Sex, Lies, and Vaticangate

By Felling, Matthew | The World and I, December 2002 | Go to article overview
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Sex, Lies, and Vaticangate


Felling, Matthew, The World and I


Entering Saint Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C., around noon on the one-year anniversary of 9/11, proved stirring for more than obvious reasons. The elegant church, the seat of the ubiquitous Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, was torn up on the inside for reconstruction. Visitors had to navigate the aisles beneath a skeletal maze of scaffolds and pipes and a canopy of nets protecting worshipers from debris potentially falling from above. Construction barriers prevented those in most of the pews from seeing the altar.

The other noteworthy aspect: There wasn't an empty seat in the place. In an urban setting, during the middle of their workday, adherents (and more than a few non-Catholics) were drawn to the church. Though a majority were clad in business suits, there were many tourists, college students, and others who had taken time in the middle of the day to participate in the mass.

Despite the unsightly changes the church was undergoing, the people were still coming. The allegorical quality of the scene was impossible to miss.

The Roman Catholic Church in America took a black eye this year as a barrage of revelations of sexual abuse took aim at the priesthood. Media coverage of the story expanded from one watershed case in Boston to become a tidal wave across the United States and then all the way to Vatican City. It became a scandal fueled largely by a volatile mix of grossly immoral deeds, broken trust, media attention, and the lack of background knowledge possessed by reporters assigned to the story. As with every major media event--and another one seems to arise every few months--it is extremely worthwhile to dig deeper, in this case asking what made this story No. 1 on the national agenda for weeks this past spring, during a war.

Media coverage of the Catholic Church's treatment of its pedophile crisis calls to mind Sebastian Junger's nonfiction book The Perfect Storm, wherein a once-in-a-century tempest was created by an unlikely triumvirate: a high-pressure system blowing down from Canada, a squall moving out to the Atlantic, and the remnants of Hurricane Grace gusting in from the south. It was the meteorological definition of "worst-case scenario." It was the same for the priest scandal. The storm clouds developed over the church for a handful of reasons: the media's historically poor relationship with the Catholic Church, a nonexistent public relations campaign by church leaders, the shock value of child rape, and the cover-up. This story was a welcome relief to the mainstream media: faced with the prospect of a "war on terror" that was moving forward in fits and starts, they had not had a domestic scandal to report on since the terrorist attacks.

The media and the Catholic Church

A 1993 study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs of major newspapers, newsmagazines, and network news over three decades "found the church on the losing side of the battle of ideas, an institution depicted as conservative, oppressive, and out of touch with the modern world." The study went on to find "the church's teachings on sexual behavior were the leading topic of controversy in every time period, and [on occasion] debate over sexual morals took second place to discussions of power relations within the church."

This is an appropriate starting point for a discussion of the pedophile coverage. According to the study, the Roman Catholic Church regularly steps to the plate with two strikes against it: sex and internal hierarchy. The priest scandal was an alloy of both topics, starting when the Boston Globe broke an enormous story in January 2002. The Globe found that the Archdiocese of Boston had shuffled the Reverend John Geoghan, a priest with a history of pedophilia, from parish to parish although church officials knew of his crimes. Geoghan's case was at once frightening, disheartening, and staggering. He has been accused of sexually molesting almost 200 people over 30 years.

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