Shooting the messenger

Shooting the messenger

Alan Gill

Recent issues of AD2000 have contained trenchant criticism of media reporting (misreporting?) of clerical sex scandals, and the way Church authorities have handled - or mishandled - the problem.

Father M. Shadbolt (Letters, November 2002) has formed a Catholic Priests' Anti-Defamation League, while Bishop Luc Matthys (February 2003) says: "The relentless and continued reporting in news media of criminal behaviour by a few clergy has become more than an attack. It has become persecution."

While the examples quoted might be said to justify such an attitude, the wording, in particular of Bishop Matthys' article, seems to put the media - in reporting wrongdoing - virtually on a par with the perpetrators.

The Catholic Weekly of the Sydney Archdiocese published (16 February 2003) an interesting statement by Archbishop John P. Foley, President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Archbishop Foley says that some people are "upset" that the secular media has focused so intently on the Church's abuse scandal, when such abuse is as bad or worse in other segments of society. That viewpoint, he says, is irrelevant.

He goes on to state: "Priests, by their exalted vocation, are literally called upon to be holy. If they have literally betrayed their vocation by engaging in acts which are not only unspeakable but criminal, then the crime lies not in the revelation of those facts, but in their commission."

To be fair to Fr Shadbolt and Bishop Matthys, their complaints centre largely on the tactics employed rather than the actual reporting of abuse. However, as a former working journalist, my views are coloured by encounters with well-meaning but (in my view) misguided Catholics whose approach is that of "let sleeping dogs lie" ( if it's not reported it didn't happen or "let's shoot the messenger.")

Both Fr Shadbolt and Bishop Matthys raise the question of "anti-Catholicism" in the media. Speaking from experience (I was for 22 years the Sydney Morning Herald's religious writer) I believe there is some truth in this claim, which requires qualification.

Journalists, by and large, are fairly cynical people, suspicious of authority figures. Bishops (Catholic ones in particular) are seen as figures of power, in which case the "tall poppy" syndrome operates. Among less sophisticated journos there is a further view of clergy of all denominations (as cited by the late Anglican Dean Lance Shilton) as "interfering God-botherers out to stop people having a good time."

When "God-botherers" are seen, additionally, as hypocritical - i.e., blatantly betraying their vows - it is small wonder the more unthinking media types tend to have a field day.

Drummoyne, NSW

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