A liberal Catholic shot at the NYT

As I’ve written before, recent media coverage of sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church has faced harsh criticism from those who sense anti-Catholic leanings in the secular media.

Weighing in now is none other than Westchester’s own Kenneth Woodward, the former longtime religion editor at Newsweek (where he remains a contributing editor). I’ve often praised the terrific lecture series that Woodward organizes at his parish, St. Theresa’s in Briarcliff Manor.

In fact, the next FREE lecture is this Monday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m., when Christian Smith, director of Center for the Study of Religion and Society and the Center for Social Research at Notre Dame, will talk about “Souls in Transition: The Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults.”

Woodward has written a critique of the New York Times’ recent stories about sex abuse for the Catholic weekly, Commonweal. This is particularly interesting because Commonweal is, of course, a liberal magazine that has been very critical of the church’s handling of the abuse crisis.

Woodward’s essay, called “Church of the Times,” actually has two, almost separate themes.

The first is that the Times is a sort of Church of Secularism that can’t help seeing believers as space aliens — quite odd and difficult to understand. He makes the case that the Times operates much like the Vatican:

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As U.S. newspapers go, the Times is also a venerable institution and its hierarchy of editors, deputy and assistant editors, and copyeditors is a match for the Roman curia. The paper has been controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family since 1896. To those who devote their lives to it, the Times has become “a place that will shelter you the rest of your life,” as Arthur Gelb wrote in his detailed memoir, City Room. I know what he means: Newsweek in the nearly four decades I worked there was also a sheltering institution. Moreover, with reporting flowing in from our worldwide news bureaus, we in New York felt as if we were operating at the throbbing center of the known and knowable universe. Given its exponentially larger work force, not to mention hourly input from the Internet, this illusion is all the more powerful at the Times. A journalist could spend a lifetime in its newsroom without encountering a dissenter from the institutional ideology.

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Woodward’s point that the Times sees its mission as Big and Important (“All the news that’s fit to print,” anyone?), not unlike a religious institution, is quirky and fun to consider, whether you agree or not.

His second point is that the Times’ coverage of two high-profile “scandals” was poorly done. He spends much less time on this point, opening and closing his essay with it.

First and foremost, he asserts that the Times has been too reliant on the legal papers (and views) of the lawyer Jeff Anderson, the most high-profile defender of abuse victims.

He writes: “It’s hard for a newspaper to climb in bed with a man like Anderson without making his cause its own.”

But Woodward doesn’t critique the stories — dates, places, chains of command — as other critics have tried to do.

Woodward does make one timely point about all the Times’ recent front-page stories about abuse scandals connected or vaguely connected to the pope: “…clearly the Times considers sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests more newsworthy than abuse committed by other groups. An April 13 verdict against the Boy Scouts of America, which has struggled with the child-sexual-abuse issue for a century, did not merit page-1, above-the-fold treatment but rather a single paragraph deep inside the paper.”

I would like to know how the Times would explain its meager coverage of the Boy Scouts’ case, which involves a national organization having decades worth of files related to scout masters who have abused minors. Here is their most recent story about the case, which ran deep inside the paper.

The Times’ ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, recently defended the paper’s coverage of things Catholic.

Did Obama miss an opportunity at ND?

Westchester’s own Ken Woodward has a fine column on Newsweek.com about the “lessons” of Obama at Notre Dame.

Woodward is the former longtime religion editor at the newsweekly and now serves as a contributing editor.

A graduate of Notre Dame and a self-described “pro-life Catholic,” Woodward approves of Obama’s invitation. He writes that both Obama and ND President Father John Jenkins showed “courage” for following through with the program.

But he takes Obama to task for not using the opportunity to reach out to Catholics:

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For example, he could have signaled his support for the Pregnant Women Support Act, a common-ground initiative that Democrats for Life have introduced in the House and Senate, which has the endorsement of the Catholic bishops Pro-Life Committee.

He might have reassured the Catholic community, beyond a passing phrase, that new regulations governing health-care providers will contain strong clauses protecting the consciences of doctors and nurses who find abortion evil. American Catholics, after all, operate the largest private-hospital system in the world.

As a political gesture, he might have announced a White House liaison to American Catholics. A hundred days into his presidency, there is no one in that post.

Above all, he could have clarified his stand on the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), a bill that would remove all state and local restrictions on abortion. As a candidate, Obama declared his support for FOCA; since then he has said that it is no longer high on his list of legislative priorities.

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In the end, Woodward writes, Catholic universities actually enhance their religious identity by “respectfully engaging” those who disagree. He writes: “The message of Notre Dame is that thoughtful Catholics wish this president well. They will work with him if he will work with them.”

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)