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Opinion: Abuse, reform, and the ethics of reporting

Journalists on the Church beat need to consider together and very carefully whether and how to use available tools, now that the “digital genie” is out of the bottle.

(Image: Aidan Feddersen/Unsplash.com)

Three years ago this month, I wrote in these pages that the US bishops’ “Apalachin moment” had arrived.

I meant to say that the then-recent revelations regarding Theodore Edgar “Uncle Ted” McCarrick (the disgraced former cardinal archbishop of Washington, DC) and the publication of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report had combined to make it impossible for anyone to deny systemic corruption in the clerical and hierarchical leadership of the Church or systemic rot in the ecclesiastical leadership culture.

There was ample evidence of the rot that summer of 2018, some of it gathered by the Catholic World Report. I think of Cardinal Wuerl’s attempt to downplay the McCarrick business.

Before that summer’s celebrity clerical whistleblower, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, published his first spectacular J’ Accuse!, Cardinal Wuerl appeared on Salt & Light TV with Fr. Thomas Rosica, and said: “I don’t think this is some massive, massive crisis.” CWR reached Cardinal Wuerl with an offer to revise and extend his remarks, which he accepted.

I think it’s important to take a look at, and to listen to the context,” he offered then. “The context of that whole discussion [with Salt & Light] was: The Church is facing a very grave situation. There’s an erosion of confidence — in fact, there’s a breakdown — right now, of credibility.”

This is a very grave moment, a situation of very real crisis,” Cardinal Wuerl went on to say. “That crisis should not overwhelm us. We should be able as lay women, lay men, and bishops, to confront it and to resolve it.”

The very short version of a three-year-long story-that-is-really-a-chapter-within-a-much-bigger-story is: That hasn’t happened.

There is something poetic about the news of Theodore McCarrick’s impending rendez-vous with criminal justice, therefore, something coldly comforting but solid and substantial.

In November of 2018, when news of Bishop Holley in Memphis, Bishop Malone in Buffalo, and Bishop Jenik in New York, was all in the papers within the span of a couple of weeks, I noted – also in these pages – that the carelessness of the Vatican in these general regards was evident, as was the willingness of too many powerful bishops in the United States to toe the Vatican line and even take pages from the Vatican playbook.

There was precious little to warrant any hope for meaningful reform from within the Church, and the trajectory was then clearly toward institutional collapse.

[T]he Catholic Church’s house will be clean,” I wrote. “The only questions are whether it shall be God’s Vicar on Earth who cleans it, or Caesar, and whether the cleansing shall come before or after the fire sale.”

With criminal charges brought against Uncle Ted, we begin to have an answer to the first of those questions, and possible indication of the answer to the second.

I wrote a little, for the Catholic Herald, about what this means for reporters on the Church beat and for senior Churchmen and their appointed mouthpieces, after the recent unpleasantness regarding Bishop Hoeppner in Crookston. If that Crookston business was an exercise in transparency, it was desultory at best.

If Church leaders are taking at least some of their cues from Rome, and if Rome is concerned with scandal, then Church leaders’ failures in transparency are the result of terrible miscalculation.

The carelessness of Churchmen high and low toward the broad public continues to be the true scandal. The faithful have a right to knowledge regarding the character and conduct of their rulers in the faith, and the world has a right to the Gospel. The failures of Churchmen to be forthright continue to hamper the effectiveness of Christian witness.

This summer, we have seen new methods of newsgathering employed in the work of discovery.

The methods arise from within the digital weave of the world in which we live. They are controversial. They are disconcerting in themselves and in their implications. They are powerful. They are dangerous.

Serious, sober discussion of the professional ethics involved in the collection and use of data is needful, and long overdue.

That journalists have deployed such methods in the search for truth regarding the state of clerical and hierarchical leadership, is itself further testament to the depth and extent of the corruption and rot. It is also at least partly owing to the recalcitrance and retrenchment of Churchmen.

Whatever one makes of the ethics of the reporters at The Pillar, who used data to gather and report evidence of the General Secretary of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ serial misbehavior, candid minds cannot doubt the newsworthiness of the story they reported.

The only way out is through,” I wrote in these pages, three years ago this week, “and the only way through the filthy muck and slime of half-truth more devilish than outright mendacity, is veracity.”

The bishops – all of them and every one of them – must tell the whole, unvarnished truth,” I said. “In any case, the truth will out.”

It didn’t need to happen this way. It still doesn’t.

Journalists on the Church beat need to consider together and very carefully whether and how to use available tools, now that the “digital genie” is out of the bottle. That will take time and resources. We will make mistakes. They will be costly.

The reading public must develop powerful new heuristics with which to distinguish the “good” news from the “bad” and sort it properly.

Church leaders need to realize their part in bringing us to where we are, and listen — really listen — to their comms people, who too often find themselves saddled with the unenviable task of touting a line against which they strenuously argued, or would have argued if they’d been in the room.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 130 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books. He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.

10 Comments

  1. The bishops’ tolerance of sexual misconduct in the clergy, specifically homosexuality, justifies journalistic tactics that, in normal circumstances, should not be employed. Despite decades of scandals, little seems to ever change. It is either “see no evil” or tacit support of perservity from most of the hierarchy. When the Church shows itself willing to police itself, then the extraordinary measures from the outside can be put back on the shelf.

  2. It is clear that Msgr. Burrill was put in his position as USCCB General Secretary, controlling the overall response to US sex abuse investigations, BECAUSE he was known to be a reliable active homosexual by the corrupt Bishops running the USCCB, and he would make sure that the parasites of the counterfeit cult controlling the US Church would be assured of ZERO fact finding from inside US Church.

    There is clearly ZERO commitment to truth or justice in the USCCB, and it seems among most Bishops, and ZERO thought that any such commitment is owed to God or the Church at large.

    Therefore, God has handed them over to others with different motives about truth and justice.

  3. The Church will be on the path to holiness once Truth is lived in the most radical ways. Until that happens, the Church is nothing more than just another protection racket no better than most (if not all) governments, academia, media, social networking, cultural and all other societal organs.

    Truth above everything but never without charity. Charity without Truth is no charity at all.

  4. I am grateful for the work The Pillar is doing and I pray it brings good fruit for everyone concerned. I hope other Catholic media will join them in their efforts, and think it’s better for Catholic media rather than secular media to be tackling these issues this if done truthfully, fairly and compassionately. I believe The Pillar satisfied all of those categories. I also agree with Tony G.: “When the Church shows itself willing to police itself, then the extraordinary measures from the outside can be put back on the shelf.”

  5. My belief is that the modernist wave gulfing the Church since the 18th century has done its damage and is essentially over. In so many respects, the new Israel has become so much like the old Israel, worshipping everything else by the true God, incarnate in Jesus Christ, and living according to the plain teachings in Holy Scripture and the Catechism. The division is clear. Those who believe and strive to live according to the plain teachings of Jesus and those who do not. God permits the evil one to work is deceitful influences in both Church and culture, to reveal who loves Him and who does not. The temptation is sometimes to leave. The remedy is to stay and pray. There is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church, regardless of the spiritual state of the some bishops and the corruption in the Vatican.

    • I agree with the later part of your comments. Unfortunately the Church has been in and out of various crises throughout history. I do not know when the current wave of looking the other way on homosexual clergy started. However it could not exist without the tacit approval of some if not many bishops. A major house cleaning and repentance is needed. We must pray!

  6. The Church, in the heart of believers but administered by men, has traveled troubled times (Borgia Pope, schism & reformation). Truth survives. Men come & go.

  7. Digital overload may be the issue, not the ethics of managing it. What’s purposely fed into the system is what comes out the preponderance misleading. Chris Altieri’s “With criminal charges brought against Uncle Ted, we begin to have an answer to the first of those questions, and possible indication of the answer to the second”, implies trust in this pontificate and if not the judiciary. For the last the judiciary cannot cleanse the soul of the Church, for the first that necessary leadership the only viable solution is far from apparent. We ordinary members of the Church, whether journalist,presbyter, layman, have options that are as viable as hierarchy permits, imaginatively they “would have argued against if they’d been in the room. The bishops must tell the whole, unvarnished truth, or the truth will come out.” With some ‘insider’ contact the prospect of unvarnished truth coming out of the hierarchy is a vague expectation. Would we realistically expect insulated bishops who don’t know and don’t want to know the full truth to tell anything of worth, and unvarnished truth from those that really do know who are among the long entrenched self protecting networks for which revealing the truth requires miraculous conversion, or a Fra Tomas Torquemada inquisition? Journalists will not be the savior of the Church nor will the expectation of truth telling prelates who know the truth. It always comes back to the Roman pontiff who alone has the authority and the tools to clean up el lio. Journalists can write interesting stories to the best of their knowledge, articles that incite discussion. Journalists and editors whose interests are noble may conceivably inspire moral transformation from within.

  8. Expose all the serial predators in the priesthood. It’s the only way to clean up the Catholic Church from the filth infesting it. St Peter Damian, pray for us.

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