Globe Crusade Creates New Victims

The Standard Times [Boston MA]
Downloaded March 25, 2003

The Boston Globe likely will collect a Pulitzer Prize within a couple of days. We hope it does because it deserves it.

Without the Globe's cold-eyed focus on horrific patterns of priestly abuse, Cardinal Bernard Law and his advisers might well have continued to cover up an appalling scandal and more innocent young people and children would have been endangered.

Justice for the victims of priestly depredations would have been further delayed or altogether denied.

The Globe with its coverage galvanized public opinion in Boston and around the country, made quick work of Cardinal Law and, in the process, dealt a devastating blow to the moral authority of the Catholic Church.

This past month, the Globe took front page notice of the precipitous decline in Catholic church attendance and contributions from the diminished number of Catholic faithful.

The Globe had done its job and no doubt earned all the professional honors headed its way.

But there is another side to the Globe's remorseless campaign against the church and Catholic hierarchical authority that deserves some consideration.

For all the good it achieved, particularly in ousting Cardinal Law and bringing a measure of recompense to victims, it also created an immense wave of new victims through the single-minded zealotry of its crusade against the church.

We are not talking about the indeterminate number of priests who may have been falsely or unfairly accused. That was probably inevitable given the scope of the problem and the tenacity of those in the hierarchy who would keep things hidden. We are not talking about the hundreds of decent priests and nuns who remained, and remain, scrupulously faithful to their vows.

All of them have been tarred by a persistently blithe indifference to keeping the story in proportion.

Cardinal Law and his lieutenants must share the blame for that.

It took forceful reporting to achieve a breakthrough against those who would maintain the great silence that helped allow the abuses in the first place.

The victims I do have in mind are the countless number of people who will be stripped of housing and educational opportunities and health and nutritional care because support for the Catholic programs that would provide them has withered away after the Globe barrage.

While it did a masterful job exposing the evil inflicted by miscreant priests, the Globe seemed to have little interest in reminding readers of the social stakes at risk in a diminished Massachusetts Catholicism.

The Globe covered the institutional church the way Woodward and Bernstein covered Watergate, treating it as strictly a political entity without any reference to the social let alone the spiritual realm.

The damage it inflicted was incalculable and will likely resonate for generations. The Globe paid that damage no heed. It was out of its frame of reference.

Anti-Catholic zealots have tried for 160 years to reduce the power of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts.

Ironically, it was the Globe, the newspaper supposedly preferred by 19th Century Irish maids, that succeeded where the Know-Nothings failed.

Years ago, I was a Globe writer and reporter. I know some of the people who worked on the church stories; I doubt any of them were out to hurt an institution that was so much a part of their own culture. They were out to right wrongs and correct abuses.

But there seemed so little effort to minimize the collateral damage to the vast community served by the church.

Through many months of reading the Globe's scandal coverage, I failed to detect any consistent effort to create a context, to be balanced, to make distinctions between sexual abuse and pedophilia, to strive for fairness to the great number of Catholic priests who never took sexual advantage of anyone and who adhered scrupulously to their vow of celibacy.

Day after day, we were presented with one dimensional stories made simple-minded because they came stripped of all humane dimensions.

The low point came last Nov. 14 when the Globe ran at the top of its city and region page an article under the headline: Nun Placed on Leave after Abuse Allegation.

The story reported that a Dominican nun who had served in five parishes over the past 34 years had been placed on leave after being accused of sexual misconduct with a fifth grader 40 years ago.

That's 40 years ago.

The vague accusation, the only one brought against the nun since she joined her order, was leveled by a woman in her 50's who refused to press any legal action.

Given the climate, the accusation alone was enough to prompt the nun's order to suspend her.

The suspension, of course, became the hook for the story.

But, how likely would it have been to suspend a nun with no other complaints against her except this 40-year-old accusation in any climate other than the one created by the Globe's coverage.

The Globe repeated the mounting numbers of priests accused as the scandal enfolded.

But there was no persistent effort to put that number in the context of the number of priests in the archdiocese over the 50 years or so covered by the clerical records.

To this day, a Globe reader is unlikely to know whether the number of sexual abuse or harassment complaints against priests is higher or lower than against school teachers or college professors or YMCA workers or Protestant ministers or psychiatric social workers.

The Globe reader is also unlikely to know the effect of each new revelation on the Catholic community of Greater Boston and Massachusetts because little effort was put into getting the "softer" stories that might have measured the week-to-week demoralization at the parish level.

What was it like for a priest to read that a friend he has known for years had betrayed children or young girls? How does he reconcile his faith with the ugly facts of scandal? What is it like to have to hesitate before wearing a clerical collar in a restaurant or a theater.

How are the people trying to manage Catholic social services coping with diminished resources in the face of rising need?

The Globe has shown only fitful interest in these kinds of stories; its eye has been on the prize that soon will be in its grasp.

Post-Pulitzer, perhaps, the Globe will turn its cold eye on the ruins of a ravaged church that did so much to create and sustain the unique social conscience that once animated the Massachusetts culture.

Right now, that conscience seems as cold and soulless as an austerity budget document or a Globe report on an aged nun who may, or may not, have abused a child in her care 40 years ago.

Ken Hartnett

Mr. Hartnett is editor of The Standard-Times.


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