Reporting on abuse in the Church should look beyond victims and bureaucrats

Joyce SmithThere’s more to the story of sexual abuse by clerics than victims, abusers and self-protecting bureaucracies, writes Joyce Smith. Part of the challenge of reporting on religion is recognizing the spiritual element in the story and following the impact of events on relationships and faith.

Following his Giller win, CBC journalist Linden MacIntyre was often asked why he needed to write a fictional account of a story he’d already covered as a journalist. To paraphrase his answer, there are some things journalism just can’t do.

MacIntyre isn’t the first to turn to fiction when dealing with the tragedy of sexual abuse by clerics. The Boys of St. Vincent, first aired on CBC in 1992, was based on the Canadian Mount Cashel crimes but, sadly, has resonated worldwide. One of the reasons was the docudrama’s exploration of the web of those complicit in and suffering from the abuse of power.

MacIntyre has said he sees good fiction as “in many ways a higher form of journalism,” allowing room to “go deeper” without having to “pose as a disinterested observer.” He did not want The Bishop’s Man to be a simplistic anti-Catholic book.

And maybe he didn’t want it to be just an anti-institution book. Long ago, not so far away (at a 1998 conference on religion and media at Carleton), then-editor William Thorsell said The Globe and Mail didn’t have a religion beat because the paper already covered enough institutions. The remark didn’t go over well with the crowd, many of whom saw their beliefs and practices as embedded in relationships, not faceless organizations. This remains one of the challenges of reporting on religion, particularly when so many Canadians see themselves as religious but don’t belong to an institution.

How does one cover the church, not just the Church?

In November, New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt responded to New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s assertion that the paper was taking part in the “national pastime” of prejudice against the Catholic Church. (The archbishop found a column by Maureen Dowd condemning a Vatican inquiry into the lives of American nuns and a feature story on the ailing son of a Franciscan priest particularly egregious.) Broadcaster and writer Michael Coren continues to level similar accusations against Canadian journalists.

But Dowd said her piece slamming Rome came because she is Catholic. MacIntyre describes himself as an agnostic, but says his upbringing as a Catholic informs his thinking.

Research by my Ryerson colleagues Marsha Barber and Ann Rauhala suggests Canadian news decision-makers are less observant than the general public, but a number of journalists do identify as religious, among them many Catholics. Being critical of a religious organization is not the same as opposing the religion. Despite a shared love of over-the-top invective, there is a difference between the stance of a Christopher Hitchens and a Maureen Dowd. But, when feeling beset and besieged, any and all criticism may seem like an amorphous wallop.

The pattern of reporting on sexual abuse by clerics has become almost rote: victims and their families suffer and some go to authorities who may ignore them or move at glacial speed. Church officials deny and/or try to cover up the suffering. Reporters get involved and scandalous headlines get printed. It’s been easy to see the story solely as an institutional one: A big, bad hierarchy versus poor defenceless children and their families. And it’s tough to argue the Church has responded to the pleas of survivors without journalistic hounding.

In the triage exercise known as news judgment – deciding not just what are the stories, but what is the story – an institution denying the truth trumps almost everything else. This makes for very similar tales told by journalists, who can continue to don the role of crusader for the victimized.

Heading into a new decade, it would be nice to hope the scabs would heal at least to scars: That sexual abuse itself, of all forms and in all settings, would cease and that there would be no need for journalists to reveal more sins. Sadly, that probably requires a suspension of disbelief of a higher order than required by the most fictive of novels.

It is horrifying but easier to quantify the number of people who have suffered, the number of years of abuse and investigation and cover-up, and the monetary scale of settlements, than to get at the loss of faith and the rupture of relationships made even trickier by the added element of intangible beliefs. And, if the researchers are right, it may be unusual for a journalist to have spent long enough in a church community to be alert to the situation of those left to pick up the spiritual as well as logistical pieces.

Perhaps this is why MacIntyre and others have found in fiction the ability to go beyond well-trod depictions of evil deeds and the systemic unwillingness of institutions to come clean.

Today, few journalists will be cowed or overawed when tackling religious hierarchies. But that doesn’t mean we should treat these stories as one might a workers’ compensation dispute. Covering only the quantifiable won’t capture the essence.

The straightforward crusading, anti-corruption narrative could be matched with the deeply personal stories of relationships. This means probing not just the ties between members and leaders, but also among community members as well as between believers and the transcendent beings and ideas in which they place their faith.

Part of the task when dealing with religion is to recognize and articulate the spiritual elements of a story. I think not only fictional characters but even “disinterested observers” can have antennae trained to pick up on and relate the unseen. We have to make room in our news for these stories, too.

Joyce Smith is an associate professor at Ryerson University, where she started the j-school’s online program. For the better part of the last twenty years she’s been studying religion and reporting in Canada, the U.S. and South Africa.