Why The New York Times Is Not The Enemy

In the wake of the recent scandals in the Catholic Church, Catholics online are up in arms. But the common target of their anger, judging by a casual survey of blog entries and columns and comments, seems to be the media. The New York Times in particular has attracted critical attention, as members of the clergy and conservative press try to painstakingly catalog evidence of bias and Laurie Goodstein's sins against the spirit of fact. Muffled by this response, as the focus shifts from the crisis to its coverage, is the Church's contrition and concern for the victims.

Admittedly, the press has tackled a complicated problem in a simple way. "All roads lead to Rome" reasoning has been further whittled to an "all roads lead to Benedict XVI" logic of sensationally consolidating blame. In the rush to implicate the Pope, the press has entirely skipped over his record of unprecedented reforms, leaving readers with an imbalanced portrait that most seem to have uncritically accepted. Lingering perceptions of Pope Benedict XVI as "God's Rottweiler," a pitiless theological Rahm Emanuel, twist public understanding further.

It is perfectly fair -- it is necessary -- to point out where the press has been unfair. But the muscular response to the media gives the unsavory feeling to many outsiders of over-defensiveness, even an arrogance implying that the Church sees itself as immune to its detractors. Responding in kind -- that is, with the same curious harshness -- to the Times is a major PR mistake. But going further by talking of concerted campaigns to discredit it, the Church leaves its defenders in the self-discrediting territory of conspiracy theory.

For Catholics, what we need to acknowledge is that, without the interventions of the press, however flawed, we likely would not be up to speed on the problem -- its seriousness and its scale. (Lawyers have played more than a bit part, too.) The current wave of sex abuse scandals, and same patterns of media criticism, will remind many of the 2002 scandals in Boston Archdiocese, which the Boston Globe bravely blew the lid off of. As a direct result of the Globe's reporting, the Church immediately instituted a number of reforms, as Michael Sean Winters noted. Ideally, Catholics and the public would first hear about the crimes from the bishops or decision makers in the Vatican, who would promptly rally, on their own initiative, to prevent the crimes from recurring. In reality, the culture and structure of the Church shielded rapists from scrutiny and the criminal justice system. So we should commend the press for doing their job, even if we dock them for the more egregious imperfections in the coverage.

Far better than a posture of defensiveness and recrimination is a posture of penitence. By assuming that cast of mind, the Church can better reflect on precisely how and why it systematically failed to live up to its own teachings, and assure the faithful that these flaws will be swiftly addressed.