ROME — Excerpts from the address by Rome bureau chief of Catholic News Service John Thavis, at a panel discussion on “Ecclesial Communion and Controversy,” at the World Congress of Catholic Press, Rome, 6 October, 2010.
… Let me give you an example of what has changed: In 2001, CNS broke the story of Pope John Paul’s motu proprio “Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela,” which reserved sex abuse cases to the doctrinal congregation, and set up strict new procedures to deal with offenders. We worked for weeks on the story, and we had to squeeze information out of Vatican officials. And this was not a “bad news” story; this was a “good news” story about the Vatican taking action, taking these sins more seriously. You would think they would want the world to know; but they didn’t. Today, it’s completely different. As you know, the Vatican has made so much information available about sex abuse policies and procedures that I bet there are very few in this room who have read it all. They have a Vatican Web page dedicated to the issue. The Vatican today is proactive.
In terms of information, in terms of journalism, these are hard-won battles. In recent months, as we all know, the re-emergence of the sex abuse scandal has drawn coverage by Catholic and secular media. And I think this time around, Catholic media share in the disappointment felt by bishops and the Vatican at the way the mainstream media has reported the issue. Here are some distinctive traits that I think Catholic media have brought to this coverage, traits that are often missing among secular journalists:
1. Context: Because Catholic media are familiar with what happened in 1993 or in 2002, they know the church has already responded with some very good steps and programs.
2. Time frame: Catholic media know that most cases of clerical abuse are from past decades, with very few occurring today — something that I think most readers of newspapers still don’t understand.
3. Fairness: There has been, I think, a “gotcha” mentality in efforts to somehow lay the sex abuse scandal at Pope Benedict’s doorstep. Catholic journalists know that this is simply not how it happened, and that the current pope took many steps as head of the doctrinal congregation to deal with the problem. As with many things, he was methodical and determined and patient. In the eyes of some critics, perhaps too patient and deliberate. But certainly he was moving in the right direction. The portrait of Pope Benedict as an architect of cover-up is a false caricature, in my opinion.
4. Perspective: Catholic media have resisted, by and large, the trend toward hammering one big story incessantly, almost to the exclusion of anything else. For the first six months of this year, if you read a story about the Vatican in a major US newspaper, it was probably about sex abuse. This is a hallmark of the cable-news mentality that seems to have invaded every newsroom: a big story is established and then fed daily, like a beast. The essential storyline is never questioned. Details, subtleties and ambiguous information all fall by the wayside. You keep the big story going: this is the gospel of the modern mass media, I think largely for economic reasons. And fortunately, the Catholic press has managed to resist this and keep a perspective, reporting on sex abuse as a painful failure, but not as if it were the only aspect — or even the main aspect — of contemporary church life.
What worries me is that Catholic communicators, with all their perspective, context and fairness on the sex abuse story, have not really had much impact beyond their own limited audience. We feel frustration at times over how the mainstream media treats the church; but this frustration is often translated into a kind of closed-circuit discussion among ourselves. There’s a risk of becoming too self-congratulatory. We need to ask: how well do we really communicate with the modern world, the wider world, beyond our own ecclesial borders?
One final point: in terms of communion and controversy, the Catholic press is different and distinctive because it shares in the mission of the church — to spread the Gospel through contemporary means of communication. This is exactly what Catholic News Service says in our own mission statement. We want to tell the truth, and we want to do it fairly and fully. And if I may, I’ll close by reading from our mission statement about how we cover the news: “Some of that news is good and some is bad, but it is what readers need to know in order to work for salvation. They need to know that there are saints in the making in the Church today and they need to know that there are sinners too.”