Commentary Magazine

How the Media Fails Church Coverage

AP Photo/Fernando Lavoz

The Catholic Church—the religious body which I joined in 2016 and which I affirm to be Jesus Christ’s One True Fold—is going through an ordeal. It is an ordeal, perhaps, of the kind that only comes about once every half a millennium or so. As a believer, my feelings seesaw between fear and joy. I fear for the future of the Church. I take joy in the long overdue cleansing, even if it means breaking the false truce between orthodox and heterodox forces in the Church.

My concerns as a journalist are a different matter. The open war between U.S. bishops, the medieval intrigue of the Roman Curia, the facts and counter-facts and drip-drip of innuendo—all this is catnip to a working hack. The crisis also holds valuable lessons for all writers, Catholic or not. The most important is this: Always listen to the marginalized, the disgruntled “cranks,” the angry obsessives, those who cry out for justice from the peripheries of powerful institutions. 

Most journalists are hardwired to champion the weak and “speak truth to power” and all that. But the grimier incentives of the job can often smother that honorable instinct. The Big Interview with the Big Subject is attractive, and the hunger for access can be corrupting. It is also easy to develop a too-cozy relationship with the flacks, the hired guns who surround the VIPs and take care that their clients don’t make any but good news.

Truly world-historical journalism usually comes from other sources: from the corporate whistleblower, the fading movie star with a horror story to tell about a big-shot producer, and, yes, the deeply wounded middle-aged man who encountered a demonic priest when he was a young boy. There are plenty of reporters listening to such sources, which is why Theranos has been exposed, the #MeToo movement has emerged, and clerical sexual abuse has been under a spotlight since the 1980s.

The trouble is that sometimes ideology distorts journalists’ sense of who is truly victimized and marginal and deserving of a hearing in a particular setting.

This, I suspect, was one of the reasons Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick—the amiable, genial, and above all liberal American prelate—escaped scrutiny for so long. Many journalists, including Catholic ones, impose a prefabricated frame on the Church, in which those who challenge or deemphasize traditional moral doctrines are the downtrodden good guys facing off against the fusty, black-clad reactionaries who pull the real strings. McCarrick was not just one of those modernizing good guys; he was the good guy par excellence.

Witness the glowing profile of McCarrick from David Gibson of the Religion News Service (Gibson is now a fellow at Fordham). The cringe-inducing headline: “Globe-trotting Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is almost 84, and working harder than ever.” In Catholic circles, rumors of peccadilloes already swirled around McCarrick when the profile appeared, in 2014, and diocesan authorities had more than a decade earlier settled two suits arising from his misconduct with seminarians.

If Gibson was minimally curious about these matters, his puff piece didn’t show it. Instead, he reported on how the cardinal survived a heart scare in 2013, and how he subsequently told the newly elected Pope Francis: “I guess the Lord isn’t done with me yet.” To which the Argentine pontiff shot back: “Or the devil doesn’t have your accommodations ready!” On another occasion, per Gibson, Francis teased McCarrick: “The bad ones, they never die!”

Today, the ecclesial double entendre is hard to avoid. At the time, readers turning to Gibson for the lowdown on the high-power prelate would only learn that McCarrick was “always seen as a moderate, centrist presence in the hierarchy, a telegenic pastor who could present the welcoming face of the Church.” His enemies, the dreaded conservatives, “disdained McCarrick’s style.” And readers would learn that the old pederast worked hard in the vineyards of the Lord.

Such incuriosity flows from the hostility to traditionalists that is part of the general ambiance in many newsrooms—not to mention Church institutions. As the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein noted last month, “there had for decades been rumors in Church and journalistic circles about his behavior with seminarians. These ranged from talk of an unwanted hand on a knee to chatter on conservative Catholic blogs citing anonymous descriptions of sex parties.”

Too bad respectable Catholic officials and secular journalists just knew that one should never pay attention to things said on “conservative Catholic blogs.”

Boorstein quoted an anonymous source at an organization that honored McCarrick: “It sounded like disgruntled conservative Catholics. I didn’t give credence to the source. It seemed ideologically motivated.” The liberal Catholic establishment, to whom the secular media often turn for guidance on Church matters, sees itself at war with these forces from the dark past, disgruntled and marginalized yet all-powerful and a menace to progress. Predators and their abettors benefit from this intellectual and institutional dynamic.

“But surely those days are over,” you might be tempted to say. “Surely now, after #MeToo, all cries for justice get the attention they deserve.” Perhaps. Then again, take a look at the headline New York Times editors picked for a recent story on the crisis: “Francis Takes High Road as Conservatives Pounce. . . . ”

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