The Channel Nine current affairs program 60 Minutes devoted most of its 2 June edition to outrageous allegations that Archbishop George Pell of Sydney had paid victims of clerical sex abuse "hush money". The daily newspapers took up the issue before and after the program went to air, largely echoing the same line.
Confident it was on a ratings winner, Channel Nine revisited the issue the following week, with claims of further sensational "revelations."
In fact, as Archbishop Pell's media statement of 3 June (see pages 6-7 for the full text) set out, the claims lacked substance. Not surprisingly, however, this statement would be largely ignored in the media, with the second edition of 60 Minutes including no admission of errors in its earlier report.
In a way, the disgraceful beat-up was a backhanded recognition of Archbishop Pell's stature as a national church figure - if also reflective of the Australian media's "tall poppy syndrome".
The media no doubt sees mileage in causing the maximum embarrassment to major public figures. In the case of Dr Pell, one could add the fact that as an articulate spokesman for Christian principles in a secular culture, he is a target of hostility from groups inside and outside the Catholic Church.
While many people would like to believe the old anti-Catholic sectarianism is dead and buried in contemporary Australia, the current controversy shows how limited it is. As long as Catholics (and Christians generally) vacate the public square and keep their beliefs and principles to themselves, they will be left alone. But those who, like Dr Pell, challenge the conventional wisdom of a secular culture in the areas of marriage, family or bioethics will be as much a target of criticism as Archbishop Mannix and other earlier Church leaders ever were.
Up to a point, the media has served a useful role in pressuring Australia's Catholic bishops to get their house in order regarding the scandal of clerical sex abuse. But, in the case of Dr Pell, it has clearly picked the wrong man.
- Michael Gilchrist: Editor (E-mail - firstname.lastname@example.org)