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'That the people shall know', say the media

A veil of secrecy over a top regional meeting on pedophilia is an exercise in futility

'That the people shall know', say the media
Father William Grimm MM, Tokyo

November 22, 2011

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Several years ago, a journalist in Bangkok wanted to know if the Vatican had diplomatic relations with a particular country. So, he dialed the Vatican’s embassy and asked. "We can’t tell you that," was the answer. The reporter then called the other country’s embassy and got an immediate answer. Around the same time, another journalist in Manila called the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines to ask how many seminarians there were in the country. Being told, "That’s classified information," the reporter telephoned each seminary in the country, asked the number of their students and did the arithmetic. Many, probably most, people and structures that exercise authority in the Catholic Church are allergic to any journalism that functions as more than a bulletin board for offices, organizations, hierarchs or pastors. Their obsession with secrecy and control reaches ridiculous depths, such as in Bangkok and Manila, where there was no need of secrecy in the first place nor any way to maintain it. But no matter how much clerical functionaries try to hold off reporters, inevitably the truth comes out, and attempts to suppress it become part of the story, often the main part. Ironically, when insurance companies in the US pointed out that bishops’ secrecy and evasion regarding abuse invalidated their coverage, the bishops cynically countered that reports of the abuse crisis by the independent National Catholic Reporter – reports that the bishops had opposed and attacked – proved that there had been no secrecy. Journalists uncovering lies and cover-up has been the case throughout the world, and what has been known as the clergy sex abuse crisis is increasingly seen to actually be the clerical cover-up crisis and is being reported as such. Last week, the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences' Office of the Clergy sponsored a seminar, The Impact of Pedophilia Crisis on the Church in Asia. Cardinals, archbishops, bishops and formators were invited to the meeting in Bangkok. When journalists asked about reporting, they were told that media coverage was not allowed. Of course, that does not mean that there will be no media coverage. See for a report (click here). If some organization or individual tries to prevent news coverage of anything, it’s usually a sign that something is being hidden. In fact, the first reason given for the seminar is that the issue of child abuse must be dealt with "before it will get out of hand like it has done in other countries." Abuse and cover-up in Asia are already at least as extensive as in the rest of the world, and the Japanese hierarchy, unlike the rest of the Church in Asia, has taken laudable steps in dealing with it. But what makes "the other countries" different in the eyes of the seminar organizers has been public exposure that has gotten "out of hand." In other words, the seminar’s first concern is to prevent publicity. The seminar organizers do not ignore the suffering that abuse causes. In fact, it is "another reason" for the seminar. As the seminar announcement says, "Another reason why this seminar is important and urgent (is) because many a priest, religious sister, including bishops/formators are not aware of what in reality is pedophilia, and what it does to the child-victim." Shouldn’t the child-victims be the primary, rather than "another," reason? As the song asks, "When will they ever learn?" The media are not a bulletin board upon which the hierarchy can put forth whatever they wish. Nor is it an enemy. Responsible journalists are devoted to the truth and work so that people know the truth that affects them. As the motto of one respected journalism schools says, "That the people shall know." Knowing that journalists will spotlight deliberations, meetings and decisions might lead people in authority to think before saying such nonsense as victims of abuse are "another" reason to look at the problem. Openness to media can protect our leaders from their own stupidity. By refusing to cooperate with media, Church leadership often deprives itself of an opportunity to present its side of a situation. The obsession with secrecy and control sets up an adversarial situation that merely becomes a challenge for journalists in a game that churchmen cannot win. Journalists are professionals at finding out. By the way, the Vatican did have diplomatic relations with that country.
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