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Catholic Media Watch

Abuse and the logic of being media-friendly

by Michael Mullins

It was as if Australian Salesian Provincial Father Ian Murdoch had something to hide. ABC reporter David Hardacre was lucky enough to get Fr Murdoch on the other end of a phone line on Monday last week. But Fr Murdoch wasn't playing ball. He simply announced the availability of a faxed statement, then responded to Hardacre's posturing by abruptly hanging up.

But far from putting down the pesky journalist, Murdoch's intemperate response was a gift. In a few seconds of minor drama, he provided what mostly takes a seeming eternity of laboured questioning. Despite Murdoch's denial in the prepared statement, Hardacre was able to deliver his listeners the impression there was substance to his story that that Fr Frank Klep was moved to Western Samoa in order to evade the law. Whatever the truth of the matter, Murdoch's denial sounded about as plausible as Bill Clinton's "I did not have sex with that woman".

Clergy facing media questions on sex abuse most often look upon the media as "the enemy". Former Governor-General Dr Peter Hollingworth said as much on Sunday during an interview with Radio National's Peter Thompson: "Like the enemy camped round about.. we had the media stake-out". A variation on Cardinal George Pell's speaking matter of fact about his "ambush" by Channel 9's 60 Minutes in 2002.

Like warmongering, the more one thinks of an interlocutor as the enemy, the greater the likelihood that the other person will become the enemy. And truth, of course, is the first casualty of war. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Just on a year ago, Jesuit Provincial Fr Mark Raper tried a different, decidedly more fruitful, approach. After abandoning his initial attempt to follow legal advice to stonewall, he appears to have opted to reject the idea of the media as enemy.

Accordingly Raper gave the benefit of the doubt to the journalist, who happened to be David Hardacre. Hardacre's purpose, he assumed, was to uncover the truth. Conceivably the standing of the Church could be damaged by the revelation of the truth. But in the long-term that would only set it free. Hardacre was not out to get the Church and, as such, they were mates who shared an important piece of common ground.

Raper's implicit trust of the journalist allowed him to admit that he was genuinely moved by the victim's account of sex abuse by a teacher at a Jesuit school. This gave him a bond not only with the journalist, but with the audience, who would have little trouble accepting his assurance that he placed greater store in defending the people the Church seeks to serve over than defending the Church itself.

Certainly it is easy to slip from being media-friendly to attention-seeking, forgetting that the cultivation of journalists has a higher purpose. Motivation becomes blurred for journalists also, who are aware of the story's entertainment value, and indeed potential to gain for them a personal accolade. As it happened, the Mark Raper report gained a Walkley award and a Logie nomination for Hardacre and 7:30 Report team.

No doubt media reports are exploitative to varying degrees. But that does not give clergy an excuse to opt out of public media scrutiny, which has played a decisive role in empowering sex abuse victims to come forward and impressing on church staff the seriousness of such actions.

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