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Posted October 18, 2003

Media Coverage of the Sexual Abuse Scandal

Bishop Wilton Gregory

Origins: Sept. 18, 2003: Vol.33:NO.15

Media coverage in 2002 of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy “did help the church to take some steps that will wring this terrible stain out of her life to the extent that sin and crime can ever be fully eliminated. However, the way the story was so obsessively covered resulted in unnecessary damage to the bishops and the entire Catholic community,” Bishop Wilton Gregory said in an address Sept. 5 in Seattle to the national convention of the Religion Newswriters Association.

Gregory said that “as this story was too often reported, molesters whose careers of preying on children had already been brought to a close several years before were treated as “breaking news.’ . . . Too often fundamental follow-up questions about what the bishops had learned from their experiences and whether Catholic children were safer in 2002 from abuse by clergy than they were 10 years earlier were not asked.”

Had those question been asked, “I think that more notice would have been taken that the problem was already measurably decreasing due to steps already being put in place.

“Even in the midst of a ‘perfect storm’ of coverage in 2002, most newly reported offenses still went back more than a decade. The public was scarcely ever effectively offered this balancing information.”

Gregory also expressed hope “that the media will cease linking child sexual abuse solely to Catholic clerics.” He said, “Throughout 2002 I can find only minimal attempts on the part of the media to discover the extent of the problem outside the Catholic priesthood..”

Gregory’s address examined challenges the U.S. bishops face “in following up on the actions we took” in 2002 in adopting a “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” and the “Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests and Deacons. The challenges included those of complying in the present and future with the standards established in Dallas, confronting the past and “keeping our ministry free from abusers.”

Quotes from Text:

“How do we engage in a serious public self-examination of our past on the issue of sexual abuse without engendering a type of sensationalistic coverage of past misconduct that obscures present achievements in eliminating that misconduct? And how do we prevent such coverage from obscuring the overall mission of the church, to which millions of Catholics and thousands of priests, unsullied by this terrible infidelity, dedicate themselves each day?”

“The charter and the essential norms may well be amended and revised in less than a year because the bishops and the Holy See have not ceased to be concerned about the sexual abuse problem, even when it was not making headlines.”