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Bearing bad news

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 24, 2009

 Every day there's more bad news. There's good news, too. But nobody complains about reading the good news. 

On a fairly regular basis, I receive complaints that Catholic World News carries too many negative stories. As I glance over today's CWN headlines, and see a half-dozen different report about clerical misconduct and its unhappy results, I can almost already see more complaints coming. I don't dismiss those complaints, nor do I take them lightly. Choosing the stories to be covered is an important editorial function-- more important, even, than shaping the way in which those stories will be covered-- and readers' comments help us to make those decisions. But I think it would be helpful for readers to understand the thought process behind our decisions.

Every day, as I scan through hundreds of media reports involving the Catholic Church, I see the negative headlines: dozens of them every day. If we wanted to focus on the negative, we could easily fill up every inch of CWN coverage with "bad news" stories. The world has changed since I first entered into the field of Catholic journalism about 25 years ago. Back then, polite secular journalists rarely would criticize prominent religious figures; only the radical left would dare a frontal assault on faith. But proponents of secular ideology have become far more aggressive over the years, and far more successful in pushing their ideas into the mainstream of public opinion. A generation of scandals-- first among Evangelical televangelists, then among our own Catholic clergy-- accelerated the process. So now I plow wearily through the negative stories every day, and, believe it or not, I dismiss most of them. "Our readers don't need to see that," I tell myself.

Still, there are some stories that informed Catholics do need to see. There are scandals that become a subject of everyday conversation, and if we don't know the facts we cannot participate in that conversation. The ignorant Catholic is not equipped to help his neighbors understand the news, put it in the proper context, and distinguish between the beauty of the Church, the spotless Bride of Christ, and the unhappy weakness of her members, all of them sinners like you and me. Knowing the truth can be essential to evangelization, essential to our missionary task of helping a misguided generation understand true freedom. I have it on excellent authority that "the truth will set you free."

For over a decade now I have been following stories about sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Readers tell me that it is disheartening to see the stories continue: week after week, month after month. Believe me, it has been much more grueling to research and report those stories! But this is a terribly important story, because it involves an enormous challenge for our Church. It was way back in 1992, if my memory serves me, that I stunned a Catholic talk-show host (my friend Al Kresta) by predicting that the sex-abuse scandal would emerge as the greatest crisis for the Catholic Church since the Reformation. I still believe that, and I think the past 17 years have strengthened my case.

Are you weary of all the headlines about sexual abuse? So am I; so am I. But even as we look glassy-eyed at the stories, we can't afford to ignore them entirely. We certainly can't afford to lapse into the habit of assuming that there will be ugly reports every day about the new allegations, the old indictments, the diocesan payouts, the parish closings, the stonewalling bureaucracies, the angry victims. We've seen the stories so often, we're tempted to think that the situation is normal. It's not!

Today we report that the Diocese of Ferns, in Ireland, has paid $12 million to settle claims by sex-abuse victims. At first glance you might say: "Just $12 million?" In the US we barely take note of a sex-abuse settlement these days unless the diocesan payment is expressed in nine figures. We're jaded. We shouldn't be. A generation ago, Catholics would have been staggered to learn that a major archdiocese had paid out as much as $12 million for such a purpose. Ferns is definitely not a major archdiocese; it's about the size of the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama: not nearly as big as Burlington, Vermont, or Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana. Yet this little diocese is now giving away $12 million, from the resources contributed by the faithful over the years, to pay the price of corruption! No, it's not normal. It's not everyday. It is, unfortunately, news.

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