) the mainstream news media bludgeoned the Catholic Church with accusations harvested from another site, Bishop-Accountability, that takes no responsibility for the accuracy of its content. It reports and publishes all accusations against priests, the vast majority of which were claimed to have occurred thirty to fifty years ago, and for which no direct evidence could possibly exist.

Biased-Media

There are some obvious questions raised by the ESPN article. How do you think The New York Times or The Boston Globe would have handled the story if 625 U.S. Catholic priests were arrested and charged with sexual abuse over  the last four years? The truth is that not even a tiny fraction of that number of Catholic priests were charged with sexual abuse between 2007 and 2011. So how is it that the mainstream national news media has entirely missed the story of 625 coaches being criminally charged in the United States with sexual abuse over just the last four years? Also, I had never before heard or read of www.BadBadTeacher.com despite the fact that it is at the news media’s fingertips just as is the Bishop-Accountability site that the media has been pointing readers to for a decade.

In 1994 – the same year I was brought to trial and sent to prison, Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft published a study for the U.S. Department of Education that reported on 225 cases of sexual abuse by teachers in New York alone that year. All of the accused had admitted to sexual abuse of students, but none of them had been reported to authorities by school administrators. This revelation was documented well by David F. Pierre in his earlier book, Double Standard: Abuse Scandals and the Attack on the Catholic Church.

Writing for USA Today last year, Penn State professor Philip Jenkins published, “How serious is the predator priest problem?” (The Forum, June 7, 2010). Professor Jenkins cited another study, this time in 2004, by Charol Shakeshaft entitled “Educator Sexual Misconduct”:

“Among other findings, we read that about 10 percent of secular school pupils in grades eight to eleven report having been at the receiving end … of sexual misconduct. That does not mean that 10 percent of teachers misbehave, rather that a tiny number offend frequently, and egregiously: very much the same situation, in fact, as among Catholic priests.”

This is no doubt true, but where are the demands to publish the accused teachers’ names? Where is The New York Times and The Boston Globe and the Kansas City Star to report on this story? Where are their “Spotlight” Teams to ferret it out and to chase down a Pulitzer uncovering it all? Why has no one reported that while all those accused teachers were being shuffled around, Catholic priests were subjected to zero tolerance because of uncorroborated decades-old claims?

Last month, the Lodi (California) News-Sentinel reported that a 64-year-old man has accused a Catholic priest there of raping him when he was 13 years old in 1960 or so (Ross Farrow, “Controversial group SNAP targets local priest,” December 17). The newspaper quoted a local social worker, Anna Winn, as saying that “it’s possible” for sexual abuse victims to recall childhood molestation years later. “It can be triggered by a smell, or a song – something that familiarizes you with it,” she reportedly offered. It can also be triggered by contacting SNAP and “learning the number of zeros on the check you can expect,” as the ever vigilant Dorothy Stein commented on the article.

In commenting on the accuser’s fifty-one year old repressed, but lucrative, memory, social worker Anna Winn opted to disregard decades of professional studies discounting the validity and reliability of repressed and recovered memories. A visit to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation website will tell you of the great danger posed to justice when junk science becomes evidence. For a chilling example of such a “trial by therapist,” see Ryan MacDonald’s “How Psychotherapists Helped Send an Innocent Priest to Prison.”

Only Catholic priests, and no one else, need worry about accusations that are decades old, and a news media that shuns today’s stories of rampant abuse for those of the past. The orchestrated effect is to cast a single venerable religious institution in the harsh glare of a spotlight while leaving the rest of the truth in darkness. Every witch hunt in history has been propelled in just this way.

Tu es Petrus

 

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE

Comments

  1. Kaneda says:

    “This is no doubt true, but where are the demands to publish the accused teachers’ names?”

    Mary got it right earlier with the idea that money is to be made. I’d say it is also due to the idea that moral authority is derived from how well one adheres to an espoused moral code. We can thank moral relativism for that.

  2. Mary Jean Scudieri says:

    Hi Father Gordon!
    The media has become the checkout magazines at the supermarket.It is amazing how many people believe that trash.
    Enter the media whose concern is ratings and sensationalism.
    In order to top everyone else their story has to be amazing, truth be damned! The hierarchy has fed into this by rewarding those who come forward whether wrong or right.The crooked lawyers have found a new ambulance to chase.
    The hierarchy has not accorded this same “justice” to their own priests.Guilty even if proven innocent because somebody said so once upon a time.
    One of the big differences with the school abuses is that
    they are not rewarding anyone for coming forward…there is no big money to be made there. But everyone knows that the Church is rich and will do anything to stop the bleeding……except use that money to get to the truth.
    This is certainly not what Jesus had in mind for us.
    Prayers and spreading this column are what is needed.
    My Catholic paper won’t even address the issue.
    I will keep writing and sharing to help stop the abuse of our good priests.You suffer with Christ dear Father!
    God bless you! Your friend Jeannie

  3. jamil malik says:

    The facts put forward in this article are undeniable. There is a blatant double standard in the news media, and there is no point refuting that it exists. The problem in my opinion is that too many Americans are comfortable with being told what to think. If Muslim clerics were treated like Catholic priests in your news media, there would be hell to pay. At best, Muslims en masse would boycott the news media and their advertisers. Catholics seem to be okay with not letting their private beliefs influence their public behavior. That’s sad. If Catholics put their own faith into action as Muslims do, and felt that same solidarity, this news media double standard could not continue.

  4. jacquie Miles says:

    As I always do, I sent this on to many people & priests. It is so very important for people to read & understand what is really going on. Who is behind this vicious attack? All through history one finds the Church being attacked. Why? Who has the truth & who wants us not to know? I think it is the father of evil. (I refuse to capitalize the words.)

  5. Barbara Edsall says:

    Good morning, dear Father, I hope this finds you well and with all your confidence toward God. There is simply nowhere else to place one’s confidence!

    We have a “new” situation right here in our Diocese of Fresno, California. Seems a court found that two brothers were actually molested by a priest (who admitted it) for many years, but they couldn’t get into the Church’s deep pockets for want of proving the Church knew about it. Along has come “new evidence”–framed within the statute of limitations, of course–in the form of 30-40 year old “recovered memories”of some third party who has “come forward.” There will be a new trial. The coverage on the CBS-affiliate Bakersfield news TV station was just awful–a montage of the beautiful images in our Churches of Our Lord, His Mother, His Cross, etc., being narrated with this “news story.” There was an extensive quote from, who else, Jeffrey Anderson, who may be this plaintiff’s attorney. I wonder what our esteemed local newspaper editor will do with this since she never misses an opportunity to Catholic-and/or Christian-bash. Please include our little town in your prayers. It seems there are times that the only thing to do with persecution is stand and face it. Meanwhile, children in public schools and secular clubs are unprotected.

    We have just had a new Bishop appointed after that position was vacant for a year. Our late Bishop was criticized for not laicizing the admittedly guilty priest. His response was that he removed the priest from any contact with children and would NOT take away his priesthood. May he rest in peace with the light of God eternally shining upon him.

    What makes 30-40 year old “recovered memories” evidence??? Time was, the rules of evidence were much stricter than this.

    Still rejoicing in hope,

    Barbara

  6. Michael S. says:

    Fr. Gordon………I was reared in a family that worked for the Times Picayune newspaper in New Orleans, La. for well over fifty years…….I was taught NEVER believe what you read or hear in the media……..’nough said !!!!!!!!!!

    Michael S.

  7. Michael says:

    Thanks, Father, for your careful analysis. Your account of the distorted reporting by the New Hampshire Union Leader on the installation of Bishop Libasci reminded me of a talk I attended while at university in the early 90′s. The guest speaker was an alumnus of the University of Ottawa, Allan Rock, who at the time was Canada’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General. He spoke for about 90 minutes: 10 – 15 mins on his memories of campus life, about 40 minutes on gay rights, and about 40 mins on another topic (gun control, if I recall correctly). A few days later I was perusing The Ottawa Citizen when I read a story about a talk given by the Minister of Justice. After quickly reading it over I had the vague feeling that I had read it before. That was when the light went on – it was the talk I had attended earlier in the week. I even checked the date and location of the talk in the news story to be sure that I wasn’t mistaken. Omitted from the story was any mention of Rock’s recollections of student life (which were rather amusing as he had hosted a visit by John Lennon) and his comments on gun control. The story was about gay rights and included several filler paragraphs on the various court victories advancing gay rights in recent years. The reader was left with the impression that the Minister of Justice had gone to the university to talk about gay rights to the exclusion of anything else and in a more comprehensive fashion than was in fact the case. What The Citizen had reported was barely recognizable as the event I had attended.

    Taking that a step further, what I find even more disconcerting than the distortions published by newspapers in favour of the agenda of the day is the reluctance on the part of many otherwise sensible people to react sensibly to a careful analysis of the errors and omissions of professional journalists. A sensible person, Catholic or not, ought to be disgusted by the level of reporting about the installation of Bishop Libasci. But, I find that the reaction of many people is to tune out any comment about media distortions, especially of the anti-Catholic variety. A thoughtful consideration of what was written vs. what in fact occurred is regarded by not a few people as simply over analyzing the problem, as if somehow omitting a few facts, or making a couple of errors is no big deal. And if you go a step further and ask how it is that professional journalists and editors allow this stuff to pass, you’re viewed as something of a conspiracy theorist for even posing the question.

  8. Keith says:

    Fr. G.,
    I find it interesting how often your articles are so closly related to real-time situations. In October an accused priest’s lawyers in Missouri — following accepted legal proceedure — petitioned discovery of documents from SNAP for their client. Denied these documents, the lawyers petitioned the court to intervene. For the first time a very couragous judge ordered that the documents be handed over. SNAP refused through their lawyers petitioning to have request quashed. The matter was turned over to the State Supreme Court which on January 5th affirmed the order of the judge by refusing to hear SNAP’s case. During that period of time, ONLY two newspapers, the local one and the National Catholic Reporter. In this whole event, SNAP refuses to have the transperancy it demands of the Church. It was only with the final decision of the Supreme Court that the Washington Post mentioned it in an article in the Religion section — not easily found in the online edition!
    Oremus.

  9. M says:

    Thank you for once again writing with the calm voice of reason father G
    We are living in times where like Pontius Pilate many ask what is Truth but do not really want the Truth if it upsets their misconceptions and threatens to expose their own lack of common sense and poor capacity to reason
    Misinformation rather than Truth is constantly being disseminated.
    Thank heavens there are still some sane clear voices amidst the confusion
    God Bless
    M

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