Are the media picking on the Catholic Church?

Headlines about sex-abuse scandals involving the Roman Catholic Church seem to be everywhere these days.

And that means that media coverage will be widely critiqued — and often judged to be anti-Catholic.

In fact, none other than Archbishop Dolan, on his Facebook page, when writing about a NYT article about a scandal in Germany, alleges that his church is getting singled out:


What causes us Catholics to bristle is not only the latest revelations of sickening sexual abuse by priests, and blindness on the part of some who wrongly reassigned them — such stories, unending though they appear to be, are fair enough, — but also that the sexual abuse of minors is presented as a tragedy unique to the Church alone.

That, of course, is malarkey. Because, as we now sadly realize, nobody, nowhere, no time, no way, no how knew the extent, depth, or horror of this scourge, nor how to adequately address it.

The sexual abuse of our young people is an international, cultural, societal horror. It affects every religion, country, family, job, profession, vocation, and ethnic group.


Dolan also argues that the church is getting little credit for all that it’s done to correct past problems.

Just this week, the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference announced that its annual report card on sex abuse “shows the fewest number of victims, allegations and offenders in dioceses since 2004.”

In 2009, dioceses across the country received 398 allegations. 71% of the allegations involved incidents from 1960 to 1984. Only SIX allegations involved children under the age of 18 during the year 2009.

Dioceses spent more than $21 million for child protection programs including training, background checks and salaries for compliance staff, according to the report.

Referring to the church’s policies on sex-abuse, adopted in 2002, Cardinal Francis George, president of the Bishops Conference, writes: “The Charter is causing a cultural change in the U.S. Catholic Church, one I hope will permeate all areas of society.”

The church’s efforts to turn things around are why Dolan also writes:


We Catholics have for a decade apologized, cried, reached out, shouted mea culpa, and engaged in a comprehensive reform that has met with widespread acclaim. We’ve got a long way to go, and the reform still has to continue.

But it is fair to say that, just as the Catholic Church may have been a bleak example of how not to respond to this tragedy in the past, the Church is now a model of what to do. As the National Review Online observes, “. . . the Church’s efforts to come to grips with this problem within the household of faith — more far reaching than in any other institution or sector of society — have led others to look to the Catholic Church for guidance on how to address what is, in fact, a global plague.”

As another doctor, Paul McHugh, an international scholar on this subject at Johns Hopkins University, remarked, “Nobody is doing more to address the tragedy of sexual abuse of minors than the Catholic Church.”

That, of course, is another headline you’ll never see.


Dolan couldn’t have been happy to see today’s NYT, which features a front-page article about a late Wisconsin priest who molested hundreds of boys — while the Vatican did not react to pleas from several bishops to do something.

It’s one of those stories that leaves you shaking your head. How could it happen?

So, is Dolan right that the Catholic Church is being picked on and not given credit for its reforms? It’s a tough case to make when the pope is apologizing to the people of Ireland for decades of abuse and Germans are up in arms about scandals there.

Sure, the church is trying to turn things around (although some advocates for victims would say that some bishops and dioceses are still dragging their feet). But Catholics and the society at large are still only coming to terms with decades of abuse and how it happened.

I, for one, find it hard to buy the argument that sex-abuse outside the Catholic Church gets ignored by the media. It’s a case I’ve heard for the last decade.

Dolan notes that there has been much more abuse in public schools than in churches. It’s true, BUT each school system is responsible for what its employees do. There is no national school board that sets policies on abuse or can shuttle abusive teachers around.

When an abusive teacher is arrested in, say, Tulsa, the media there cover it. But the rest of the country has no interest. So, while there is extensive coverage of abuse in schools and other walks of life, the coverage does not feel tied together like coverage of abuse in the hierarchical Catholic Church.

When Jeanine Pirro was the Westchester DA and regularly busted men for seeking under-age sex partners via the Web, the Journal News put just about every case on Page One. But these were “local” stories that the national media would not have picked up on.

This week, a sex-abuse trial in Portland, Ore., involving the Boy Scouts of America revealed that the Scouts have kept confidential NATIONAL files on suspected abusers among its troop leaders. The trial has received extensive media coverage all across the country — as have past trials involving sex abuse in the Boy Scouts.

Sex abuse does get covered in all areas.

I want to share an email blast I got today from Father Thomas Berg, a priest and head of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person. He deals often with the media and has this take on the recent coverage:


You may have seen the front page (above the fold) story in today’s New York Times by Laurie Goldstein regarding Vatican inaction on a Milwaukee priest accused of sexual misconduct.  My take (and I know the author) is that while NYT is definitely taking aim at Pope Benedict and smells blood in the water, Goldstein’s real message was more about a culture of inaction and of hushing up abuse cases in order not to tarnish the image of the Church and to “avoid scandal”.   That internal culture and its attendant modes of operation certainly do need to change; they were, for all intents and purposes, still the m.o. in the late 90’s when these reports reached the Vatican. It may be the case that, at the time, then Cardinal Ratzinger was still working under those received ways of (in)action; but I believe the truth about Benedict is that his whole m.o. on how to handle these things underwent a real metamorphosis in the early part of the new decade of 2000.  Although lengthy, I encourage you to read the following article by John Allen which makes a compelling case for that sea change in mentality in Cardinal Ratzinger who became, in Allen’s words,  “a Catholic Eliot Ness” after becoming Pope in terms of handling high profile abuse cases. The question now is how the Pope will handle things from here and will he be true to his past.


Read that John Allen story. I praised it just the other day.

Legion priests ‘trained to suspend reason,’ former member says

The highly regarded Vatican journalist Sandro Magister has a terrific interview out with Father Thomas Berg, a long-time priest of the Legionaries of Christ who recently left the troubled order to become a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

Berg is the head of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, a Catholic think tank. I had lunch with him a couple of years ago near the Legionaries’ big estate in Thornwood and was very impressed. He’s funny, personable and really smart.

He’s the highest profile Legionary to speak out about the problems facing the order, which has long been known for its secrecy and lock-step discipline.

The Legion had been known for its cultish loyality to its founder, Marcial Maciel Degollado, a favorite of Pope John Paul II. But Maciel, who had been accused of sexually abusing seminarians over many years, was sent into early retirement in 2006 by Benedict XVI. Then it came out that Maciel, who died last year, had also fathered a child.

This week, the Vatican is beginning a highly anticipated investigation into the state of the Legion.

So what does Berg have to say? How about this:

I hope that the Legion will very quickly accelerate its disavowal of, and disassociation with, Fr. Maciel. On that point, I see no other way forward. All – and I mean all – the pictures of Maciel yet hanging in Legionary houses have to go. They have to stop referring to his writings in public (I understand that at one recent Legionary community mass the homilist still saw fit to quote from one of Maciel’s letters). A simple step in that direction, by the way, requires the immediate abrogation of their custom of referring to Fr. Maciel as “nuestro padre” or “mon père” – terms of endearment whose use he allowed and fostered. Amazingly, many if not most Legionaries still insist on using the term.


Berg also supports some of the primary criticisms made of the Legion by so many over the years. Get this:


More seriously, the lived manner in which Legionaries practice obedience is laced with the kind of unquestioning submission which allowed the cult of personality to emerge around the figure of Maciel in the first place and covered for his misdeeds. Legionary seminarians are essentially trained to suspend reason in their obedience and to seek a total internal conformity with all the norms, and to withstand any internal impulse to examine or critique the norms or the indications of superiors.


Trained to suspend reason in their obedience. Yikes.

Should taxes buy human eggs for research?

Father Thomas Berg, head of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, is a member of the Ethics Committee of the Empire State Stem Cell Board.

The Stem Cell Board is a government-funded body that makes grants for research “related to stem cell biology.”

The Ethics Committee, which takes on a lot of weighty matters, as you might guess, recently met and considered whether research money should go to people who pay women for their eggs.

Father Berg is a bioethicist who, as you also might guess, takes a Roman Catholic view of things. Here is a snippet he wrote about the committee’s decision in his monthly email blast:


NY Tax payer $$ to go for Human Eggs for Research

The Ethics Committee of New York’s Empire State Stem Cell Board (ESSCB), of which I am a member, voted overwhelmingly (my objections notwithstanding) to recommend that researchers who pay women for their eggs may receive state research funding.  This would make New York the first state to tacitly endorse a payment-for-eggs scheme that is common in the wild west industry of assisted reproduction.  The worst may be yet to come, however, as my colleagues are eager to propose direct state payments to women who undergo the process of egg “donation” for research purposes. I can assure you, it won’t be the educated, middle and upper-class set who risks their health and fertility to earn a few thousand dollars by “donating” their eggs for research. In a desperate quest and unprecedented measure to obtain women’s eggs to create embryos for research purposes, New York might soon use taxpayer money to provide the inducement, and women who take the bait will ultimately pay the price.


On its website, the Westchester Institute has a section on the sale of eggs.

A Legion priest drops the Legion

A prominent member of the Legionaries of Christ, the embattled Catholic order, has decided to leave the Legion to become a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

Father Thomas Berg runs the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, a bioethics think-tank based here in Thornwood.

In a statement, Berg explains that the Institute will continue its work under a new board and disconnected from the Legion. He writes: “By this means and through a very active ministry in the Archdiocese of New York, under our new Archbishop Timothy Dolan, I look forward to continuing to live my total consecration to Christ in his priesthood.”

The Legion, a long controversial, solidly conservative order, has been shaken to its core by revelations that its late, beloved founder, Father Marcial Maciel, had fathered a child and apparently lived a “double life.” The Legion had previously fought allegations that Maciel sexually abused seminarians several decades ago.

The Vatican is soon sending representatives to study the Legion’s situation and help decide its future. Many observers believe that the Legion is done.

In his statement, Berg writes:


After nearly 23 years of life as a Legionary of Christ, I have discerned that it is time for me to continue following Christ in the diocesan priesthood.  Although the recent revelations about the Legion’s founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel, were profoundly disturbing, my decision has actually been in the making for nearly three years.

Like so many, I have personally experienced again and again the vast amount of good which God has accomplished through Legionary priests and the congregation’s works of apostolate over the past six decades of its existence.  I leave with a heart grateful to Christ who I know accepted and blessed the oblation of my years of religious consecration in the Legion.

In my opinion, the serious issues within the congregation will require its thorough reformation if not a complete re-foundation. I am hopeful that the upcoming Apostolic Visitation of the Legion will be a first step toward a new beginning for the Legionaries and members of Regnum Christi. I trust that God in his providence will lead them to holiness and enable them to do great things for Christ and his Church.   For my part, I remain their friend and brother in the Lord.


Berg is a thoughtful and forceful proponent of looking at today’s bioethical quandaries from the Catholic view of the human person.

His new essay on President Obama’s first 100 days includes this:


Dialogue. Accommodation. Common ground. Reasonableness. Obama believes he is about all that and wants us to believe it too.

But none of us should.

Obama has mastered the art of concealing a strident pursuit of his aggressive anti-life agenda under the guise of debonair disdain for conflict and feigned confusion over all the fuss emerging from Catholic quarters.

What most strikes me about the first 100 days of the Obama phenomenon is how he has come to incarnate in the popular American psyche the fulfillment of the longed-for secular messiah. It’s the Age of Aquarius redux. Obama stands in that liberal American psyche as the great emancipator of foregone conservative foibles and moral scruples, poised to institutionalize all the dogmas of the new secular orthodoxy.  Consequently, he has unceremoniously imparted what he and his adorers believe will be a final coup de grace for many a conservative folly: reversal of the Mexico City Policy, his executive order suspending the Bush administration policy on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, his move to rescind the “conscience clause” regulations put in place by President Bush, and the list goes on.

And given the apparent shallowness of his own religious experience, he is the icon of all religious indifferentists, of those “spiritual but not religious” souls, of the devotees of nice McNihilism.

Defining stem-cell research in New York

Few have probably heard of the Empire State Stem Cell Board, which was created last year to promote stem-cell research in New York.

Promoting stem-cell research, of course, is not a simple matter, as there is a great disagreement over whether embryonic stem cells are off-limits.

The NY board has an ethics committee to deal with such matters. One of its members, a Catholic priest and bioethicist named Father Thomas Berg, has written a column charging that many government agencies may be biased against stem cell research that does not use embryonic cells.

Berg is executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, a Catholic think tank.

He writes:

Last December, our Ethics Committee unanimously recommended to the Funding Committee a brief six month moratorium on the funding of controversial research projects (such as the creation of new lines of human embryonic stem cells) so that we could have time to make recommendations on the serious ethical issues involved in such research. We were roundly rebuffed, however. Such a moratorium, they argued, “would send the wrong signal to the scientific community in the State.”

The ethics board meets again today.