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I thank Arthur McCaffrey, George Bouchey, Sharon Harrington, and Barbara Dorris for this link
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Is the media too deferential toward the church?
Article by: ARTHUR MCCAFFREY
Updated: October 17, 2014 – 1:07 PM
If anything, there has been too much fear of appearing to be presumptuous with regard to “internal matters.”
If consistency is a virtue, then the Star Tribune Editorial Board should be full of grace: It has now called twice for the resignation of Archbishop John Nienstedt — first last July, then again this week in conjunction with the procedural settlement between abuse victims, their lawyers and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul andMinneapolis. Charles Rogers, an attorney negotiator for the archdiocese, described the landmark accord as a “global settlement,” with both economic and noneconomic portions. Reversing the national trend, the innovative policies and procedures (the noneconomic part) were settled before the wrangling over cash takes place, with the hope that goodwill created by the former would optimize outcomes for victims.
That July editorial (“To heal church, Nienstedt must go”) went out on a limb, with editors worried that some might think it “presumptuous for a secular news organization to advise a church about internal matters.” This time around, the Editorial Board was less apologetic — emboldened, no doubt, by a critique from 12 apostle-professors at the University of St. Thomas who had publicly lambasted Nienstedt last month for his failed leadership (even though they stopped short of demanding his resignation).
These editorials have performed a brave public service, despite the editors’ initial misgivings about possible backlash for meddling in the “internal matters” of a religious institution — even though the “matters” in question could not be more public in both their causes and effects. Namely, church employees committing criminal acts against children, while their managers obstruct justice by covering up the crimes and enabling further terrorization of victims. To be worried about “presumptuousness” in this context is a wee bit like the FBI worrying about intruding on the internal workings of organized crime.
Yet backlash there will be. Like most newspapers taking stances on sports, religion or politics, the Star Tribune will find itself in the position of “damned if you do/damned if you don’t.” It will take its licks from two sources: from church defenders leveling accusations of “Catholic-bashing” and from people like me accusing the media of being too soft and deferential on Catholic criminality.
Before I indulge myself, let me first make a couple of comments about the former position. Based on extensive perusal of “reader comments” to articles, journalists, newspapers, blogs, etc., dealing with priest pedophilia, I can predict with racetrack accuracy the basic criticism the Star Tribune will hear.
First will be the accusations of bias in editorial positions. Back on my home turf of Boston, ground zero of the eruption of clergy abuse news in 2001-02, our own Cardinal Bernard Law tried the same stalling tactic by calling the accusations a “media conspiracy,” until a judge ordered his archdiocese to produce all the incriminating documents.
Next, Catholic apologists will insist on the 4 percent solution — they will produce the ubiquitous canard from the 2004 John Jay College investigative report (p. 27) to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that approximately 4 percent (range: 2.5 percent to 7 percent) of U.S. priests have been accused of child abuse. Even Pope Francis and his advisers have quoted these actuarial statistics frequently! So, our apologetic friends claim, this is small potatoes compared with the higher frequency of abuse in other professions and other institutions involved with children — so why are you, Star Tribune and others, so one-sidedly fixated on the Catholic problem? There is only one answer to this squeamish moral relativism, and it comes from William Sloane Coffin, chaplain at Yale during the Vietnam War and a staunch antiwar activist. When his detractors accused him of ignoring all the bad stuff done by the other side, Sloane famously replied: “You can’t use other people’s dirt as soap with which to wash your own hands clean.”
And now to my pet peeve — that American newspapers, the judiciary and government officials are just too damned deferential when it comes to dealing with religious powerhouses, seemingly hobbled in their oversight of malpractice by the constitutional separation of church and state.
Deference is something that the Catholic Church has profited from throughout its long history, with civilians tipping their caps and giving the church the benefit of the doubt in situations of dubious propriety. Deference denotes privilege, special treatment; it provides a carpet under which things can be swept. Deference does not like presumption. It prefers that people know their place, that they do not question the established order. Even in a democratic society, many institutions, both secular and religious, demand deference as a means of deflecting close scrutiny of their operations. At times, even with alarm bells ringing, civil authorities and the justice system have given the benefit of the doubt to local dioceses laboring under the delusion that they could police themselves. As is well-known now across many states, it has required court orders, driven by victims’ lawsuits, to break through the defenses of deference in order to compel many reluctant cardinals and archbishops to provide personnel records and documents for criminal clergy.
No one has been more aware of the pitfalls of a culture of deference than the brave prime minister of Ireland, Enda Kenny. After receiving the findings of a government inquiry (the Cloyne report) into a history of abuse and coverup in a rural Irish diocese, Kenny stood up in the Irish parliament on July 20, 2011, to make a famous and now historic speech in which he excoriated both the Irish Catholic Church and the Vatican for flouting child protection laws by ignoring “mandatory reporting” of abuse to civil authorities. Using language sadly familiar to Minnesotans, Kenny declared that church authorities, aided and abetted by a “dysfunctional” Vatican, had for decades deemed themselves to be unaccountable, above the law, contemptuous of it even. He claimed that the Cloyne report “excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism — the narcissism — that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.”
With wonderful Irish oratory, Kenny eloquently addressed the problematic tradition of clericalism and a culture of deference that had made Irishmen subservient to a Roman Church, “where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish-Catholic world.” But the illicit, illegal and criminal practices of that church would no longer be tolerated in 21st-century Ireland: “The age of deference is over.”
Kenny’s cry is a challenge to the Star Tribune and other news media, and Minnesotans should be grateful that the newspaper’s recent editorials have risen to that challenge. Unfortunately, however, in America, there is no catalyzing public advocate at the national level like Ireland’s Kenny willing to plead the cause of victims and publicly criticize the Catholic Church in the civic arena. Quite the contrary, in fact. We see our Supreme Court justices hobnobbing with Catholic bishops at the annual “Red Mass” dinner in Washington, while our president yuks it up with Cardinal Timothy Dolan at the annual Al Smith dinner in New York. At the very least, these public displays of bonhomie convey the impression that the Catholic Church, despite its recent history, still has access to the highest powers in the land. Meanwhile, abuse victims wonder why their leaders are fraternizing with the enemy. Justice and discretion do not seem to be served.
In the absence of a prestigious champion at a high-enough level, responsibility devolves to the fourth branch of our democratic government — a free press — to advocate relentlessly for honesty, transparency and accountability from our most entrenched institutions. I am optimistic that the insidious practice of deference in public affairs, if properly identified and exposed by the media, would soon be recognized as alien to the American way of life, since it implies a relationship of inequality and unfair advantage. So, if it is not too “presumptuous” of me to tell the editors of a secular news organization how to run their business, we still have a critical need for more editorials that tell the truth honestly, unabashedly and, above all, unapologetically, without fear or favor or deference to special interests. Speaking truth to power is what newspapers do best.
Arthur McCaffrey is a retired Harvard psychologist. He is a Boston Globe contributor who for the last 10 years has been writing about Catholic activism in metro Boston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.