Prof critiques coverage of church scandal

Without Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt and former President Bill Clinton, the media may not have as extensively covered the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, according to a journalism professor.

William Thorn, an associate professor of journalism and expert on Catholic media coverage, spoke Friday Johnston Hall to about 30 people about how the news media handled the scandal.

Up to the end of the 1965 Second Vatican Council, the media covered the Catholic Church in a positive light, Thorn said. But the council led to divisions, created by those who wanted to reform the church further and those who refused to accept the reforms of Vatican II.

Pope Paul VI's encyclical "Humanae Vitae," which banned artificial contraception in 1968, furthered that split, Thorn said. Then the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision was released and the U.S. bishops who opposed the decision were seen by abortion rights supporters as "enemies of sexual freedom."

Thus, "the bishops' image was being shaped by those who had another agenda," Thorn said. The end result of these problems was a reduction in the bishops' authority, he said.

Thorn said a "pattern of secrecy" developed within the church because it kept sexual abuse claims out of court, and thus out of the media, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. Also, in 1985, the Archdiocese of Chicago's legal counsel suggested those accusing priests of sexual abuse should be treated as enemies. It wasn't until 1983 that the media began covering clergy abuse cases, Thorn said.

Factors outside the church also influenced the media coverage.

When the Rev. Jerry Falwell sued Flynt after Hustler published a cartoon insinuating that Falwell committed incest, the media covered the story in detail. After Clinton was caught in an affair with Monica Lewinsky, the media had to figure out how to cover it in graphic and accurate detail, Thorn said. These two cases made it easier to cover sensitive topics such as child abuse.

The "perfect storm" of coverage of the Catholic Church, Thorn said, came to fruition starting in 2002, a year after the Boston Globe successfully sued to unseal Boston Archdiocese files on abuse. Using those records, the Globe published a series on sexual abuse in the archdiocese. Finally realizing the scope of the scandal, the bishops created the Office of Child and Youth Protection at a conference heavily attended by the media, Thorn said.

But the Vatican, which did not let bishops defrock priests, was reluctant to accept any reforms to fix the abuse problem, Thorn said.

Thorn closed by noting that abuse was not only a Catholic problem and was worse in many Protestant churches, but the media didn't cover this fact. Thorn said this didn't mean the media was necessarily anti-Catholic.

"I think it's the templates for stories that we create, and (the abuse crisis) became a Catholic story," Thorn said.

Abigail Stamm, a graduate student in the College of Communication, said she liked that Thorn "went into the facts about other Protestant religions."

Stamm said she had missed most media coverage because she had been in the Peace Corps from 2000 to 2004, so most of the information presented was new to her.

This article was published in The Marquette Tribune on September 13, 2005.