Page 6, 28th June 2002

28th June 2002
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Page 6, 28th June 2002 — Who can shoot the messenger?
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Locations: Boston, Brussels, Canterbury

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Who can shoot the messenger?

Personal view Richard Mullen

Not for the first time have events in Church and State mirrored each other. It was recently reported in these pages that Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Mariaga had attacked some of the American media for its coverage of the clerical scandals that have been dominating the United States press in the 'last few months.

In recent days many figures in the Blair government have been loud in their denunciations of the British press. The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, the most admirable and least arrogant member of the Cabinet, has even opined that some of the press are virtually "insane".

There is much truth in some of Cardinal Mariaga's remarks. There can be little doubt that at least some of the reporting of accusations against priests accused of "child abuse" and even more of bishops alleged to have "sheltered" them has been sensational and at times inaccurate. It is also perfectly legitimate to speculate about the motives of those who make these attacks. I myself have done so in these pages. Neither the press, its editors, proprietors and journalists or the "victims" and their lawyers are without a variety of motives. The fact that the Catholic Church is frequently seen as the main opponent of a variety of left wing causes has made it a dreaded enemy to many who advocate such "reforms".

yet it is a mistake for any prominent bishop, let alone a Cardinal, to mount a direct assault upon the press. Just as the press has its variety of motives, so can bishops and cardinals. The public is always suspicious and rightly so — when those under attack suddenly denounce the press for its bias. The fact that the charge of bias is often true does not make it effective when made by those who can be assumed to have something to hide, or at least, defend.

Attacking the press can often plunge the attacker from the uncomfortable frying pan into the blazing fire. The best recent example is Jonathan Aitken's "sword of truth" attack upon newspaper claims about corruption. In that case the newspaper in question mounted a vigorous defence and Mr Aiken's distinguished political career collapsed into ruin.

In the Aitken case, the press was .able to have almost immediate revenge. Sometimes it follows the Italian proverb and eats its vengeance cold. It is frequently said in Boston that one reason that the Boston Globe has been so determined in its attack upon Cardinal Law's handling of the child abuse cases is because in an earlier case, he was so outspoken in his denunciation of that powerful newspaper.

When an institution is held in contempt, any attempt to blame the press for its difficulties is genuinely treated with derision. The best example of this is the way almost everyone laughs at the vastly overpaid and virtually useless Brussels bureaucrats when they emit their ritual moans about the bias of the British press reports of the EU's most absurd actions.

Fortunately whatever its current predicament — relatively small here and far more massive in America — the Catholic Church has not sunk to the level of the Brussels bureaucracy in public estimation.

This is not to say that there is nothing Catholics can do to defend the Church in this hour of need. Rather it is to say that bishops and cardinals are not the ones who can do it. They have enough to do trying to cope with the actual cases and, most importantly, to come up with sensible reforms that will prevent, or rather lessen, future cases.

It is not the bishops and cardinals, not even the Pope, who can effectively criticise press coverage. This needs to be done by Catholic laity and the Catholic press. The more the laity are brought into the defence the better.

The English bishops gave a good example by appointing a distinguished layman to report on the problem of clerical abuse of children in England. A group of prominent Catholic laymen is being formed in America by the Governor of Oklahoma which aims to do something about the scandals rocking the Church. They are the people who should speak out about media bias and misreporting. For prelates to try to shoot the messenger, however malevolent or however gloating, is not the solution.

Perhaps they should remember the Elizabethan Archbishop of Canterbury who shot his servant by mistake. Mitres rarely seem to produce accurate marksmen.




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