I. The Good and the Bad within the Media’s Reporting of the Catholic Sexual Abuse Crisis
The media’s role in the sex abuse scandal has been mixed. In a lot of ways, the media scrutiny seems to have been sent by God. The allegations of widespread sexual abuse were pretty unbelievable to a lot of the “good guys” within the Church. Those who weren’t personally involved in the handling of cases couldn’t imagine that sexual predator priests constituted more than a miniscule handful of cases. The idea that a priest would do something so terrible is contrary to everything we assume about our priests. It’s due primarily to the media that we now know that (a) there were more cases than any of us would have assumed, and (b) a jarring number of bishops acted evilly or incompetently in reaction to the crisis. It’s only because of this outside vigiliance that the “good guys” within the Church became aware of which of their brother bishops were lying or unreliable, which had been whitewashing things to the media, to their brother bishops, and to the pope, etc. Much of the good which has occurred since 2002 in the Church’s internal reforms for handling sex abuse cases can be traced in part to the media’s role. You may not love your doctor, but if he’s correctly diagnosed a disease festering within your body, you’ve got to appreciate the work he’s done. So it is here.
But for all of the good the media coverage has done, it’s been tainted from nearly the beginning. There are those in the media with a geniune anti-Catholic agenda: those who view the Church as a collection of religious fanatics preaching “hate,” those who view the bishops as the only thing standing between them and a pro-choice womynpriest church, those who view all religion as evil, etc. These people want the Church, as we know it, destroyed. And they were quick to leech off of the sex abuse scandal to advance their own goals. In few cases did they uncover anything of substance. What this group did instead was tarnish the reputation of the innocent, raise all sorts of ridiculous red herrings, and make it generally harder to understand either (a) the scope of the actual problem, (b) who could be trusted, and (c) what had happened, and why. Their role was to make the sexual abuse crisis less likely to be addressed, and unfortunately, their presence sent many within the Church into an unhelpful defensive posture in reacting to the crisis.
In general, the good elements within the media were those diagnosing the problem: there was sexual abuse, the authorities (including both the police and bishops) were utterly failing to protect the innocent while they protected the Church’s (and the bishop’s) civic reputation and the sexual predator, instead. The bad elements were those peddling absurd cures: as if (to take one example) allowing homosexually-attracted pedophiles to marry will solve anything. As I’ve mentioned before, Maureen Dowd’s “analysis” was singularly bad: that the pope should have been less concerned about sexual sins. On the contrary, we needed more people like the pope, more people understanding the gravity of sexual sins, that a little sexual activity within children wasn’t “harmless” or “experimentation” but a life-shattering violation of their trust and dignity.
II. A Study in Contrasts: The Polanski Case
What I remain struck by, however, is the difference between how the media handles sexual abuse accusations against priests, and how the media handles sexual abuse accusations against anyone else. The Roman Polanski case shows what I mean. Polanski was a powerful actor and director, and in 1977 (while in his forties), he drugged, raped and sodomized a thirteen year-old girl in a hot tub as she plead for him to stop. There’s no real question about his guilt, and he was going to plead guilty to a lesser charge. When the prosecutor tipped him off (!) that the judge was planning to make an example of him, Polanski fled the country to France, where he lived as a pampered artist and civic hero, and began dating a fifteen year-old actress. Now there’s another accusation against him: the British actress Charlotte Lewis claims that Polanski raped her.
I’ve been shocked by the treatment given Roman Polanski in general: treating him like the victim because some mean ol’ judge was going to give him a (shockingly brief, by today’s standards) stint in jail for child rape. But this article really struck a chord with me. The article fails to really quote a single person outside of Charlotte Lewis and her attorney who felt that Polanski may not be the victim here. The article begins:
The controversy surrounding fugitive filmmaker Roman Polanski has drawn strong words in his defence from fellow director Woody Allen after fresh allegations that he abused a minor.
Another of Polanski’s prominent defenders, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, rejected the new allegations by British actress Charlotte Lewis, and even France’s culture minister waded in, dismissing them as “pseudo accusations.”
Allen, 74, said Polanski, who is fighting extradition from Switzerland to the United States to face sentencing in a 1977 child sex case, had paid a high price for his actions and that it was time to draw a line under the case.
Of course, Polanski hasn’t served a day of his sentence, and has lived like royalty in Europe while his victims were forever scared. So he hasn’t really “paid a high price” at all, other than settling with one victim in civil court. But Charlotte Lewis is raising new rape accusations. She’s not even the victim Polanski was supposed to be serving time for raping. And in a new level of blaming the victim:
One of Polanski’s defence attorneys Georges Kiejman told French news channel i-Tele he was “absolutely astonished” by Lewis’s allegations, and that if she repeated them “it is probable that we would take her to court”.
Kiejman said he found it “quite disturbing” that Lewis appeared in Polanski’s 1986 period flop “Pirates” three years after the director allegedly forced himself upon the actress.
Another of Polanski’s lawyers, Herve Timime, was more direct in challenging Lewis’s credibility: “Everything that has been said is a web of lies.”
So not only are Charlotte Lewis’ allegations dismissed out of hand as psuedo-allegations, but if she continues to claim she was raped, she’ll get punished, by having a powerful filmmaker sic his lawyers no her. As for Lewis appearing in one of his films as he’s said to have raped her, the behavior wouldn’t exactly be out of the ordinary for rape victims. Does the media ever run accusations like, “the accused priest’s lawyer found it ‘quite disturbing’ that the accusor served as the priest’s altar boy three years after the priest allegedly forced himself on him”? Of course not.
Besides being impressively slanted to include virtually no sources other than pro-Polanski ones, those, the article relies heavily upon quotes from Woody Allen and French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand, which is troubling in its own right. Woody Allen is currently married to Soon-Yi Previn, his stepdaughter (who was only 12 when he began to date her adoptive mother, Mia Farrow). As Ronan Seamus Farrow, the son of Allen and Mia Farrow, said: “He’s my father married to my sister. That makes me his son and his brother-in-law. That is such a moral transgression. I cannot see him. I cannot have a relationship with my father and be morally consistent…I lived with all these adopted children, so they are my family. To say Soon-Yi was not my sister is an insult to all adopted children.” In fairness, it’s never been proven that Soon-Yi and Woody Allen were sexually involved while she was a minor and Woody Allen was her stepdad, but the whole relationship is incredibly troubling. Even more disturbing is French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand’s autobiography, in which he mentions paying for sex with “boys” (not men) in Southeast Asia.
Could you imagine an article in which an accused priest’s loudest defenders involved a known and a suspected pedophile? And in which the newspaper failed to mention this (seemingly significant) detail? In fairness, the newspaper mentions the Soon-Yi and Woody Allen relationship, but claims without evidence that it began when she was 22; in fact, that was her age when Mia Farrow discovered the relationship, after she uncovered explicit photos in Allen’s dresser. No mention is made of Mitterrand’s admitted pedophilia in the article whatsoever.
There’s an obvious double-standard at work here. Both cases involve powerful men (priests, in the first case; famous directors and a Cultural Minister, in the second) exploiting their status and clout to exploit the innocent. Both cases also involve their friends and peers, often equally powerful figures, sticking up for them in the face of pretty daunting evidence, and failing to empathize with the victim at all. Yet they’re treated in remarkably different ways.
My point isn’t that the media should treat the accusers of priests the way it treats the accusers of darlings like Polanski, by blaming the victim and printing legal threats against those who dare speak up. Frankly, I’d prefer the opposite: tough reporting which takes the powerful to task for exploiting and abusing the weak. My point is just that there’s a double standard, and we should remember that for everything that the media is good for, it’d be naive to assume that the vigiliance in pursuing the sex abuse scandal is somehow rooted in concern for teenage children’s sexual innocence. Mark Shea has argued that “This is not about The Children. This is about payback and hatred of the gospel. ” It’s a bit too sweeping of a generalization: certainly, there are some who are genuinely motivated by concern for the abused, as I mentioned in Part I. But there are others willing to turn their tragedies into a cheap shot against the Church while simultaneously scoffing at other victims’ tragedies, because there’s nothing to gain from publicly exploiting them.