Reporting the Catholic Church's Scandal in Ireland: Hindered by Its Secrecy Culture, Irish Journalists Were Helped by Dogged Reporting from Britain. (Journalist's Trade)
O'Reilly, Emily, Nieman Reports
Some years ago, a reporter for the Irish national broadcasting channel, RTE, asked the then-Archbishop of Dublin, Desmond Connell, if the archdiocese had paid money to a named victim of clerical sex abuse. The archbishop denied the charge. Later it emerged that the archdiocese had advanced a "loan" to an abusing priest effectively to pay off one of his victims. Strictly speaking, the Cardinal was telling the truth: the archdiocese had not paid the money directly to the victim.
The Cardinal's deeply disingenuous reply would become a watershed for what would transpire in the years ahead--as the painstaking revelations of widespread clerical sexual abuse of children throughout Ireland emerged in the press, as did the attempts to cover up the scandal by some of the most senior members of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
A phenomenon of Irish journalism, and Irish life, is that our scandals are often first made public by reporters in another country, usually Britain. British TV stations beam into Ireland and are watched as easily and almost as regularly as the national channels. In the past 10 to 15 years, two of the biggest stories of corruption were broken by British TV stations. One concerned corrupt practices in the Irish beef industry; the other--clerical sex abuse--was brought to public attention in a series of documentaries.
The Irish media were no less avid than their British counterparts to get these stories out, but two things conspired against them doing so. The primary one was our libel laws. Irish courts demand high standards of proof when it comes to media allegations. Victims' stories, no matter how compelling, were not enough to beat the libel laws. Concepts of freedom of speech and fair comment are not as highly developed in this country as they are in the United States. The second was a sort of cultural censorship, an unwillingness by the news media in general to give the bad news until the populace has been adequately softened up in advance. Sexual deviancy within the priesthood had been whispered about for decades; yet during those years no reporter was prepared to go behind the whispers.
Irish Press Tell the Story
The Irish press began to more aggressively pursue this story around the mid-1990's. At that time, the church was already reeling from a series of scandals that in hindsight seem almost innocent: One concerned the fathering of a child by high-profile and popular Bishop Eamon Casey, the other concerned the fathering of another child by a high-profile Dublin priest. The fact that the media reported both stories proved that a massive sea change had taken place.
In 1994, for reasons too complicated to retell, the Irish government fell--in a very tangential way--over a scandal involving an abusing priest. The revelations that led to the controversy were revealed in a British TV documentary, which opened the floodgates in Ireland. One by one, victims emerged to tell their stories. Investigations were carried out, charges pressed, convictions secured. Once a conviction had been secured, the press at last were able to reveal what had happened and to dig deeper.
The reporting wasn't easy. The Catholic Church stonewalled, denied and hid behind canon law--the laws of the church that appear to bypass the norms of civil law but which in fact have no legal standing. But the media were emboldened by the fact that respect for the church--in the wake of a series of scandals--was collapsing. Culturally, it became much easier for journalists to break the bad news.
Yet the Irish media were still hindered by a secrecy culture. There was precious little access to court or other documents. Unlike The Boston Globe reporters, who were able to access a mountain of church documents and records, the Irish media had to rely on the testimony of victims, most of which, naturally, was uncorroborated. …