We’re used to bishops backpedalling on clergy sex crimes. It’s worrisome, however, when newspapers backpedal on those crimes.
Lately, editors at two big city dailies have made unsettling decision in covering clergy sex cases.
For as long as I can remember (and I’ve been involved in this almost 25 years), virtually every news outlet has named clerics who are accused in civil lawsuits of assaulting kids. Ditto with other defendants who are high profile: coaches, teachers, doctors, politicians and the like. It’s a nearly universal practice and rarely even questioned (except sometimes by friends and relatives of the accused).
But last week, a new civil lawsuit was filed against a Chicago archdiocesan priest. The article about the case noted that local Catholic officials had, years ago, released a list of credibly accused clerics. Then, the Chicago Tribune story included this sentence:
“The Chicago Tribune is not naming the former priest sued Thursday because he is not on that list.”
Is this is some sort of new Tribune policy - not naming accused child predators who are sued UNLESS their employer has identified them as credibly accused? And if so, what prompted this sudden and unexplained shift in the Tribune’s position? Do Tribune editors realize they’ve done something that few other editors have done?
Why does withholding the names of accused child molesting clerics matter?
Because kids are safer when credibly accused child molesters are publicly identified.
Because victims feel vindicated and recover better when their perpetrators are exposed.
Because naming credibly accused predator priests is key to uncovering cover ups.
(Imagine how this crisis would have unfolded differently if Jason Berry, the Boston Globe, the National Catholic Reporter, the New York Times and other news outlets had decided, years ago, to do what the Tribune just did.)
Here’s the second troubling incident:
A Pittsburgh priest, Fr. David Dzermejko was suspended by Bishop David Zubik after being indicted on a federal charge of possessing child pornography.
The Pittsburgh Post Gazette referred to Fr. Dzermejko as “Mr. Dzermejko.”
I wrote the reporter and explained that the priest, though suspended, is still a priest:
“Unless this guy has been defrocked by the Vatican (which often takes years, sometimes decades), he's still a priest, still on the payroll. He's suspended, but still collecting a check and still has the title ‘priest.’ Once caught, church officials often try to distance themselves from men like this, suddenly calling them "Mr." But again, unless he's been formally and permanently ousted by the Vatican (which is highly unlikely), he's still Fr. Dzermejko.”
The reporter thanked me but said “We're still going to call him Mr.”
Huh? If a hospital suspends an accused doctor from practicing there, he’s still a doctor and would be called a doctor by the news media.
The Post Gazette, like the Tribune, is swimming upstream here. Almost every news outlet I can think of starts calling a priest “Mr.” once he’s formally and permanently ousted from the priesthood by the Vatican.
Why does this matter?
Because accuracy is good.
Because no one should let bishops pretend abusive priests aren’t priests.
Because it clouds reality when public relations professionals “spin” the truth.
UPDATE: In its latest clergy sex abuse story, the Tribune has apparently reversed itself and now lists the names of alleged child molesting clerics who are named in civil lawsuits.