Church scandal getting full media treatment

Is it ClergyGate yet?

Determined print and broadcast media have given the Catholic priest sex-abuse story the full scandal treatment with all the trimmings. The complex situation has spawned big headlines, exposes, call-in shows, special reports, interactive maps and dramatic packaging.

It has also inspired diverse extrapolation and allegory. Among other things, the story has been used both to denote the demise of religious authority and as evidence that a sidestepping press fears offending the "lavender mafia" of homosexual interest groups.

"Without a doubt it's a troubling story, magnified by the church's horrific handling of it, and the church's evasive nature. But the media doesn't need to whip its consumers into a frenzy," said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

"The press has let a wonderful opportunity to cover religion rigorously slip through its hands," he said.

But press sins come in degrees.

Regular broadcast networks are not as guilty of scandal-mongering and spectacle as 24-hour news channels, where wall-to-wall coverage yields "nothing short of ClergyGate. It's further proof that the cable news is fueled by titillation and argumentation," Mr. Felling noted.

For example, CNN calls its programming "Crisis in the Priesthood." One recent special called "Fall From Grace" included a priest saying, "I found that women wanted the challenge of forbidden fruit."

"A gay priest who is celibate is not the problem," noted a spokesman from the Catholic League on another show yesterday.

Some laud the close focus.

"I fear that both news media and the public will tire of the story, and it will be back to business as usual," said David Clohessy, spokesman for the Chicago-based Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, a group founded 11 years ago that tracks news coverage and believes that the true evils often go underreported.

"We had one moment of encouragement last week, though. For the first time, we saw the phrase, 'Cardinal Law claimed' rather than 'the alleged victim claimed,' which indicates that the free ride for those in authority may be ending," Mr. Clohessy said.

Meanwhile, the finger-pointing has begun.

Catholic leaders charged last week that the press exaggerated the scandal, which emerged in January with a Boston Globe story on a decades-old case of priestly abuse and its fallout. Some clergy called media coverage since then "inappropriate," a "feeding frenzy" and proof that Catholic-bashing was "fashionable."

But the church appeared ready to "accept the fact it was not the media who abused children," noted NBC's Tim Russert on Sunday.

Indeed, a blunt Pope John Paul II and the Vatican went on full damage control this week, offering multiple press conferences and unmistakable policy statements. Meanwhile, the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based media think tank, issued journalistic guidelines for the story, urging journalists to "resist the frenzy." But the frenzy is not about to cool down.

"The search for scapegoats is turning up the usual suspects: the media, liberals, feminists, and even the '60s," noted a Boston Globe editorial yesterday. "Some American Catholic leaders are eager to blame anyone but themselves for the problem. How pathetic. It leaves these men of God sounding like schoolboys caught red-handed."