Coverage Of Priest Scandal Enters New Phase

By: Joe Strupp

As new revelations about sexual abuse involving Roman Catholic priests continue to unfold — largely driven by local newspaper probes — many journalists foresee a second wave of coverage on the growing scandal.

It could eventually even rival Enron as a business story, with the Roman Catholic Church facing billions of dollars in payouts for legal settlements. “How churches are going to deal with this is a major financial problem,” said George Harmon, associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. “I would have a team of four or five reporters on this.”

Stories examining the effect of the scandal on church fundraising, insurance, financial status, schools, social programs, and recruitment of new priests are inevitable. In addition, many papers are already examining whether the church’s rules requiring priest celibacy should be altered. Others are demanding that church leaders report any molestation accusations to local law enforcement.

Newspapers have already unearthed many of the secrets that church leaders have been trying to hide for decades. Tom Roberts, editor of the weekly National Catholic Reporter, which has documented such cases for nearly 20 years, said, “The real difference in coverage now is that documents are being released and papers are using court records to show the language of the church culture.” The Hartford (Conn.) Courant, in fact, may have put itself on the hot spot for publishing information from sealed court records.

Looking ahead, editors at several papers, such as The Miami Herald, have already reassigned more people to the religion beat, anticipating that the story will likely demand numerous follow-ups in the coming months.

“I can’t think of anything that has drawn this kind of news interest in a particular church,” said Aly Colon, an instructor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla. Harmon agreed. “It may play out as the biggest crisis in the United States for the Catholic Church,” he said.

The Boston Globe started the avalanche of coverage in January by publishing details from previously sealed court files that indicated the Archdiocese of Boston had routinely reassigned priests accused of sexual misconduct. That coverage prompted other newspapers to uncover dozens of cases of molestation accusations in their own local dioceses, with church leaders often volunteering information.

But the coverage did not end there. During the past two weeks, newspapers have broken a new wave of stories divulging a variety of sexual misconduct allegations involving priests.

A March 8 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story revealed details of a $125,000 settlement in a case where a former seminary student had sued the local diocese alleging molestation by three priests. The story prompted one of the accused, Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell, to resign from his post as head of the Diocese of Palm Beach, Fla.

A March 17 Hartford Courant story, which used information from sealed documents of several cases settled last year, detailed the Bridgeport Catholic Diocese’s reassignment of priests accused of sexual misconduct. The stories raised national attention because they focused on events that occurred when Cardinal Edward Egan, now archbishop of New York, oversaw the Bridgeport diocese.

A March 20 story in The Miami Herald revealed previously unreported settlements in the late 1990’s by the Archdiocese of Miami with five victims who accused priests in several parishes of sexual misconduct.

At the Courant, editors obtained court records through unnamed sources from settled cases that remain under seal. Some experts in media law say it might pose a problem for the paper.

“They could be held in contempt of court depending on how they got the records,” said Ken Cunniff, a professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago who has represented plaintiffs in past cases against the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune. Several media attorneys also speculated that a court could demand that the Courant reveal its sources for the sealed items.

Stephanie Abrutyn, in-house counsel for the Courant and several other Tribune Co. papers, downplayed concerns in an interview with E&P. Although Connecticut has no shield law, she said the state does recognize a common-law shield privilege that would likely protect the newspaper from revealing sources.

At the same time, the scandal is prompting numerous editorials and columnist rants across the spectrum, with Stephanie Salter of the San Francisco Chronicle warning of a kind of anti-priest witchhunt, Newsday‘s Jimmy Breslin calling church leaders “stumbling” and “sinister,” and Maureen Dowd of The New York Times comparing Catholic leaders to the Taliban.

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