Church shoots the messenger rather than face truth

 

LETTER FROM AMERICA: By the time the US Catholic bishops' conference convened on Thursday in Dallas press accreditation for the meeting had swollen to 800, all to be accommodated in a substantial press room to which the public proceedings were rebroadcast.

A group of 20 would actually get into the room with the bishops. But the reporters of one newspaper, the Boston Globe, were excluded from the latter pool.

The Globe, whose extraordinary coverage of the developing scandal has been as comprehensive as it has been balanced, was excluded because of a disputed breach of an embargo last week. The paper's journalists are not convinced. The church has not handled the press well. The preference has been to shoot the messenger rather than admit, as the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Wilton Gregory, at last did on Thursday even a measure of culpability.

But even he had tough words to say to the press in his presidential address, berating them for misrepresenting the church's efforts and underplaying its contribution to American society.

Last week, reflecting the view of much of the church establishment internationally, a leading Latin American Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, seen as a possible successor to the Pope, accused the US press of anti-Catholic bias and said it had acted "with a fury which reminds me of the times of Diocletian and Nero, and more recently Stalin and Hitler". He specifically mentioned three papers as being involved in "a persecution against the church", the New York Times, the Washington Post, and, needless to say, the Boston Globe.

Walter Robinson, the head of the Globe's Spotlight investigative team, chuckles at the suggestion which he dismisses as patent nonsense. .

He insists that, in reality, "our relationship with the broader church is probably better than it was before this broke". Many traditional Catholics, lay as well as clerical, in Boston distrusted the Globe's liberalism on issues like abortion. In 1992 during its coverage of the paedophile priest James Porter, who attacked over 100 children, Cardinal Law had blasted the paper's "anti-Catholic bias". "By all means we call down God's power on the media, particularly the Globe," he said.

Mr Robinson says they have tried hard in their coverage to "prune all the adjectives" and let the church's own papers speak for themselves, and he pays tribute to his "fearless" editor, Martin Baron. .

Mr Baron joined the paper last summer and was immediately struck by a report he read of a court ordering the sealing of documents relating to the trial of serial abusing priest Jack Geoghan. He asked the paper's lawyers to challenge the ruling and they have been in and out of the courts ever since insisting that the public interest requires knowledge of the scope of abuse.

He asked the investigative team whether there was a story for them. Within days they were back with the word that the Geoghan cover-up was only the tip of an iceberg. It quickly became clear, Mr Robinson says, that the church had been involved in large numbers of secret settlements.

The team put together a database of clerical postings in the diocese from the church's own annual directories. It noticed in the mid-1990s an abrupt change in pattern - suddenly there seemed among the diocese's 650 priests to be a dramatic surge in the numbers "awaiting assignment" or "absent on leave". Many appeared to fall into these categories for months on end, despite being in the prime of life.

"We had cracked the code," says Mr Robinson. They drew up a list and cross-checked it with claims from victims. The same names recurred. Over 70 of them, as the Globe revealed to a shocked city in January. Since then the church has supplied 100 names to the prosecuting authorities.

The revelations coincided with evidence from the now released Geoghan church files that Cardinal Law and others knew of his record and had simply moved him from parish to parish.

The dam broke. As the Globe published, more and more victims came forward with their stories. And the archdiocese's protestations that the Geoghans and Shanleys were rare exceptions, that the press was blowing things out of proportion, that the hierarchy was doing its best rang hollow in the face of evidence that local bishops even wrote recommendations to other parishes on behalf of priests they knew were abusers. That they had allowed a man who publicly praised man-boy love to continue in the ministry for 20 years.

What the Globe had done was turn a shocking story about sexual abuse into another about the city's largest institution and its appalling disfunctionality. It is one that the paper must surely win a Pulitzer for and has already generated a book, Betrayal, a riveting, tragic read which will be published next week, and profits from which will go to charity, probably victims of child abuse.

(Among its eight authors -- Robinson, Paulsen, Matt Carroll, Sacha Pfeiffer, Michael Retendes, Stephen Kurkjian, and Thomas Farragher -- is also the paper's highly regarded former Ireland correspondent, Kevin Cullen, whose chapters on the decline of deference and on the cardinal are among the most riveting.)

•The Boston Globe's coverage of the scandal and many of the key church documents can be read in the 500-plus files on the paper's website: www.boston.com