Dave Pierre is a journalist who operates TheMediaReport.com, which examines anti-Catholicism and bias in today’s media, and the author of two books, Double Standard: Abuse Scandals and the Attack on the Catholic Church and Catholic Priests Falsely Accused: The Facts, The Fraud, The Stories. Dave is also a contributing writer to NewsBusters.org, a blog of the Media Research Center covering media bias. In this Catholic World Report interview, he discusses his new book, Catholic Priests Falsely Accused, and offers his thoughts about the media’s coverage of the Catholic Church abuse narrative.
Catholic World Report: When and how did you first become interested in the Catholic clergy abuse scandals and the dominant media coverage of those scandals?
Dave Pierre: When I was living in Los Angeles, I became a contributing writer to NewsBusters.org, the popular media-bias blog of the Media Research Center. I would frequently look at the Los Angeles Times. A number of years ago, I noticed that the paper published a very large, 3,800-word piece on the front page about decades-old abuses that were alleged to have been committed by Catholic clergy in remote villages of Alaska. Indeed, many of the stories were heart-wrenching, painful, and tragic. However, months later, the shocking story of a Southern California teacher who may have molested as many as 200 children was buried on page B3.
I soon began to notice a trend: the Times was often giving front-page coverage to stories about Catholic priests alleged to have committed abuse decades ago. Meanwhile, arrests of public school teachers for abuse happening today were often not reported or buried in the “news briefs” section.
The double standard was glaring.
Catholic World Report: Some Catholics are very upset about the way the mainstream media has covered the scandals since the 1990s; others say the media has done the Church a great service in exposing cases of abuse and attempts to cover up those cases. What would you say about those two positions? What do you think of the media coverage, especially by the major newspapers and news outlets?
Pierre: Actually, I believe both positions are correct. Indeed, the inordinate amount of media coverage has enabled the Church to shine a light on the “filth” (the term of Pope Benedict) that infected it and rid itself of an atrocious problem. The harm to victims has been immeasurable, and we must not forget this.
On the other hand, Catholics are justified in being upset with the media’s coverage of this narrative. As my books have chronicled, the Church has worked tirelessly in the past decade to establish itself as the safest environment possible for children. Is every system perfect? Of course not. However, the Church’s screening procedures, protocols, and “review panels” are unparalleled in the United States for an organization of its size.
Far too many media venues continue to portray the Catholic Church as an insensitive cabal that is callous regarding the welfare of children. That is not only unfair, but untrue.
Catholic World Report: As the title suggests, your first book, Double Standard, analyzed the different standards applied to the clergy scandals compared to other cases involving the molestation and abuse of children. What are some examples of this double standard?
Pierre: The most obvious example of this double standard is with the public school system. Even the education establishment has acknowledged that it has a serious problem in dealing with child molesters. Education Week, the leading education periodical, has reported that the practice of “passing the trash”—quietly shuffling an accused molester from one school to another—is “no secret” in education circles.
Just a few years back, 13 administrators at the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) received an office memo stating that police had arrested an assistant principal and were “investigating allegations that he had an unlawful sexual relationship with a minor.” Yet a few months later, the district reassigned this principal to another school—where he raped again. None of the 13 administrators whose names were on that memo lost their jobs, and the local media did not seem too interested in reporting this fact.
And in another incident at the LAUSD, two administrators pleaded guilty and no contest, respectively, in a court of law to the misdemeanor of failing to report the suspected rape of a 13-year-old girl at their school. Where are they now? They are still working at LAUSD—with promotions.
It is not hard to imagine that if these episodes had involved the Catholic Church, the national media would have had quite a field day. Instead, few people outside of Los Angeles are even familiar these stories.
Indeed, there is a double standard. Recently there have been a number of alarming news reports indicating that the Hollywood community has a very serious child abuse problem on its hands. Veteran actor Corey Feldman recently proclaimed, “The number-one problem in Hollywood is pedophilia.”
Well, where are the breathless cries in the media for accountability? Where is the outrage over “cover-ups”? Where are the angry demands that Hollywood studios install tougher screening policies? Where are the ultimatums that studios implement “abuse review boards”?
Catholic World Report: There are many people who insist, often with great anger, that any attempt to defend Catholic priests and bishops is an offense against justice and a failure to take the scandal seriously. How would you reply to that sort of criticism?
Pierre: Under no circumstances can we defend any wrongdoing by bishops and priests. Criminal priests wreaked awful damage upon innocent minors, and bishops failed to stop the harm.
We must continue to demand justice and compassion to victims of clergy abuse. This is not optional.
However, the demand for honesty, fairness, and perspective in the reporting of the Catholic Church abuse narrative is a separate matter. Catholics have every right to defend the Church against wild, untrue, and unfair attacks against priests and bishops.
As my new book, Catholic Priests Falsely Accused, chronicles, the media is far too willing to adopt a tone of “guilty until proven innocent”—if not “guilty until proven guiltier”—when reporting cases of individuals coming forward to claim abuse by Catholic priests decades ago.
As my book shows, in many instances these accusations later turn out to be false. Yet the damage to the accused cleric’s reputation has already been done. His name remains plastered on the Internet as a “credibly accused molester,” and enemies of the Church have no fear in using these bogus accusations to attack the Church.
Catholic World Report: The recent allegations of abuse within the Penn State football program have garnered a tremendous amount of attention. What do those allegations suggest about child abuse within educational institutions? And why do you think the hard data about abuse in public schools (elementary through high school) has not gotten much, if any, attention in the mainstream media?
Pierre: The Penn State episode simply has magnified what many have known for a long time: child abuse is rampant within educational institutions.
A 2004 report commissioned by the US Department of Education relayed the shocking finding that “nearly 9.6 percent of [public school] students are targets of educator sexual misconduct sometime during their school career.” Yet the report was barely touched in the major media. The author of the report, Hofstra University’s Charol Shakeshaft, later said, “Think the Catholic Church has a problem? The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.”
Another section of that report chronicled an early 1990s study that revealed that zero of 225 cases of teacher sex abuse in New York were reported to police.
Two hundred and twenty-five abusers. None of them reported to police. By all measures, this would be defined as a cover-up. Yet the media has never seemed too motivated to follow up on this.
Catholic World Report: Your new book, Catholic Priests False Accused, shares some shocking stories about men wrongly accused and reputations destroyed. What are a couple of the most distressing or surprising stories that you report on in the book? What are some of the known statistics about false accusations?
Pierre: In 2005, four men in their late 40s and early 50s came forward to accuse Msgr. Ray Hebert, a highly respected Louisiana cleric, of raping and molesting them decades earlier at a Catholic home for troubled teens. One man claimed that the priest had brutally raped him more than 20 times. Up until the accusations, the priest’s 53-year ministry was without blemish.
It was not until nearly five years after the original charges—and a tsunami of media coverage—that the accusers’ lawyers finally acknowledged in court that “Msgr. Ray Hebert did not molest their clients.” In truth, the veteran priest had barely spent any time in the group home with the boys. As the head of Associated Catholic Charities, his occasional visits to the home were merely administrative. Defenders of the accusers now claim that the charges were a case of “mistaken identity.”
The case of Father Roger Jacques, from the Archdiocese of Boston, bore many hallmarks of a false accusation. The accuser only surfaced with her charges after undergoing “hypnosis therapy” that claimed to have uncovered a “repressed memory.” Meanwhile, as I show in my book, the theory of “repressed memory” has been completely and unequivocally discredited by leading memory experts in the psychological community. (“Hypnosis therapy” was also the culprit in the 1993 high-profile false accusation against the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.)
Months after Father Jacques was removed from ministry, the accuser radically changed her story about the nature of the abuse. And out of the blue she accused a second priest of abuse as well.
Even though Father Jacques never had any other allegations of impropriety against him in more than two decades in the priesthood, he was out of ministry for more than four years, fighting to be exonerated and have his name cleared.
As far as statistics of false accusations, I have read credible estimates that as many as one-half of all abuse accusations against Catholic priests are “completely false” or “greatly exaggerated.”
However, the most recent and reliable numbers in this matter come from the Archdiocese of Boston. In August, the archdiocese released sweeping lists of all of its diocesan priests who have been publicly accused of abuse in past decades.
One can examine the number of Boston priests who were found to have committed abuse versus the number of those whose cases were studied and found to be false. In the end, one can demonstrate the sobering figure that one-third of accused priests in the Archdiocese of Boston were accused falsely. (I provide all of the supporting numbers in my book.)
Again, this is an important matter that the media has not been eager to explore.
Catholic World Report: You have done a lot of work exposing the suspect motivations and tactics employed by SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests). What is the apparent purpose of SNAP? What are some of the most serious problems with the work of SNAP?
Pierre: Indeed, SNAP has given a voice to those who have been so grievously harmed by clergy. We must continue to demand justice and compassion for victims of clergy abuse. As I have said before, I believe that ideally the Catholic Church and SNAP would be working together to tackle the scourge of abuse.
However, SNAP’s public presentations make such a collaboration utterly impossible. The group is mean-spirited, misleading, and dishonest, and I continue to provide examples to support this at my site, TheMediaReport.com.
One Church leader who once thought that it would be productive to reach out to SNAP is Archbishop Timothy Dolan. When he was a prelate in Milwaukee years ago, he believed that making himself available to the group would be a constructive expression of support to abuse victims.
He soon learned the hard way that such an overture would not be welcomed.
At a contentious visit to a parish in Milwaukee, a member of SNAP actually spat in Archbishop Dolan’s face. The member then roared that he would not be silent “until there was a ‘going out of business’ sign in front of every Catholic parish, church, school, and outreach center.”
“That’s when I knew I should have listened to those who told me that working with them would not be helpful,” recalled Archbishop Dolan.
Unfortunately, such relentless mean-spiritedness is part of the fabric of SNAP. The group’s tactics are rooted in the aggressive, in-your-face activism formulated by the infamous and influential 1960s radical, Saul Alinsky. Alinsky’s tactics are inherently spiteful and anti-Christian. SNAP’s national director, David Clohessy, worked for nearly a decade with the notorious community organization ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), whose nasty strategies were rooted in the theories of Alinsky.
SNAP is downright hostile to acknowledging the efforts that the Church has made in the past decade to protect children. It is also adamant in refusing to recognize the prevalence of false accusations.
When one examines the activities of SNAP, it becomes apparent that the organization is more about bludgeoning the Catholic Church than providing any concrete support to clergy abuse victims.
SNAP’s 2007 tax returns, for example, show that it garnered income of over $470,000. Yet these same papers show that only a measly $593 was spent on “survivor support.”
The numbers speak for themselves. Although it may have started with the noble intention of assisting abuse victims, SNAP has simply evolved into a Church-bashing operation.
The media often turns to leaders of SNAP to reliably provide quotes that [depict] the Catholic Church as a “callous” and “insensitive” gang that deliberately harbors child molesters.
It is no secret that the media harbors no love for the Catholic Church, and they love the Church-bashing material that SNAP provides.
Catholics should be aware of the nefarious operations of SNAP, if they are not already.
Catholic World Report: Where do you think the Church in the US is today, compared to 10-15 years ago, regarding the scandals? What work remains to be accomplished? And, finally, what can ordinary Catholics do to both fight real abuse and defend those who are innocent?
Pierre: Recent data showed that in all of 2010, a total of seven Catholic priests were accused of contemporaneously abusing a minor.
While any number greater than zero is tragic, this low number is indicative of an organization that has genuinely and tirelessly committed itself to the protection of children.
Faithful Catholics should not be afraid to voice a defense of the Church when it is attacked and treated unfairly. While demanding justice and compassion for victims, Catholics can also charitably point out all of the measures that the Church has taken to establish safe environments for children.
The Church must continue to offer justice and support to genuine victims of clergy abuse. However, if work remains in the Church, it is in its handling of accused priests.
I was recently asked by a newspaper reporter about the Church’s policy of placing priests on leave after they are accused of abuse [alleged to have occurred] decades ago. I told him that I thought that priests should first have a right to reply to the charges. If they acknowledge wrongdoing, then they should immediately be removed. If they deny the charges, and there have never been any such accusations before, then they should be afforded innocence until information shows otherwise. (Again—I am referring to a previously unblemished priest facing an accusation dating back decades.)
I also asked the reporter, “What if someone anonymously telephoned the newspaper today and said, ‘(I used the reporter’s own name) abused me 30 years ago?’ Would it be OK if the newspaper published this accusation and publicly suspended you while it conducted a months-long investigation?”
The reporter seemed genuinely sobered by such a thought. He understood the point I was trying to make. It’s easy for people to agree that a Catholic priest should be publicly suspended when someone lodges a decades-old accusation against him. But would people accept this same strict policy at their own workplaces and apply it to themselves? Most people would not, especially if it meant that their name was going to be plastered across the media landscape as a “credibly accused child molester.”
Let us pray for the victims of clergy abuse.
Let us pray for the Church.
And pray for our priests!