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facts first, please; hold the speculation

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 09, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI says repentance is more effective than structural change within the Church to counter sexual abuse by priests.

When I read that lead sentence in an Agence France Presse report, I naturally thought that the Holy Father had made a new statement on the sex-abuse scandal. Since I normally read every new papal statement, I wondered how I had missed it. I hadn’t.

The AFP story referred to the Pope’s public audience on Wednesday, September 8, at which he spoke about St. Hildegard of Bingen. Did the Pope speak about sexual abuse before his talk on St. Hildegard? No. After it? No. He didn’t talk about sexual abuse at all. But that didn’t stop Agence France Presse. The report explains:

Using an indirect historical analogy, the pope on Wednesday recalled the words of XII century Saint Hildegard, according to whom "a true renewal of the ecclesiastic community is the result less of structural changes than of a sincere spirit of repentance and an active path towards conversion."

The Pope spoke about reform in the Church. The reporter assumed that he was talking about a response to the sex-abuse crisis. Then, launching his story from that assumption, the AFP went on to say that the Pope was arguing the answer to the scandal lies in personal repentance rather than institutional reform. Maybe that is what the Pope believes. But before that train rolls too far down the speculative tracks, can I just point out that in the course of this talk, the Pope had never even mentioned sexual abuse?

It’s true that the Pope, citing the work of St. Hildegard, had mentioned corruption in the Church. (He even mentioned corruption within the clergy of the 12th century; it’s curious that the AFP story did not cite those words.) So it isn’t entirely unreasonable to infer that the Holy Father saw some parallel between the reforms championed by St. Hildegard and the reforms necessary to recover from the sex-abuse scandal. It is possible, in short, to read the Pope’s words as an “indirect historical analogy.” But it’s also quite possible that the Pope intended no such message. Even if he did intend that message, he certainly didn’t deliver it in the clear terms that are suggested by the opening sentence of the AFP story. A good reporter might justifiably explore the possible veiled implications of the Pope’s remarks, but first he should tell his readers what the Pope actually said. 

This story is an egregious example of a phenomenon that is becoming steadily more prominent in mass-media coverage of Pope’s public remarks. If the Pope speaks about reform, reporters assume that he means reform after the sex-abuse crisis. If he speaks on sin, they assume he means the sin of sexual abuse. If he speaks on solidarity, they assume he means solidarity with abuse victims. The sex-abuse scandal is the only thing on reporters’ minds when they cover Catholic affairs, so they assume that it’s the only thing on the Pope’s mind, too.  

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