Reporters who twist the truth strain their credibility
By Albert de Zutter
Catholic Key Editor
THE KANSAS CITY STAR saw fit to preach candor to the Catholic Church in its editorial April 16. Fair enough. We believe in candor. We also believe in fairness and truth, in church statements as well as in news reporting.
Bishop Raymond J. Boland embarked on a policy of candor with regard to the very difficult and painful matter of sexual abuse involving clergy from the very beginning. The Star's own files should provide enough evidence of that reality for any fair-minded journalist seeking the truth in that regard.
Having done the right thing from the start, following the advice of the diocese's Independent Review Board, he stated confidently that "we presently have no priest, teacher or youth minister in a parish or school who has ever been accused of any form of child sexual abuse."
He did not anticipate that The Kansas City Star, the monopoly source of general, in-depth news in the metropolitan community of Kansas City, would play "gotcha" with his words.
The Star acknowledged as much when it made the following comment in its editorial on the bishop's words: "Had the diocesan officials qualified that statement by reminding the public that some retired priests had previously faced allegations of abuse, credibility would be stronger."
Right. With a major newspaper standing in the wings ready to pounce, "diocesan officials" had better dot every "i," cross every "t" and pray every time they open their mouths.
Father Thomas Ward was accused. He was suspended, investigated, examined, deposed (i.e., he gave a deposition), and reinstated. The allegations against him were judged to be not credible. As one of the examiners put it, "I usually believe such allegations, but I didn't believe this one."
In other words, Father Ward was exonerated, as thoroughly as it is possible to exonerate anyone in a one-on-one accusation. To the fair-minded, Father Ward no longer stands accused.
Nevertheless, because Bishop Boland's statement was technically wrong, in that even someone who has been cleared of an accusation was, in fact, "accused" at one time, The Star saw fit to write a story calling his credibility into question. It saw fit to follow that story with the statement that "Church leaders who aren't forthcoming strain their credibility," and to advise, "Candor, though, will make it easier to resolve these difficult matters." Trite but true. We're sure "diocesan officials" are grateful for the advice.
To return the favor, The Star should be advised that honest reporting is the best way to serve its community. When Star reporters show up at Father Ward's door and are told he is recovering from recent surgery and can't talk to them, shouldn't they report the circumstances instead of simply writing, "Ward would not comment for this article"?
When a diocesan official cooperates with them by explaining a retired priest's role, should they gratuitously characterize that as "minimizing"?
And should they manufacture "news" by seeking out a past accuser and getting him to "agree" to come forward now? And should they lay out in graphic detail the content of the accusation from the accuser's deposition while saying virtually nothing about Father Ward's deposition? And should they make argumentative and inaccurate statements like the following: "But the courts rejected the diocese's attempts to get the case thrown out," implying that the diocese made repeated attempts, instead of explaining that motions for dismissal are automatic in the defense of every suit?
Journalists who aren't forthcoming with relevant facts, or who twist the truth, strain their credibility.
- A. de Z.