Child Abuse Scandal and Media Responsibility
By Bishop Emmanuel Ade Badejo Catholic Bishop of Oyo
The Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has taken considerable flak from individuals and groups in the last few months since news of the unfortunate and condemnable abuses began to filter out from various corners of Europe including the Pope’s own former diocese in Germany. Notably, thinly disguised effort has been invested especially in the media to not only blame the Holy Father for the sins and misconduct of priests and dioceses indicted in the scandal but even to make the Pope personally and directly liable for misconduct and possible abuse of power. Unmistakably, no one has condemned the whole priestly scandal in more direct terms than Pope Benedict himself especially in the pastoral letter he wrote to the Church of Ireland where most of the scandals have been uncovered by two major official reports. That letter the Church has insisted can as well be read about other areas of the world where the current problem exists.
In his letter the Pope condemned the abuses, spoke directly to the ineffective way in which reports of child abuse had been handled by Bishops in the past and scolded the church authorities involved. In his words: “…it must be admitted that grace errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness” He then proposed direct steps and “concrete initiatives” to be taken to rectify the situation accompanying all that with a strong and clear apology on behalf of the entire to those who have been hurt and recommended “a path of healing renewal and reparation”.
But some victims, somehow understandably, and commentators, some of whom were media reporters and organization, wanted much more. They condemned the Pope’s apology as insufficient. Some even asked the Holy Father to resign, requested that celibacy be scrapped and the entire Catholic Church closed down if possible.
Being a media trainee myself, I have never believed that balanced reporting and objectivity can be easily achieved. Nonetheless, I believe that responsible media must vigorously and tirelessly pursue a healthy balance between sensational and factual reporting. This does not seem to have been the case with international reports on the Church and Pope Benedict in recent times and the current scandal is only one case in point. On last Good Friday some international media reported that the Pope’s retreat preacher, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa had likened the tide of allegations against the Pope to anti-Semitism, a historical debacle and mis-event which the Catholic Church herself has done much to condemn and redress. This natural raised an added round of controversy for many who see the analogy as insensitive and inappropriate. Well the truth is that Fr, Cantalamessa was only quoting this statement from a friend who wrote it in a letter to him as he clearly stated. This was not at all the perspective that immediately emerged on the BBC and others Their report made it sound like those were the direct viva voce words of the priest and so, many flew off the handle, uttering harsh words against the Pope for “just sitting there” while the priest preached “those offensive word”. Of course one needs to understand the meaning of liturgical worship to know what the Pope was “just sitting there” doing.
And we have seen before now how the crafty or (mis)use of media can cause or aggravate sensitive issues. Flow back to 12 September 2006 when the same Pope delivered a lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany where he had once served as Professor of theology. The Pope made comments that touched on the Islam. He then quoted the words of a Byzantine Emperor, Manuel ll Palaiologos, in dialogue with an educated Persian. Notwithstanding the Pope’s clear explanation that the words were not his they were reported as if the words were his original and personal ideas. This operation also set off a heated worldwide debate that put the Vatican on the defensive. It took several months of defense and explanations to set things right. In fact, to good credit, on 13th October, 2007, 138 Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals unanimously came together for the first time since the days of the Prophet Mohammed to declare the common ground between Christianity and Islam in their letter entitled: “In A Common Word Between Us and You”. They helped to bring calm to those troubled waters. This is why I think that agenda beyond the important issues of responsibility, repentance and reparation are being fed in some quarters in this matter, possibly to bring down the Catholic Church as an institution or at least hurt it as much as possible. This is where the media in my view need to be placed under scrutiny.
As a fall-out therefore I feel that it bears restating that the role of the media in uncovering, reporting and promoting the truth must be revisited at all times. The media have a social responsibility to report especially sensitive issues as transparently as possible. They must resist the temptation to craft the story with juice and honey merely to cause sensation and gain maximum public attention. Any attempt to twist truth and fact in order to put a spin on any story or in order to hit the headlines harder can only diminish the important work of the media and aggravate already unfortunate situations. The power of the media is much too lethal to be used in such an irresponsible way. The ongoing discoveries of child abuse have already claimed too many victims. The media as a respected segment of society need not, through biased and partial reporting, add themselves to the unfortunate list.
It all boils down perhaps to the need for critical training for the general public in media awareness. The key is this: “if the facts are available, take the trouble to check them out yourself” and this is not for the issue at hand alone. The public has that duty to try harder to access several sources before conceding its belief to overzealous spinners of the “big story”.
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