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Catholic Media Watch

Close your eyes and think of Rome

by Michael Mullins

It was recently suggested to me that I analyse the capital city Catholic press coverage of the Salesian sex abuse scandal that broke in June. My 'What coverage?' answer was not entirely quizzical. It reflected my matter of fact assumption that those papers simply don't print scandal. Instead, I've tended to the naive, or perhaps cynical belief that they exist to publish only good news about the Church for the edification of the faithful.

My survey of the five mainland capital city papers for the two months from early June revealed that only the Brisbane Catholic Leader had coverage of the Salesian scandal. It should be noted that the Leader's coverage was very professional. It was not extensive, but it's clear that the paper lives up to its name and stands apart from the others in its coverage of this issue.

Taking the Sydney Catholic Weekly as an example from my survey results, I found three articles mentioning the Salesians, none of which made reference to the sex abuse scandal. By contrast, the CathNews electronic service from Church Resources referred to the Salesians in 17 articles, 14 of which concerned the sex abuse issue. CathNews provides a useful comparison because it is by nature a media monitoring service, and its coverage reflects that of the secular and religious media combined.

My comparison suggests quite definitively that the Catholic Weekly is in denial in its choosing not to run the story. In fact there was no reporting in any of the papers other than the Leader of the written statement of Salesian Provincial Fr Ian Murdoch, which was quoted widely enough in the secular media.

The editor of one of the other Catholic papers told a colleague of mine that his publication does not attempt to cover stories like this, because it cannot compete with the up to the minute coverage in the mainstream media and electronic services such as CathNews and Zenit. It's true that the papers go to press almost a week before many people buy their copy at Sunday Mass. Most of them have responded to this problem by focusing on features, and leaving the hard news to the daily and electronic media. The Catholic Weekly has recently switched from a newspaper-style cover to a magazine cover that carries a full-page photograph.

In an age when electronic media are usurping the "news source" role of newspapers across the board, it's reasonable to expect that the Catholic papers might adopt a magazine identity, and emphasise news features rather than breaking news. But that would lead one to expect at least one magazine-style feature on the Salesian scandal during my survey period. But no. Two months down the track, none of the papers has published such a feature.

Therefore my conclusion must be that all but one of the papers are 'in denial' about the Salesian scandal. Denial is of course an apt and instructive term in this context, because it is the Church's refusal to admit the existence of widespread clergy sex abuse until comparatively recently that has delayed attempts to tackle its the root cause.

However to say that the papers are in denial about the Salesian story is not to say that they avoid the sex abuse issue altogether. During the survey period, the Catholic Weekly did carry a feature on clergy sex abuse. It was titled 'Archbishop leads war on sex abuse', and dealt with a Rome meeting of 30 English-speaking bishops at which Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson presided.

Obviously there was no denial here. But the tone was triumphalistic, and the point was that the Church was in control of the situation, with an inspiring Australian cleric leading the way! The fact that this was the only abuse story I noticed in the Catholic Weekly , and that it was an inspiring one, upholds my belief that it's only good news that gets a run.

I was left wondering whether good news and inspiring features are in fact the beginning, middle and end of Catholic journalism, and that that's the way it's meant to be. I decided to go to Google and look for a random diocesan newspaper mission statement. I found the words of the founder of the Arlington Catholic Herald in the USA, who borrowed from Vatican II's Decree on the Media of Social Communication. He promised his readers that the paper would make "every effort to give readers a balanced picture, week by week, of events and situations in the religious, moral and spiritual field. Some of these situations and events will please us, some may pain us." Let me finish by suggesting that there is plenty of room for more pain in the Australian Catholic press.

Michael Mullins compiles Cathnews and provides technical assistance to the Catholic Weekly.

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