Religious Spin

Spin operates in religion as well as in politics. Consider two stories that will break in the near future. On Tuesday and on Feb. 27, the Roman Catholic bishops will release major reports about how the church has or has not addressed sexual abuse of minors by priests. On Feb. 25, Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of Christ" will hit the screens.

Efforts to shape the public's reception to these developments have been under way for the better part of a year.

In September, in a talk at the annual meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, began setting the stage for the release of the reports on abuse.

The report next week will record how well Catholic dioceses have carried out the measures to prevent abuse that the bishops pledged to take at their meeting in Dallas in June 2002. On Feb. 27, the more explosive report will try to tally how many abuse cases the church has faced since 1950 and how it has dealt with them, including the amount of money spent on settlements and treatment. It will also offer a preliminary analysis of the "causes and contexts" of the scandals.

Speaking on Sept. 5 to the religion reporters assembled in Seattle, Bishop Gregory asked, "How do we engage in a serious public self-examination of our past on the issue of sexual abuse without engendering a type of sensationalist coverage of past misconduct that obscures present achievements in eliminating that misconduct?"

The bishop was clearly putting the press on notice that the studies' eventual findings should be viewed in perspective.

"Since there has been no other study like this of any other profession, it has no context," Bishop Gregory said. "I can find only minimal attempts on the part of the media to discover the extent of the problem outside the Catholic priesthood."

"If society has any hope of eliminating this terrible exploitation of our youth," he also said, "then we also have to face up to this scourge as it exists in the family, in school systems, and in all forms of professional and volunteer work with young people."

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, was on hand to put his own spin on the bishop's spin. His message, which can be summed up as "Don't trust them," was repeated on Nov. 24 in a more formal setting when Mr. Clohessy spoke to a plenary session of the American Academy of Religion, the academic association for scholars of religion.

Mr. Clohessy challenged the credibility of the National Review Board, which will be issuing the coming reports: the board's members are, after all, he said, practicing Catholics who were appointed by the bishops. The bishops have defined the rules, chosen and financed the umpires, and will naturally declare a victory, he asserted.

In a pre-emptive strike against the reports, Mr. Clohessy urged the scholars to use their influence to instill skepticism about the findings.

Bishop Gregory's message appeared to get that kind of reception — skeptical — from the religion reporters, while Mr. Clohessy's appeared to get a positive one from the scholars, although it was hard to tell because, oddly for a presentation on such a controversial topic at an academic meeting, there was no scheduled commentators and no public question period.

The spinning has continued. Last week, the Religion News Service quoted Mr. Clohessy as saying it was "just naive" to think that the bishops would reveal the truth after decades of trying "to hide this from prosecutors and parishioners."

Robert S. Bennett, a prominent Washington lawyer who serves on the national review board, countered, "Wait until the facts are in."

Don't "sentence first and have the trial later," Mr. Bennett said.

The battle over "The Passion of Christ" has been going on even longer. Articles about the film in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times set off alarm bells last spring. Particularly concerned were several religious leaders and scholars with lengthy track records of trying to combat anti-Semitic reflexes rooted in Christian readings of Jesus' death as recounted with significant variations in the four Gospels but also as filtered through centuries of medieval Passion plays, devotional literature and visual art.

For several weeks in April, a dialogue seemed possible between Mr. Gibson, a practicing Catholic, and a committee of scholars assembled by Eugene Fisher, an official at the Catholic bishops' conference, and Eugene Korn, then at the Anti-Defamation League. But after the scholars obtained a copy of a draft screenplay, criticized it severely and proposed substantial alterations, a fierce war of spin and counterspin broke out.

Mr. Gibson's father had been widely reported expressing beliefs that the Holocaust was an exaggeration, that the pope was an imposter, that Al Qaeda was not involved in 9/11, and that Jews and Freemasons exerted unusual influence on world and church events. That clearly put the Oscar-winning director and Hollywood star on the defensive and cast a shadow over his project. In May Mr. Gibson took the offensive with accusations that the script analyzed by the scholars had been out of date and stolen.

While the Catholic bishops backed off — they had enough legal problems on their hands — the Anti-Defamation League's national director, Abraham H. Foxman, joined by other Jewish leaders and some scholars, kept up the criticism. By August, faced with protests, 20th Century Fox, which usually releases Mr. Gibson's movies, announced it would not distribute this one.

Mr. Gibson, however, was more than a match. He started a campaign of showing evolving cuts of the film to carefully selected religious leaders.

It began with conservative evangelical viewers not known for engagement with historical issues about Christian anti-Semitism roots and likely to be captivated by a traditional, emotionally powerful synthesis of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' death. Bit by bit, the film gathered praise from conservative and centrist evangelical and Catholic leaders, from the editors of Christianity Today and conservative Catholic intellectuals all the way to Vatican officials.

These were not people who could be accused of not knowing what the controversy was about, especially when Mr. Gibson's film found Jewish defenders who criticized the original critics. There is little doubt that whatever the merits of the case, those critics are now the ones on the defensive.

Spin is not necessarily bad. Sometimes it supplies essential context to help get beyond the surface impression of a public event. But in religion no less than in politics, when the spin comes in torrents, it becomes less an aid than an obstacle. It befogs people's ability to look carefully, in these cases, at the actual reports and the actual movie — and to judge for themselves.