November 18, 2002
-- Martin E. Marty
Chicago's Cardinal Francis George wryly but very sadly told the press at the Catholic bishops' meeting in Washington, "At this moment you probably have more credibility than I have. They'll believe you rather than believe me, so I would ask you to continue your efforts, which I know are there, to be as accurate as possible..." in their coverage of abuse, victimization, and bishops' policy. He was thanking reporters, after having complained for months that they were "inaccurate," he now granted that "many of you have gotten it quite right."
The "I" who has lost credibility is not the individual Cardinal George, who has come off to the press as more credible than most other bishops who have spoken up. It is the collective episcopacy that has played its part in creating the "clerical abuse" scandal and now receives more criticism than the priestly offenders. The latter get pitied, scorned, often despised, but also "understood" in a therapeutic culture which learns more and more about the mental condition of child abusers.
The four newspapers that bounced on my porch at 4:45 a.m. gave front page treatment to the bishops' meeting. They accurately reported on the plight of the bishops who are caught between what they voted in Dallas last summer and Vatican-demanded revisions of policies (revisions that we do not have to detail here; they are, after all, front page items). The point is simply to say that the "feeding frenzy" by the press, of which the bishops complained in summer, is past and sober coverage is the norm.
The press now focuses almost entirely on the bishops, whose moves get criticized not only by victim-representing groups but by other consecrated lay people and concerned priests within the Catholic Church. Reporters describe the bishops' frustration as they try to rally the other faithful to be attendant at mass, to continue their offerings, and more. Some bishops breathed a sigh of relief after passing, almost unanimously, a revision of their policy approved at Dallas but partly disapproved of in Rome. None of the reporters believe that the episcopal crisis is close to being past.
The Chicago Tribune (a Catholic-friendly paper in a Catholic-dominant town) ran a lead editorial, (Nov. 15) that spoke of Cardinal Law as "infamous," criticized Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, for his criticism of the baptized who have "chosen to exploit the vulnerability of the bishops," and called the overall response "tardy, inadequate and often grudging." They conclude that the flock "no longer trust the shepherd."
Each paper gave a couple of inches to the bishops' serious questioning as to whether war on Iraq, as presently conceived, meets Christian just war standards. They are having trouble being heard.