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Opinion The Conservative Media: Unfair and Unbalanced toward Clergy Abuse
Bookmark and Share      Created: 2011-01-27 10:59:37   Last updated : 2011-01-27 20:03:35

By Marci A. Hamilton

The conservative pundits persistently castigate the "liberal press" for its political and social coverage in, for example, the New York Times and Washington Post. The conservative media, though, has its sacred cows, as well. For example, the conservatives of today often use kid gloves when dealing with hard news involving religious institutions, figures, and issues.

This is especially true when it comes to child sex abuse by clergy. Despite the growing mountain of facts regarding the bad actions of religious leaders when it comes to child sex abuse, these news organizations continue to act as though it is in bad taste to fully (un)cover the religious leaders' illegal and immoral actions.

The Wall Street Journal, FOX News, Bill O'Reilly, and Sean Hannity, among others, routinely skew reporting on religious issues, and suppress stories that might put religious leaders in a bad light. As they read this, they are puffing themselves up and declaring that they do no such thing. That would be incorrect.

There is only one way that thousands of children can be sexually abused by clergy in every conceivable religious denomination for decades (more likely centuries) in secret: all of the adults have to enter into a tacit pact of confidentiality. When the child goes to the parent, the parent has to discipline the child for saying "naughty" things about their revered priest, minister, or rabbi. When the prosecutor receives a report of abuse, and the bishop asks him to permit the Church to "clean its laundry in private," he has to choose the bishop's way. When the newspaper editor is contacted by a parent who wants to blow the lid on his church's protection of a pedophile priest, and then an elder calls with the same line as the bishop, he has to defer to the elder.

The adults protect each other—and most of all, the perverts, who move onto the next child, expecting anonymity as the leaders of the community sit quietly, like Pollyannas expecting religious leaders to produce rainbows for everyone.

Over there sit the victims, in the dark, waiting.

This is the true history of clergy abuse in the United States (and elsewhere): the high-level clergy in power pressure the others in power (parents, prosecutors, State Departments, lawmakers, editors, reporters, and pundits) to shield them from embarrassment. And they defy anyone to question their character. Their cohorts on the A-list graciously acquiesce. There will be no justice for the victims of religious organizations until this unspoken pact is irrevocably broken. The "liberal press" has become better about reporting facts in this field, but the conservative press continues to act as though offending religious actors is immoral, regardless of the depravity of their behavior.

There were sporadic reports of abuse by abusive Catholic priests before 2002 when the Boston Globe took a giant step forward by publishing its investigation into the Boston Archdiocese's orchestrated cover-up. Though there was redundant coverage of their report, most newspaper editors continued to be deferential to the pressure imposed by religious leaders on the clergy abuse issue. Newspapers across the country, as victims came forward singly and in groups, too often treated new waves of victims of new perpetrators as "old news" and, therefore, limited coverage.

In part due to the extraordinary persistence of David Clohessy and Barbara Blaine with SNAP and the dogged determination of, along with the sheer weight of the emerging evidence, newspaper reporters became more insistent on covering these issues, and editors more willing to tune out the objections of the clergy leaders. Eventually, many newspapers took the issues more seriously: the Los Angeles Times, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Washington Post. So coverage in the so-called "liberal press" has become more fact-based and less inclined to cover up for the religious higher-ups.

Not so with FOX News, the Wall Street Journal, or the pundits. True, they have covered the stories they could no longer pretend to ignore, but their coverage is routinely biased in favor of giving the religious groups the benefit of the doubt, as opposed to employing the very journalist ethics they use to demonize the "liberal press." Anyone who sits down to do a newspaper-by-newspaper comparison of these stories can see the pro-religious editorial hand at work in the WSJ, FOX, and radio shows.

A great example occurred last week, when two letters from the Vatican to bishops in Ireland (the topic of my column last week) and in Tucson, Arizona established nothing less than a patently concerted plan to cover up child sex abuse by priests. The former forbade reporting to the authorities the crimes, and the latter rejected releasing files to the courts or the victims. With this cauldron boiling over, what does the Wall Street Journal run on Friday? An apologist's op-ed comparing the wondrous current pope and his predecessor.

Let me summarize: There was a hard news story establishing that a foreign sovereign and the largest religious organization in the world had internal policies that mandated secrecy about child sex abuse and the Wall Street Journal editors concluded that this was the moment for its readers to rank the relative virtues of the two popes who concocted these directives. That, my friends, should bring the entire journalistic culture at the Journal into question.

While O'Reilly and Hannity have railed against the Church's policies periodically, they have not taken on the pope or the bishops with any consistency or intensity. On page 10 of Hannity's Deliver Us from Evil, he identifies Fr. Paul Shanley as one of the most evil men to ever live. Shanley is an evil man, who championed the North American Man-Boy Love Association and abused dozens of boys. But Hannity did not have the moral mettle to take the next step and to name the man who knew full well about abuse worldwide, and who set the policies that kept those like Shanley in the child abuse business. He is the one under whose leadership top Vatican officials issued the letters to the Irish and the Tucson bishops dictating a conspiracy of cover up—John Paul II.

And neither Hannity nor O'Reilly have ever to my knowledge taken up the public policy question that is unavoidable: how should the law be changed so that we as a society never let churches, or synagogues, or mosques do this again? The answer is to give victims more legal rights and power. Their occasional sniping at their church is a poor substitute for the fact-based, hard-hitting journalism that would help their listeners understand the world as it is.

The message is clear: the conservative pantheon believes their audience does not want to hear negative news about their religion (mostly Christian) or their religious leaders, so they edit their message accordingly. Let others tell the only truth that will eventually protect our children.

Who gets harmed when they throw the whitewash on religion? The vulnerable—suffering adults, innocent children. Who benefits? The religious leaders polishing their image and reputation. And the A-listers who get to ask them for favors in the future.

When it comes to the issue of the protection of our children from predators in religious organizations, there is only an either/or choice: protect the children or protect the perpetrators (and their enablers). The "family values" folks so far are on the side of the perpetrators' enablers and, therefore, against the children. So the next time you hear them decry the "liberal press," remember editorial decisions can be just as myopic in their universe.


Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge, 2008) and God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge, 2005, 2007).

Hamilton's column, "God vs. Gavel," is published every Wednesday. Subscribe via email or RSS.

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