By: Graham Webster
The San Francisco Chronicle ran an unusually long correction this week amending a two-week-old story about a preliminary ruling in two cases of alleged sexual abuse by clergymen.
The blog Regret The Error called attention to the five-paragraph correction.
“The story was essentially a story about the judge’s ruling that punitive damages could be sought in the case,” Steve Proctor, deputy managing editor at the Chronicle, told E&P. “Fundamentally the story itself was not wrong.” But both the headline and the story’s text, however, could be misleading, he said.
The correction came after a lawyer for the Catholic Church sent a letter to the Chronicle’s publisher with copies of the March 11 story and the court transcript, noting inconsistencies.
First, the correction retracted an assertion in the story’s deck, which said “Alameda County judge rips church actions.” The judge had not been so outspoken.
“The conduct of the church as alleged — and I’m not saying what’s going to be proven, because I don’t know what’s going to be proven — but as alleged, the conduct is outrageous, oppressive and malicious as alleged, and it was done with a conscious disregard for persons that they were entrusted to protect, being children,” Alameda County Superior Court Judge Harry Sheppard said in court, according to the correction.
The story’s lead as published said: “Calling the Catholic Church’s conduct ‘outrageous, oppressive and malicious,’ an East Bay judge ruled Thursday that two alleged sexual abuse victims may seek punitive damages against the Diocese of Oakland.”
“The quotes significantly mischaracterized what the judge said by leaving out his equivocations,” Proctor said.
Don Lattin, who wrote the story, acknowledged that it was unclear.
“It was a very important decision,” Lattin told E&P, “but we should have made it clearer that it wasn’t a finding of fact.” The judge had ruled that the alleged victims may sue the church, not that the church had or had not misbehaved.
“It would have been clearer if I had said ‘alleged conduct,'” Lattin said.
Although the letter came to the paper through a lawyer, the church did not to his knowledge threaten any legal action, Proctor said.