George Weigel's column on the First Things blog summarizes the case being made in many quarters that The New York Times has been biased in its recent coverage of Pope Benedict's handling of cases of clergy sexual abuse. He writes: "... the sexual abuse story in the global media is almost entirely a Catholic story, in which the Catholic Church is portrayed as the epicenter of the sexual abuse of the young, with hints of an ecclesiastical criminal conspiracy involving sexual predators whose predations continue today. That the vast majority of the abuse cases in the United States took place decades ago is of no consequence to this story line." I don't agree with his analysis. The reason goes back to something I told the U.S. bishops when I was invited to address them at a closed session of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Pittsburgh in the late 1990s: that journalists aren't especially interested in individual cases of sexual abuse, but are very interested in stories about cover-ups in powerful institutions. In other words, the best course for the bishops was to be truthful. This is what has made clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church the subject of so many scathing reports, whether from the news media or grand juries: that a cover-up occurred at high levels in many dioceses. When a scandal of this proportion is uncovered, journalists will naturally want to see how far it goes - the basis for the latest round of stories. To say that sexual abuse in other churches or other sectors of society does not get the same media attention misses the point. The issue isn't that Catholic priests are allegedly prone to commit sexual abuse, but that a small percentage of them were freed to do so, again and again, due to gross mismanagement, secrecy and lack of accountability on the part of church authorities. However dated most of the sexual abuse cases are, this story still calls out to be covered because some of those who failed to stop repeat abusers remain in positions of authority. The Times coverage in recent days has explored this. Weigel's column and much of the outcry over the paper's coverage focuses on a March 25 story about a priest from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. There is some information late in the story - the timing of the priest's death, especially - that should have been higher in the article, in my view. I would have preferred that the story let the documents speak more for themselves rather than declare in the second paragraph that the internal correspondence shows that church officials' "highest priority was protecting the church from scandal." That judgment should have been left to the reader.It's disconcerting to see a pope questioned in this way, but I think The Times has done a service to Catholics by bringing the documentation for this case to light. It opens a window on the process.
Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses.