Media: Pope Benedict Guilty Until Proven Innocent

The broadcast networks couldn't ignore Holy Week, the pinnacle of the Christian calendar, so instead they used it this year to smear the Catholic Church as a harbor for abusive priests.

ABC, CBS and NBC featured 26 stories during Holy Week about Pope Benedict's perceived role in the sex abuse scandal the Catholic Church is now facing. Only one story focused on the measures the church has adopted in recent years to prevent abuse. In 69 percent of the stories (18 out of 26) reporters used language that presumed the pope's guilt. Only one made specific mention of the recent drop in the incidence of abuse allegations against the Catholic Church.

The network reporting has largely appeared to be driven by a series of New York Times articles that have portrayed Benedict as seeking to protect the church at the expense of children's safety in various incidents of abuse in Germany, Ireland and here in the United States. The Times reported that as Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Benedict oversaw the transfer of a priest accused of abuse in the 1970s and 1980s to another parish where he again worked with children after he began therapy for his problems. A March 24 article, since heavily questioned, about a Wisconsin priest allowed to remain in the priesthood even after he abused 200 deaf boys from the 1950s through the 1970s placed the blame squarely on Benedict.  

“The internal correspondence from bishops in Wisconsin directly to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, shows that while church officials tussled over whether the priest should be dismissed, their highest priority was protecting the church from scandal,” wrote Laurie Goodstein.

These stories failed to paint the whole picture of what occurred, of Benedict's role in the decision-making process about these priests and allowed the media to depict sex abuse in the Catholic Church as a growing problem when all evidence indicates that the reverse is true. Between 2008 and 2009, allegations of sex abuse by clergy members declined by 36 percent. On only six allegations of abuse involving minors were brought forward against the church in 2009, according to a study by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.   

Really, it's not the problem of abuse that's “growing,” as all three networks described it on Easter Sunday, but rather the media interest in the story – conveniently giving broadcast networks the opportunity to disparage the Catholic Church during its most holy time of the year.

NBC's Anne Thompson began her March 28 “Today” report by saying, “The Catholic Church begins this Holy Week under a cloud of suspicion, with more claims of sexual abuse by its priests and more accusations that its leaders ignored those claims, accusations that go all the way to Pope Benedict.”

This framing of the story was typical for all three broadcast networks during Holy Week.

“Senior church figures may be rallying to the Pope's defense, but his role in dealing with a child abuse issue as the Vatican's main enforcer of doctrine in his pre-pope years and his profile as the church's most visible presence on earth means that he remains the target of those demanding answers and justice,” stated CBS's Mark Phillips on the Palm Sunday broadcast of CBS's “Evening News.”

ABC's Jim Sciutto claimed in his March 29 “World News with Diane Sawyer” report that, “the pope himself failed to dismiss abusers, including a Wisconsin priest who allegedly molested more than 200 deaf boys.”

But just like The New York Times did during the month of March, the broadcast networks failed to provide much background information and instead went forward with the line that the Pope is guilty of covering up heinous abuse claims, despite evidence that does not back up their claims.

Background Sources


Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, “the nation's largest Catholic civil rights organization,” hit back against the New York Times smears of Pope Benedict in seven press releases published in the last weeks of Lent. The press releases pointed out inaccuracies in the Times reports. Yet, Donohue did not appear in any of the broadcast reports during Holy Week.

In the case of Father Lawrence Murphy, the Wisconsin priest accused of molesting 200 deaf boys over three decades between the 1950s and 1970s, the Catholic League stated in a March 29 press release, “there is no evidence [then-Cardinal Ratzinger] even knew of the case” and “his office officially lifted the statute of limitations … and began an investigation.” The networks ignored the information.

All three networks featured Archbishop Timothy Dolan speaking in defense of the pope on their March 29 evening news programs. “No one has been more vigorous in cleansing the church of the effects of this sickening sin and crime than the man we now call Pope Benedict XVI,” Dolan told the networks. However, none elaborated on that cleansing.

The networks could have reminded viewers, as did George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, in a March 29 First Things article, of “recent hard news developments that underscore Pope Benedict's determination to root out what he once described as 'filth' in the Church.”

Weigel continued on to explain that the pope “mandated an Apostolic Visitation of Irish dioceses, seminaries, and religious congregations” after allegations of abuse against Irish priests made news. Weigel also noted that it “was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger who, as prefect CDF, was determined to discover the truth about [Father Marcial] Maciel,” the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, who violated his priestly vows by, among other things, committing sexual abuse and fathering several children.

Father Thomas Brundage, who was the Judicial Vicar for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee from 1995-2003, the time in which Murphy's case was supposedly brought before then Cardinal Ratzinger, could have also provided a pertinent defense of Benedict, but he was neither quoted nor featured in any of the broadcast reports about the scandal.

Brundage set the record straight about the Murphy case in a March 29 column for The Catholic Anchor, and explained, “the competency to hear cases of sexual abuse of minors shifted from the Roman Rota to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith headed by Cardinal Ratzinger in 2001.” He continued:

Until that time, most appeal cases went to the Rota and it was our experience that cases could languish for years in this court. When the competency was changed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in my observation as well as many of my canonical colleagues, sexual abuse cases were handled expeditiously, fairly and with due regard to the rights of all the parties involved. I have no doubt that this was the work of then Cardinal Ratzinger.

Brundage also noted the particulars of Benedict's response to and efforts to rid the Church of abusive priests:

Pope Benedict has repeatedly apologized for the shame of the sexual abuse of children in various venues and to a worldwide audience. This has never happened before. He has met with victims. He has reigned in entire conferences of bishops on this matter, the Catholic Bishops of Ireland being the most recent. He has been most reactive and proactive of any international church official in history with regard to the scourge of clergy sexual abuse of minors. Instead of blaming him for inaction on these matters, he has truly been a strong and effective leader on these issues.

In the case of the pope's alleged cover up in Germany, the networks failed to report that the then-Cardinal Ratzinger followed the dominating theory behind rehabilitation of sex offenders. No psychologists or psychiatrists were featured to discuss the treatment given to offending priests.

As recently as 2004, treatment was offered as a reasonable course of action for abusive priests. Dr. Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and adjunct clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, co-authored a study that listed “Treat offending clergy” as direction for the Catholic Church to follow in the future.

“Promising treatments have been developed for offending clergy and should be utitilized,” wrote Plante. “Specialized programs at treatment facilities such as the St. Luke Institute in Maryland, Southdown Hospital in Toronto, and the Institute of Living/Hartford Hospital in Connecticut have developed impressive programs with encouraging treatment outcome results as of this date. Treatment programs that have developed successful approaches should share their experiences with others.”

Changes in the Catholic Church


The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released its 2009 annual report on abuse by clergy on March 23, and should have provided much-needed balance for the broadcast networks' Holy Week reporting about the scandal, but aside from one brief mention on ABC, about allegations dropping by a third between 2008 and 2009, this news went unreported, as did other important findings from the study.

Data indicated that allegations of sex abuse by clergy members reached its lowest point since 2004, allegations dropped by 36 percent between 2008 and 2009, and in 2009 only six allegations involved minors.

The report also found 71 percent of the allegations were about abuse that began between 1960 and 1984.

One story – the only one to give attention to the church's efforts to combat the problem – on ABC's Apr. 2 “World News with Diane Sawyer,” focused on the changes in seminaries to weed out potentially problematic priests.

ABC's Jim Sciutto visited the North American College in Rome, Italy, and reported that “the often difficult questions of sex and celibacy aren't kept in private” but that “they're discussed very openly, as an integral part of the education and the screening process for priests.”

“Today, candidates face a battery of tests, from Rorschach ink blots to a recently introduced sexual addiction questionnaire, with deeply probing questions, such as 'were you sexually abused as a child,' 'do you watch pornography on the Internet,' and 'have you been sexual with minors,” stated Sciutto.

Father David Songy, director of counseling services at the school, told Sciutto, “If a guy had a real problem where they were acting out in some way, we would say, you need to go, that's it.”

CBS's March 29 “Evening News” briefly covered the “prevention and awareness” programs now in place in U.S. Catholic Churches, programs that correspondent Elaine Quijano noted, “that the church says demonstrate a clear break from the past practice of turning a blind eye to the abuse.”

She also noted, “The church reports, since 2003, more than 7.5 million adults and children have gone through the church's sex abuse awareness program.”

But those programs weren't enough to sway anchor Katie Couric from the idea that the Catholic Church is a danger to children. “Now to a different threat to children, bullying,” she stated as she introduced the next story.

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