Jesuit journal raps US media's church coverage

A Vatican-approved journal is lashing out at American news media, accusing them of anti-Catholic bias in their coverage of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis and contending that news organizations here are driven by ''morbid and scandalistic curiosity.''

The broadside in this week's edition of La Civilta Cattolica is the second recent attack by the prestigious Jesuit journal, which in its previous edition published an article by a Vatican lawyer who suggested that bishops should not turn over to prosecutors the names of abusive priests.

Scholars said the attacks, combined with similar statements by other Vatican officials in recent months, reflect a growing concern in Rome that the clergy sexual-abuse crisis is being inflamed by anti-Catholicism.

''There's apparently a sizable bloc at the Vatican who aren't taking this seriously,'' said Philip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World News. ''I'm sure they were sort of stunned by the media coverage in April, when a kazillion people descended on St. Peter's, and now it looks like Civilta Cattolica is on a mission to paint this as a creation of the media, or an exaggeration. But the media wouldn't have anything to write about if it wasn't there - these stories aren't made up.''

La Civilta Cattolica is published in Italian on Saturday, but translated quotations from the story were released yesterday by Reuters. According to the wire service report, the Jesuit magazine is complaining that the American coverage is driven by an ''anti-Catholic and therefore anti-Roman and anti-papist'' sentiment.

The journal also complains about the number of television crews that went to Rome last month for a meeting of American cardinals. The article declares that ''such a deployment of equipment gave the impression that, beyond the objective, grave and dramatic facts and the legitimate and rightful reaction to such a phenomenon, the entire episode was accompanied by a lot of morbid and scandalistic curiosity.'' And the journal says that ''for many newspapers and television stations maybe it seemed too good to be true to be able to slap the monster of the day on the front page, and this time it was the turn of the Catholic clergy.''

The Rev. James F. Keenan, a Jesuit priest who teaches theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge and is now spending a semester teaching in Rome, said the journal is ''the most credible intellectual journal that serves the Vatican.'' But he said the publication is censored, not written, by Vatican officials, and it is difficult to know whose views it represents.

''Right now, because of the pope's health, it's very hard to say who's in charge of what,'' he said.

Keenan called the journal's position ''a medieval point of view. I don't think they understand what's going on in the world.''

''A lot of Catholics want all this to be unearthed - they don't want to see the secrecy and the denial and the lies,'' Keenan said. ''I don't think journalists are perfect, but I don't think bishops are perfect, either. Journalists are driven by stories, and the story right now is the Catholic Church. Any modern person understands that.''

American journalists, not surprisingly, rejected the allegation of bias.

''It's a story that, if anything, was too long undercovered, or uncovered,'' said James M. Naughton, the former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and a practicing Catholic, who now serves as president of the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in Florida. ''It's certainly true that most religious organizations have seldom been subjected to the kind of scrutiny that the Catholic Church is being subjected to now, but it's not at all clear that any of them have covered up abuses by clerics to the same extent. The disclosures have to go on.''

John L. Allen Jr., the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, said that the US bishops would not be responding to the clergy sexual-abuse issue were it not for the news media coverage.

''Is it true that perhaps there are some people in the US who have an ax to grind against Catholicism, inside or outside the media, and are scoring some points? Yes,'' Allen said. ''But fundamentally, is this a story the media invented? Of course it isn't. The facts are clear - a series of cases have come to light that are not media inventions, nor has the media invented the failure of the bishops to respond appropriately.''

Allen said the Civilta Cattolica article is important because it helps explain why the Vatican has been so reluctant to take action on clergy sexual abuse or to accept the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, who has been criticized for failing to remove from ministry priests who had sexually abused minors.

''Knowing that this view is part of how many in the Vatican analyze the situation helps explain the kinds of positions that the Vatican takes,'' he said.

But Mark Silk, director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, said the Vatican critique is not shared by American Catholics.

''It's kind of presumptuous of the Vatican, which gets one look at a media event they created themselves, to say what's motivating the press, when people here, in all dioceses, lay and clerical, are by and large not making these charges,'' said Silk, who edits a journal, Religion in the News, that has analyzed the press coverage of the sexual-abuse crisis. ''The truth of the matter is that this is the biggest religion story in the history of the American mass media, and it is a huge scandal, and the amount of piling on has been minimal. The Vatican regards it as completely unacceptable that people should ask them impertinent questions, but that's just a standard that nobody in this country accepts.''

Some church officials at the Vatican, as well as in the United States, have criticized media coverage throughout the course of this scandal. But many prominent Catholics have also defended the American media, including the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, and even Law himself, who said on April 21: ''The crisis of clergy sexual abuse of minors is not just a media-driven or public perception concern in the United States, but is a very serious issue undermining the mission of the Catholic Church.''

The Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, said he expects the sentiment expressed in the Jesuit journal to have no impact on American bishops, who are slated to vote on a national policy to combat sexual abuse at a meeting in Dallas in mid-June.

''The bishops may be conservative theologically, but they're also Americans, and as Americans they have a pragmatic streak - they know they're in a bad way with their own people, and they know they've got to do something,'' he said. ''The last thing they can do is take the line that Civilta Cattolica has taken. The last ounce of credibility they have would disappear at that point.''

McBrien said he is also confident that, regardless of what Civilta Cattolica writes, the Vatican will ultimately approve whatever action the American bishops take in Dallas.

''They [the US bishops] are not going to go out on a limb and have someone at the Vatican saw it off,'' he said. ''Anything they approve in Dallas will be something they're confident Rome will approve.''