Mainstream media coverage of religion and religiously-tinged ethics is a tricky thing. Religions, of course, by their very nature, maintain some un-proveable tenets, such as the existence of deities and the moral importance of rituals and holidays. But no one ever prefaces a journalistic mention of Moses or Jesus by calling them an “alleged prophet” or a “so-called holy man.” There’s a level of respect accorded to religion that few other unsubstantiated beliefs get. That’s one of the problems women’s rights advocates run up against in terms of media coverage of our movement, as our opponents are often motivated by religious dogma.
Of course, covering people’s most sacredly-held beliefs in a polite manner is a goal for media types who try hard not just to be objective and accurate, but also fair. Unfortunately, this often translates to simply giving both sides of a “moral issue” equal space to speak, without always interrogating the factual accuracy of their statements. This is why the “new atheist” crew like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens try so hard to emphasize the irrational and occasionally ludicrous aspects of religion–so that governments, parents, schools and journalists won’t necessarily take the opinions of religious figures at face value.
With the latest church scandal, their point may finally be getting through. The way the media has been approaching the most recent in a series of church child-abuse scandals may indicate the gradual beginning of a shift in coverage, a willingness for media interrogation not just of religious figures, but of outdated religious ideas.
For those who have been living under a rock, the situation is this: more and more evidence points to the fact that the current Pope, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger, was involved in ignoring or hushing up sexual abuse complaints against clergy in multiple diocese in Europe and the United States.
Newspapers in Europe have been on the case for months. At home, many outlets, The New York Times in particular, have been appropriately loathe to drop the trail of the ongoing sexual abuse cover-up scandal roiling the church. More so than during previous iterations of this same major scandal, media figures have been digging up documents, breaking news, printing virulently anti-Church op-eds, and repeatedly following up on their own and others’ reporting. Not only are journalists questioning the actions of the most venerated of religious figures, but they’re looking into the doctrine that led to the abuse and cover-up, specifically the concept that rape, molestation and abuse on the part of clergy constituted a sin to be reckoned with before God rather than a crime against another person and the state.
One journalist, Walter Robinson, a former Globe reporter who once famously exposed much of the abuse in the Boston diocese, explained in a Q and A with ProPublica what has shifted in the Catholic Church since that era:
… [church authorities'] view of the abuse itself—and this was fairly naive—wasn’t that it was a pathology or illness, but that it was a sin, and that if the priest repented of his sin, they could reassign him to another parish. That went on—we say for decades, but no doubt has gone on for centuries—and that view has changed pretty radically. The church now recognizes that somebody who molests children should not be put in a situation where he can further molest children.
Whether or not the church is now willing to surrender those abusers to law enforcement remains to be seen–there are new directives in place to cooperate with civil authorities, but then again known criminals have cushy jobs at the Vatican. Still, the distinction described by Robinson, and echoed throughout media reports this week, is important. The media has begun to question one of the world’s most powerful and visible religious bodies not just for its actions, but for its teachings–and fight back when Church authorities slam them.
Why this shift? There are a few possibilities. One is simply the indisputable hard evidence uncovered by reporters, dating back decades. Another is that this Pope was not a beloved figure like his predecessor, John Paul II–who was a more cuddly face in public even while embracing similarly anti-choice, anti-birth control, anti-gay ideas to his successor. Cardinal Ratzinger, now known as Benedict XVI, was dogged by controversy the minute he was chosen, when it was revealed he had (under compulsion) been a member of the Hitler Youth. Perhaps this unpleasant factoid meant that the new Holy Father was less off-limits than other venerated religious figures might be.
Another explanation is the confluence of this scandal, in the American press, with the debate over health care. During the protracted negotiations over abortion provisions and other aspects of the bill, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops aggressively lobbied for stricter anti-choice provisions that would have essentially railroaded all abortion coverage off the market–public and private. Eventually, other Catholic groups with more direct experience on the ground, such as several orders of nuns, broke with the bishops by supporting the bill. The marked contrast of the Catholic officials who actually directly worked with parishioners supporting the bill and the bishops who opposed it, made for extremely good optics, and clear evidence that not all Catholics marched in lockstep.
Furthermore, protest is coming loud and clear from within the Catholic community itself. Victim advocacy groups are refusing to endorse a church-sponsored hotline. Years ago, Sinead O’Connor was mocked and vilified for her SNL protest against the then-Pontiff. Now she’s being treated as an expert, with an op-ed urging Irish Catholics to boycott mass in protest of the cover-up. Other Catholics like TAP’s Tim Fernholz are writing about giving up attending church in solidarity with victims.
The seemingly-new understanding that, hey, we can acknowledge that it’s bad for a religious institution to treat rape and abuse as a sin rather than a crime, will hopefully open doors to more vigorously examine other religious practices that do harm, such as the refusal to distribute condoms in AIDS-stricken countries, relegating women to the back of buses or forbidding them from driving, or even holding up health care for millions because of abortion language. Religion-based morality isn’t always bad, but it certainly isn’t always good either, and it’s crucial for our media to be able to examine religious principles and practices, no matter how widely-accepted or praised, in terms of their real effect on actual people’s lives.
See also: Katha Politt on the abuse scandal.