Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Double Standard: a new perspective on the sex-abuse scandal

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 11, 2011 | In Reviews

David Pierre runs a useful web site, The Media Report, which is devoted to the detection and correction of anti-Catholic arguments that appear in the mainstream American media. Sometimes he finds inaccuracies that seem to be based on ignorance or misunderstanding. In other cases, he sees clear evidence of anti-Catholic animus at work. Whether they are intentional or not, however, the media misrepresentations nearly always illustrate a double standard. Reading Pierre’s work, one is soon convinced the secular media apply to the Catholic Church a set of standards—standards for accuracy, standards for objectivity, standards for evidence-- that they would not apply to any other institutions.

Now in a book-length study, entitled simply Double Standard, Pierre lays out the argument that the media coverage of the sex-abuse scandal has provided ample evidence of this imbalance. For anyone who wants to defend the Church against unfair attacks—or simply to separate the unfair attacks from those that are on target—this book is a useful resource.

Understand this at the outset: Pierre does not attempt to defend the indefensible. He does not deny that some priests were guilty of unspeakable crimes, or that many bishops were guilty of covering up the evidence and giving known predators more opportunities to molest children. He does not attempt to squelch the discussion of clerical abuse by blaming the messenger, as so many ordinarily sensible Catholics tried to do when the scandal first hit the headlines. He recognizes that in many respects the media did a service to the Church by exposing corruption.

At the same time, Pierre is equally clear in saying that if the media helped the Church, they did not do so out of love for Catholicism. Although the scandal they were investigating was genuine enough, secular reporters pursued the story with unusual zeal, often tinged with overt hostility toward the Church. The result was a series of reports that offered a great deal of information, but not much perspective. The standard media coverage thoroughly exposed the sex-abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, but left the public unaware of how other institutions have handled the same problem.

Thus, for example, Pierre makes an irrefutable argument that children are more likely to be abused in America’s public schools than in Catholic parishes. Moreover, the public-school system has been far worse in handling the accusations of sexual abuse than the Catholic Church. But one rarely reads headline stories about school superintendents who shuffle accused teachers from one school to another, or ignore evidence of molestation. One might argue (as I have in fact argued) that the Church should be held to higher standards; still the evidence of a double standard here is overwhelming.

Pierre continues his analysis by watching how the media handle an accusation of misconduct. When a priest is charged with abuse, he points out, published reports almost invariably presume that he is guilty—even though the nature of the allegations make it difficult to produce any substantial evidence. Many plaintiffs have won substantial dollar settlements from Catholic dioceses without ever having proven that they were abused. Many of the priests who have been denounced as abusers still protest their innocence, and have never had the chance to defend their own reputations.

The mass media, taking their cues from SNAP and from aggressive plaintiffs’ lawyers like Jeffrey Anderson, have publicized each new charge against a priest or his superiors, without properly investigating the facts of each case. Reporters routinely fail to notice what should be obvious to even a novice journalist: that a lawyer representing one party to a lawsuit cannot be regarded as a neutral witness in the case.

In all these arguments, Pierre is right on target. His book makes a clear and documented case that the media coverage of the crisis has distorted public perceptions.

Still, while there is much to admire in this book, I fear that Pierre misses an important dimension of the problem, so that his analysis, too, lacks a certain perspective.

Why is it that accused priests have been deprived of due-process rights, left without an opportunity to prove their innocence? Why have dioceses been willing to settle lawsuits on the basis of flimsy evidence? If injustices have been done—and they have—why have Church leaders tolerated them? There is a pattern of behavior in evidence here. The American bishops, who were once so willing to overlook evidence of abuse, are now willing to overlook evidence of false accusations.

David Pierre credits the US hierarchy for instituting new policies to guard against abuse. But he does not seriously examine the evidence that those policies were put in place as much to protect dioceses from lawsuits as to protect children from abusers. He takes it for granted that the American bishops were motivated by a desire to safeguard children, when their previous malfeasance had demonstrated a much more powerful desire to safeguard their own positions.

Similarly, Pierre lauds the comprehensive studies of the problem by the John Jay College, but does not notice how the John Jay reports were crafted to draw attention away from certain inflammatory questions, such as the influence of homosexuality and the prevalence of abuse in certain dioceses or among the graduates of certain seminaries.

In short, Pierre does an excellent job of providing perspective on the sex-abuse scandal insofar as it applies to accused priests. His book is less helpful, unfortunately, in providing perspective on way American bishops have handled the scandal.

A final observation: Pierre complains that mainstream reporters have taken their leads from plaintiffs’ lawyers rather than from the representatives of the American hierarchy. Sad to say, journalists have a strong defense against that charge. Over the past decade, the lawyers have often proven more reliable.  


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Feb. 16, 2011 10:39 AM ET USA

    Based on the few times I have been able to rouse the courage to follow my own advice, I find that the best response to a double standard is true humility. Yes, the world holds us to a higher standard, and yes, so does God. He will defend us and lead us to truth.

  • Posted by: bnewman - Feb. 15, 2011 9:56 PM ET USA

    I do think that the "double standard" argument has to be raised:not to persuade a hostile press or other hostile persons, but to educate parents who may be concerned for the safety of their children in a Catholic School or Church setting like a youth group. The lie that The Church is more dangerous for children to be than elsewhere has been cleverly promoted. Unbiased parents need to be reassured that other venues like Public Schools are in fact far more dangerous,and especially so now.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 14, 2011 5:46 PM ET USA

    For years seminaries that had more to do with certain opportunities than priestly training were tolerated. I recall a good seminarian joking about "the Pink Seminary" sports' rival in the 80s. Men like R. Weakland remained "in good standing" while they protected sickos. Most people have been quite restrained in their opinion of the Church. Hypocrisy always elicits fierce rhetoric, and this indignant "double standard" tact will always be a difficult sell- don't provide ammunition to your enemy.