MAY 20, 2002
Headlines as Headlines
-- Martin E. Marty
Belaboring the theme that R. Scott Appleby treated with his typical sense of balance in Sightings last week, let me return to the topic of how media treat clerical abuse scandals. I look forward to the day when we can move beyond this urgent theme.
Theologian Karl Barth told pastors to preach with one eye on the Bible and one eye on the newspapers. My "Bible eye" each morning focuses on a snippet from "Moravian Daily Texts" (available via email at http://www.moravian.org/daily_texts/) before the other eye falls on three morning daily papers. Here are last Thursday's headlines. (Apologies: there's no way to make this point without citing them. The medium is the message in this case)
"Priest Who Lived Here Accused of Abuse." "Church Forums Seek Input on Abuse." "Suspect in Priest Shooting Bail Denied." "Joliet Bishop at Center of Crisis." "Three Arrested in Plot on Arizona Leader. Chaplain [Mormon], Inmates Also Sought Hit on Sheriff." "Baltimore Judge Denies Bail in Shooting of Priest." "Ex-Cleric Indicted in Child Rape Case." "Catholics to Discuss Abuse." "Chicago Police Probed [Presbyterian] Minister." "Head of Boston College, 'Shocked' by Scandal; Church 'Badly Mishandled' Cases."
It didn't get any better the next day: "Prelate Says He Let An Abuser Stay as Priest." "Archdiocese [Los Angeles] to Speed Reports of Abuse Charges." "Scandal Shadows Church's Recruiting." "Priest an Apparent Suicide." "Los Angeles Cardinal Admits Shielding Priest: '86 Secret of Abuse Revealed in Letter."
Appleby and others (and I) have, I think, rightfully protested media whose agents engage in "feeding frenzy." But we have to admit that clergy are giving the frenzied much to be frenzied about. I monitor the press for this weekly, "The Christian Century" column biweekly, my newsletter "Context" also biweekly, and two encyclopedia annuals, and find that many relevant, often positive actions and events among most clergy of most church bodies, including the Catholic, this year are getting obscured or even displaced by these traumatic themes. May they soon come to light to be "sighted" again and brought to public attention.
If I were an editor in the secular press, would I find these clerical scandals and hierarchical cover-ups all newsworthy? I have to say yes. What they represent reaches into the depths of the psyche and the corners of social existence, and will plague us. Above, I mentioned the Bible snippet in my Moravian daily devotional book. The text Thursday was Psalm 79:9: "Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name's sake." Whoever believes in a forgiving God will find that God busy these days -- if first there is penitence, redress, and resolve.