A Tangled Web: New Media and the Catholic Scandals

How the Internet has influenced a change in news judgment
Online Journalism Review, Aug. 6, 2002
Stephen O’Leary
posted: 2002-08-06

The successive waves of revelations in recent months regarding the sexual and financial misdeeds of Catholic priests and bishops may be the most important religious news story of this generation. How has the Web responded to the challenge? Is it possible that the Internet has fundamentally altered the power balance that formerly governed the reporting of religious news?

There is something odd about the current frenzy of reporting on clerical sins. The stories that are now getting sustained and sometimes sensationalistic attention from the media are not new. Allegations of sexual abuse and financial impropriety in the Catholic Church go back for decades. As early as 1985, the National Catholic Reporter (http://www.natcath.org/crisis) sounded an alarm over the crisis to come: “In cases throughout the nation, the Catholic church is facing scandals and being forced to pay millions of dollars in claims to families whose sons have been molested by Catholic priests… But a related and broader scandal seemingly rests with local bishops and a national episcopal leadership that has, as yet, no set policy on how to respond to these cases.” Seventeen years after the publication of this warning, the secular media has at last begun to pay attention, and the Catholic bishops have finally been forced to formulate a national policy on clergy sexual abuse.

Journalist Kelly McBride (http://www.natcath.org/crisis/related.htm) pointedly notes the odd suddenness of the explosion in coverage: “A year ago, these stories had moderate news value. Now they are red hot…Why are we more interested in clergy sex abuse today than we were a year ago? Have we changed our news judgment or has something happened outside of the media that has changed the value of these stories?”

Something has indeed happened, and the media have everything to do with it. The consistently hard-hitting and detailed reporting of the crisis by newspapers such as the Boston Globe (http://www.bostonglobe.com) undoubtedly reflects a change in the news judgment of reporters and editors. But there is more to the story than a newfound zeal among traditional journalists. The Internet has fundamentally altered the balance (http://www.bostonmagazine.com/special1/baringthecross_0602.shtml)that governed the relationship between media institutions and more traditional powers such as the Church. Journalists and bishops alike are now struggling with the new realities of covering religion in the wired world.

The Web site of the Poynter Institute, an ethical watchdog and training outfit for journalists, provides some useful resources for those covering or following these events. Poynter senior scholar Roy Peter Clark offers suggestions (http://www.poynter.org/centerpiece/032502_clergy.htm) for responsible reporting on Catholic issues that journalists would do well to keep in mind. Perhaps the most important resources that Poynter provides are its comprehensive collection of links to the various news archives that chronicle the Catholic scandal, and the “Clergy Abuse Tracker (http://www.poynter.org/clergyabuse/WhatisCAT.htm),” a Weblog that provides up-to-date coverage of breaking news. The question that Poynter and other journalistic watchdogs have so far failed to address, however, is “How has the Internet changed both journalistic practices and communication within the Church?”

First and foremost, the Web has made detailed information and formerly secret documents from the ongoing cases available to millions of readers, thereby widening the impact of previously local investigations and trials.

The Web has also changed things by allowing people to read news in cumulative batches, and not only as day-to-day coverage. Scandals may come and go, but when they are perceived as local and transitory they are more easily hushed up — front page news today, relegated to the back pages next week. In contrast, the effect of reading through the Boston Globe’s outstanding Web archive (http://www.boston.com/globe/spotlight/abuse/) is overwhelming, and contributes to the perception of the problem as systemic and international in scope.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Web has provided a forum for a number of recently sprouted grass-roots organizations that are responding to the crisis in a variety of ways. Victims of priestly abuse have created elaborate Web sites to spread news, encourage survivors, and pressure Catholic authorities for reform. A quick perusal of a few of these sites is enough to indicate the dimensions of the shift. Faithful Catholics who once submitted meekly to the hierarchy are now actively using the Web to lobby for profound changes in the Church.

In 1988, Chicago attorney Barbara Blaine (http://www.peak.org/~snapper/Links_from_Home_Page/Barbara_Blaine.htm) founded the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a group whose Web site (http://www.survivorsnetwork.org/) now averages 1,000 visits a day, ten times the number it received before the latest phase of the crisis.

The Linkup (http://www.thelinkup.com/) homepage for Survivors of Clergy Abuse is another important Web resource for a movement that has clearly had a major impact. Its archives (http://www.thelinkup.com/index.html” \l “arc) contain much of interest, including forceful editorials, moving personal testimonies of abuse victims, some previously secret documents, and a “Clergy Crimes Index (http://www.thelinkup.com/crimindex.html),” which chronicles priestly misdeeds.

Voice of the Faithful (http://www.voiceofthefaithful.org/) is a group that began in Boston this year and is quickly becoming national in scope. The group’s stated aim is to provide “a voice for the people… through which the Faithful can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic Church.” This goal is bound to discomfort cardinals and bishops accustomed to an older model of pastoral authority over their flocks; the sheep are, uncharacteristically, now demanding accountability from their shepherds. After reading about the millions of dollars paid by Church authorities to settle abuse cases, many Catholics are quite reasonably asking about the uses to which their donations will be put. VOTF set up an independent fund that directly competed with the Boston archdiocese’s lagging annual fundraising campaign, bypassing the cardinal’s office and funneling money directly to charities. A recent announcement from Cardinal Law’s office (“Archdiocese to Refuse Gifts That Thwart Bishop’s Power (http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/23/national/23FAIT.html)”) indicates just how seriously Church authorities are taking such challenges.

There are some Web indicators that the American Catholic hierarchy seems finally to have understood the seriousness of the situation. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) offers a Website (Restoring Trust: A Response to Sexual Abuse (http://www.nccbuscc.org/comm/restoretrust.htm)) with a variety of statements and documents, notably the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which was developed by their Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse and approved by the full body of U.S. Catholic bishops at its June 2002 General Meeting. Also found at this site are moving and challenging testimonies by SNAP representatives, abuse victims, and prominent lay Catholic leaders.

It is too soon to judge whether the Catholic bishops’ response to the crisis will prove effective in stemming the tide of criticism and preventing either wholesale defections from the Church or a revolution among the laity. The future of American Catholicism is likely to be determined not so much by the response of Church authorities as by the decisions and actions of the community of the faithful. For this reason, the real action to watch is in the struggle among Catholic liberal and conservative factions as they seek to define the nature of the current crisis and use it to advance their own agendas.

Call to Action (http://www.cta-usa.org/index.html) is among the many liberal Catholic groups (http://www.cta-usa.org/COR.html) that tend to identify the problem as rooted in priestly celibacy, the misogyny of an all-male priesthood, and a culture of sexual denial. Far more numerous on the Web, however, are the conservative Catholics, such as the Roman Catholic Faithful (http://rcf.org/), who see the problem as an outgrowth of a homosexual subculture of priests that grew in the permissive atmosphere following Vatican II.

The conservative Catholic.net (http://www.catholic.net) and the National Catholic Register (http://www.ncregister.com/) both advocate a strictly orthodox line. Their diagnosis is deliberately controversial and unpalatable to liberal Catholic reformers; a recent Register interview with Franciscan priest Benedict Groeschel argues that “The root of the problem is a spirit of dissent that has gone through the Church in the United States since right after the Second Vatican Council,” while an editorial reminds readers that “we are not here to save the Church; the Church is here to save us.”
Whatever one thinks about their positions on the issues, Catholic.net and the Register are among the few who have noted the changing nature of media coverage and the importance of new media, especially the rise in Catholic Weblogs.

Stephen O’Leary (mailto:soleary@usc.edu) is an associate professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communication. His research focuses on religious communication, rhetorical theory, and criticism. O’Leary is the author of “Arguing the Apocalypse,” (Oxford University Press, 1998) a study of the rhetoric of millennialism in American culture. His current projects include a study of religion on the Internet and a book on cults and persuasive persuasion.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday August 8, 2002.
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