Fr. Joseph Wilson columnist
          author archive
email author
Monday, May 13, 2002 1:29 p.m.
Media Feeding Frenzy?
This is not the time to raise our voices in complaint about media hostility

My brother in law once walked out of Sunday Mass. He felt badly about it afterwards, but he did it. It was the Sunday after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, and the entire tri-state area was reeling with the shock. Churches were jammed, congregations distraught and tearful. The priest in the pulpit at Jimmy’s Mass launched into a sermon on how necessary it is for us to forgive the terrorists. Jimmy, a New York City fire fighter, waited til it was over, stood up and left.

I understand why he did it, and he probably did the right thing given the circumstances. I remember the lump that rose in my throat the morning of 9/11 when I heard the Mayor on television say that they had lost hundreds of police and fire fighters. It seemed inconceivable, but it was true. On that following weekend we were all distraught; I can’t imagine how it felt for a fire fighter. Better not to sit there and seethe.

But what an unnecessary tension to put someone through! As a topic for a homily that Sunday, forgiveness was a very poor choice. We were still struggling to grasp what had happened, and we did not even know the extent of the damage done or the lives lost. It was deeply, if unintentionally disrespectful to preach such a sermon at such a time. Often, forgiveness is a process requiring time, and at the beginning of that process people will benefit more from our understanding than our exhortations to move on. Later, when I heard of congregations in Texas who had walked out of Mass and gathered angrily in the parking lot because of such sermons, I sympathized with them whole-heartedly.

There is a time to speak, and a time to refrain from speaking; there are messages which need not or shouldn’t be delivered at a particular time, and some messages which shouldn’t be given at all.

At this time in the Church’s life, one of those unhelpful messages is the one we are starting to hear about the "media feeding frenzy" covering the Church’s sexual abuse scandals. It is a well-intentioned strategy, at least on the part of the laity who adopt it -- they want to support their priests. But I’m afraid that it is precisely the wrong thing to do.

Last Thursday I was passing by a midtown Manhattan church on my way to a preaching engagement when a young woman stepped up to me shaking with anger. She had just come out of Mass, and wanted me to give a message to the priest who had presided and preached. I explained that I was not assigned there and just happened to be walking by, and she replied, ‘God, I don’t know if I’ll ever go to Mass again." And I invited her to talk a bit more.

She told me that she was herself a survivor of sexual abuse; her abuser was one of her high school teachers. The details do not matter here, except that the teacher was not a priest or religious, the school had not even been a Catholic school, but that the school administration had been dismissive of the allegation and other students and school staff had been so openly skeptical that she felt as though she had been abused all over again. It was a wound freshly opened at the Mass she had just attended, as the priest in his homily launched into a fierce denunciation of the media, and of one columnist in particular who is contemptuously critical of the Church.

"All I could think of was the principal of my high school, and how horrid she was to me and my parents. All she cared about was that the school not be embarrassed, and that priest, Father, he might not like what he’s reading in the news but doesn’t he care that these things happened? All he’s worried about is Jimmy Breslin criticizing the Church!"

I hope I was somewhat helpful to her. I tried to point out that, just as she has to explain her perspective to others, so she has to remember that a priest will have his own perspective, and be dealing with this horrible situation in his own way, at his own speed. And sometimes we are insensitive. But I assured her that the priests I knew were thoroughly upset by the situation, and unsure what to do about it. And we had a calm discussion, and parted amicably.

Thinking back over that conversation, though, I think there are a couple of things we can say with certitude about what we should do.

The first is that we mustn’t compound the abuse of the victims by trying to shift the blame. The whole world is well aware that the failings of our Church have created a staggering scandal. The fact that clergy sexual abuse has occurred is disturbing to people, but far more appalling is the stream of information about the Church’s failings in dealing with it, a story which, one fears, has a long way to go yet. This is not the time to raise our voices in complaint about media hostility; we are still not effectively facing our own problems within.

The second is that we must, absolutely must draw a few distinctions regarding the media. It is pointless to complain that "there are many good priests" and they are being tarred with the same brush as the bad if we then turn around and do exactly the same thing to the media. There is a distinction between factual reporting and opinion/editorial. People are entitled in this country to hold and express their opinions; that shouldn’t threaten us. A columnist hostile to Catholic doctrine is expressing his opinion, which he has the right to do.

But there are other reporters and media people who are reporting the facts of this crisis as they are uncovered. If they do so with a bias, it is for the intelligent reader to perceive and allow for it -- I am a devoted reader of the New York Times, but not because I agree with its slant! The fact is, there are newspeople who have covered these unfolding scandals carefully and responsibly, mindful of their responsibility to society, and in doing so they have done the Church a service as well. I am thinking of the reporters of the Dallas Morning News who covered the Dallas scandals, and of the Boston Gobe coverage, which in my opinion has been comprehensive but restrained and responsible. And I am thinking of several Catholic newsfolk, people who are committed believers, who have covered these stories and their implications, and who have caught grief from other Catholics for "disloyalty to holy Mother Church."

Early in this crisis, Dr Bill Donohue of The Catholic League was interviewed and said something very wise: "Look, I’m not here to defend the indefensible." It’s a clear, straightforward slogan, and I wish every Catholic would take it to heart. As Catholics, we are raised to face our sins straightforwardly and fearlessly, our eyes on the redemption already won for us in Christ. As a Church, we should do no less. That there are voices in society which are non-Catholic or even hostile to Catholicism is simply beside the point. We have some dauntingly serious house-cleaning to do. It is not unreasonable of others to criticize us for not living up to our own ideals, and criticizing them in return will not mute their hostile observations. We should unhesitatingly concede our failures, seriously consider how we need to address them, and set about doing it. We should be mindful always that the sexual abuse crisis simple cannot be seen in isolation -- for two generations we have had a crisis in liturgy, vocations, religious life, universities and colleges, family life, catechesis, all unaddressed -- and that necessarily involves a challenge to the whole Church, a call to conversion.

We need conversion. We stand in serious peril. We have to a large extent squandered our precious inheritance, our patrimony. In the face of the critics of our Catholic Faith, we must be aware of the call to conversion we are receiving through these events. We might at least show the critics that we do, indeed, take our own teachings seriously. And when we speak out, whether to society at large or to the Church, we might also keep in mind to whom we are speaking, and ask ourselves what would truly be helpful for others to hear.

Email author: