The Media vs. the Church
by Mark Silk
It was not a coincidence that on March 3 both the New York Times and
the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran major stories which compared how the
neighboring Catholic dioceses of St. Louis, Missouri and Belleville,
Illinois deal with priests accused of sexually abusing young people.
Several weeks earlier, the Times National Desk, eager to get
involved in the latest round of "priest pedophile" coverage,
dispatched reporters Laurie Goodstein and Jodi Wilgoren in pursuit of this
tale of two Midwestern dioceses—one hunkered down, the other "zero
tolerance." Hearing that the Times was in town, the Post-Dispatch
kicked into gear.
Because of the Post-Dispatch’s revived interest in the issue of
clergy abuse, a young man approached the paper with an accusation that
Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell of Palm Beach had abused him years before at a
seminary in Hannibal. Within a few days, the bishop had resigned, and the
South Florida newspapers got into the act.
Then the Boston Globe and the Hartford Courant broke major
stories alleging cover-ups by Bishop Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn (a former
auxiliary bishop of Boston) and Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York
(sometime bishop of Bridgeport). Beaten to the punch by a pair of
provincials, the New York papers now became fully engaged in the priest
pedophile story for the first time in its 15-year history.
Meanwhile, out in San Diego, the Globe was pursuing a story that
Bishop Robert H. Brom had settled an abuse case against him for nearly
$100,000. When the Union-Leader, which had been trying to nail down
the story for a while, got wind that the Globe was about to publish,
it rushed into print, a day ahead of Boston.
And so it went.
Next year the Globe will win the Pulitzer Prize that does, indeed,
shimmer like a grail before the eyes of all newspaper folk embarking on big
investigative projects. But for the rest of the newspaper world, the
motivation to do this story has been grounded in self-defense. There is
nothing more humiliating that having an out-of-town paper expose a scandal
in your backyard. And the way Roman Catholic clergy move around the country,
there are a lot of trails leading into a lot of backyards.
As investigative journalism goes, the Globe deserves high marks—for
combing through court papers, debriefing plaintiffs’ lawyers, matching
accusations against the notices of priest assignments and transfers. Other
news organizations have, with varying degrees of success, worked to catch
up, not just with the Globe but with the Catholic Church, that
complex web of people, places, culture, and belief that dominates the
religious life of most big American cities.
For truth to tell, the church has not been well covered in recent years.
Even as newspapers expanded their religion beats in the 1990s, they turned
their attention away from the institutional life of the major religious
bodies. Around the country, the 2002 edition of the priest pedophile story
has been a voyage of discovery, in more senses than one.
On February 25, the World-Herald reported that a priest named Rob
Allgaier was being investigated for having spent ten or twelve hours a week
looking at child pornography on the Internet while serving as a teacher at
Norfolk Catholic High School. Omaha Archbishop Elden Curtiss had become
aware of Allgaier’s viewing habits a year earlier, after two young men
observed suspicious web sites on his computer and reported what they saw to
Curtiss initially removed Allgaier from his teaching position and
restricted his contact with children. Then, over the summer, he transferred
the priest to St. Gerald Catholic Church in Ralston, where he taught
religion classes in the parish elementary and middle schools and worked with
the youth group. Norfolk law enforcement opened its investigation in
On February 28, Allgaier was charged with the misdemeanor of attempted
possession of child pornography. On March 3, a World-Herald article
posed the question, "Why was a priest with the taint of alleged sexual
misconduct shuffled from one parish to another rather than removed from the
active priesthood altogether?"
On March 4, Curtiss released a statement pointing out that Allgaier had
not been accused of abusing anyone. He said that when Allgaier’s activity
surfaced the priest had been sent to a "prominent psychologist"
for evaluation and been given counseling, the upshot of which was a
determination that he was "no threat to children or anyone else."
Allgaier would nonetheless, Curtiss said, be undergoing "an in-depth
therapy program." The bishop also stated his archdiocese’s "zero
tolerance level for sexual abuse of children" and its policy of
cooperation with civil authorities "in reporting accusations of sexual
misconduct or abuse against children."
The explanation did not mollify the parishioners at St. Gerald, many of
whom, according to the World-Herald, informed the parish council that
they thought the archdiocese had made a bad decision in assigning Allgaier
to them. And some area Catholics took to the newspaper’s letters column to
vent their criticism.
Jeanne Bast, for one, wrote on March 13 that Curtiss had done "a
disservice to the people of the archdiocese and owes them a public apology
for not being truthful and forthright about this problem from the very
beginning. The Church needs to demand that bishops stop cover-up practices
in these matters."
On March 19, the World-Herald reported that Bast and another
letter writer, Frank Ayers, had received letters of rebuke from Curtiss
(with copies to their pastors). "Any Catholic who uses the secular
media to air complaints against the leadership of the church, without
dialogue with that leadership, is a disgrace to the church," Curtiss
wrote to Ayers.
"The clergy and the laity have been silent about this in the past,
and it has not served the church well," Ayers, a 58-year-old
parishioner at St. Gerald, told the paper. "We’re going to discuss it
openly and publicly. The bishops in the United States aren’t going to be
allowed to handle this quietly any longer."
Bast, who turned out to be a grandmother of 11 and a retired Catholic
grade-school teacher, received the following: "I am surprised that a
woman your age and with your background would write such a negative letter
in the secular press against me without any previous dialogue. You should be
ashamed of yourself!…The Church has enough trouble defending herself
against non-Catholic attacks without having to contend with disloyal
Catholics. For your penance you say one Hail Mary for me."
"You should be ashamed of yourself?" asked Bast. "Nobody
says that to an 80-year-old woman. And what does my age have to with
it?" Calling the imposition of penance laughable, she said, "I’m
not seeking absolution."
On March 20, Jeff Koterba’s editorial page cartoon pictured Curtiss
bearing a stone tablet inscribed with an eleventh commandment: "Thou
shalt not criticize your archbishop in public!!!"
The following day, a poll by KMTV-Channel Three found that 69 percent of
non-Catholics and 65 percent of Catholics disagreed with how Curtiss had
handled the Allgaier situation, and 80 percent of non-Catholics and 79
percent of Catholics disagreed with his rebuke of the two letter-writers. A
state senator called for Curtiss’ resignation.
On March 25, in remarks during mass, the archbishop issued a species of
apology. "I’m sorry that my previous letter to you was interpreted as
being demeaning or insulting," he said. "I never meant it to be
Then on March 27, speaking on Catholic radio station KVSS’s "The
Shepherd’s Corner," Curtiss allowed as how he would not have let
Allgaier work in a parish "had I known that this was going to become
public and that I was going to have to interrupt his ministry and then have
this reaction from people." The case, he said, "is a disaster for
people both in Norfolk and St. Gerald. It’s a disaster for the
archdiocese, and it shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t a felony. There wasn’t
anybody abused, and we were trying to deal with it."
Curtiss stands out among princes of the church for speaking his mind, but
from the private episcopal communications that have come to light—in
filings from cases in Boston and Bridgeport, in Los Angeles Cardinal Roger
M. Mahony’s leaked e-mails—his attitude does not seem untypical. As far
as the church hierarchy is concerned, disclosure and open discussion of
clergy sexual abuse are at best grim necessities, not virtues to be sought.
It is an attitude more devoutly embraced by Catholic clerical culture
than is generally recognized.
No institution likes having its dirty linen hung out for all to see, but
in the Catholic Church there is doctrinal warrant for making sure it isn’t.
The term of art is "scandal," which Thomas Aquinas defines as
"an unrighteous word or deed that occasions the ruin of another."
The worst kind of scandal is whatever calls the church into disrepute,
because that undermines the faith of believers.
Canon law not only specifies ecclesiastical punishment for clergy who
cause scandal by their misbehavior, but also provides for the suspension of
penalties if these cannot be imposed "without danger of serious scandal
or infamy." Better, in other words, to let punishment go by the board
than to scandalize the faithful by publishing clerical misdeeds.
The news media rationalize their behavior by an alternative theology: The
truth shall set you free.