As a Catholic and a retired journalist, I feel shame when I read about the latest sex scandal involving my church. I am also ashamed of my former profession. I spent 40 years as a reporter and editor with wire services, a career that encompassed newspapers, radio and television. I don’t plan to give a crash course in journalism here, but trust me when I say that wire service people are a very well-informed lot. Part of my job called for reading seven papers a day as the television and radio droned on in the background. Eventually I became a news consumer and critic as much as a producer of news.
I entered the profession in 1960 with pride, thinking I was part of a breed that could, as those movie reporters liked to say, blow the lid off this town. I left two years ago feeling as if I needed a good bath. I have been cleansing myself ever since by writing articles about the changes I saw in journalism in an effort to convince people that the so-called watchdog press needs watching. I guess I’m really more of a born-again reporter than a retired one. Some regard me as a whistle-blower. I like to think I am merely sharing.
What I want to share goes back 15 years or so to the time when I first realized that the church scandal was a story that had legs, that it was going to take on a life of its own and start walking.
I had just switched from United Press International, a once powerful news organization that had fallen on hard times, to the rival Associated Press. I wasn’t at AP long before an incident occurred that showed me what to expect in the handling of the scandal. It was so long ago that I can’t recall all the details, but The San Jose Mercury News had printed an extensive story about suits filed against the church from coast to coast.
The Merc story didn’t bother me. The shock came not long after, when an educational organization held its convention in San Francisco. One of the topics on the group’s agenda was sex cases involving public school teachers and the possible legal ramifications. I thought this would be a good story in light of the Mercury’s story, particularly because it was the group, and not a newspaper, that was making the matter public. The AP didn’t cover it. My boss told me, Let’s see what the locals [meaning the local papers] do with it. Well, the locals didn’t touch it, the AP didn’t use it, and the rest of the nation didn’t learn about it.
This experience served as a microcosm of the way the story would play out. My complaint is not that the church is under attack. It should be. But teachers, who have charge of children more than anyone except parents, seemed as a group to have escaped unscathed. The profession had this apparent immunity despite the fact that we all have to pay taxes to support public schools. We also have no choice about where we send our children, unless we have the money for private schools. No one is forced to support a church.
When the priest scandal took off like a rocket, I expected the teacher troubles to follow the same path. But what I saw was a double standard grow and grow, to the point that I started saving stories involving teachers, usually accounts relegated to briefs, given one-day runs or kept off the AP main wire by being isolated in their dateline states.
Sure, there would be the occasional well-covered titillation story about a woman teacher having an affair with a student (which brings on a whole new subjectthe use of the term affair only when it involves a female teacher, not a male one). In the main, however, the stories were treated as minor, even though the respected professional publication Education Week regarded the problem as so important it ran a lengthy series on the subject in 1998.
The mainstream media seemed to dodge the issue, as though it were telling the nation to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Last March the influential Washington Post ran a story of at least 1,000 words on the church scandal. One of the best I’ve seen and very fair, the story pointed out how hard it is to come up with valid statistics in the matter. The story was printed in The San Francisco Chronicle and carried a headline that read in part: Catholic Clergy Not Alone in Having Problems.
They are finally getting around to teachers, I said to myself before I read the story.
No such luck. It mentioned scandals involving clergy of other faiths and even alluded to coaches and scout leaders. Not a peep about teachers.
For years, I have tried to learn the reasons for the disparity in coverage. Could it be an anti-Catholic bias? I could have easily reached that conclusion when I read The San Francisco Chronicle on St. Patrick’s Day, one day before that newspaper used the Post piece. The Chronicle’s religion writer, Don Lattin, penned a long story informing readers that the scandal that won’t go away is back and bigger than ever.
Attempting to escape the subject, I flipped to the paper’s magazine, which is usually filled with articles about where to eat and what to wear. There on the magazine’s BayWrap page was a man dressed in a bishop’s outfit. The story said he was a barkeep who wore a pope’s vestment and full Roman headdress.
That evening I tried to get lost in television. My surfing came to a sudden halt at a King of the Hill cartoon that showed a priest ushering children into the fires of hell. Have Catholics became the new chosen people, I wondered? Chosen as in chosen to be the media punching bag.
Nevertheless, I don’t feel Catholiphobia is the main problem; shoddy journalism ispresuming one feels that the role of the media is to inform rather than influence and that reporters should know a good story when they see it and not first have to be run over by the rest of the journalistic herd. The same week The Chronicle printed its stories, at least two teachers faced sex charges in the San Francisco Bay area. Little, if anything, appeared in The Chronicle.
More important, none of the papers I read or any of the newscasts I listened to carried a very significant Associated Press story on a U.S. Supreme Court hearing in March. The court refused to review a Virginia case in which a teacher’s victim sought damages from the school district. Even though the victim was abused as early as the sixth grade, it appears there will be no deep pockets when it comes to school districts. The contrast between suing a public school and suing a church may be the real story.
I know there are differences, and I expect strong media reaction to what I write here. But the stories are overwhelmingly similar in that they concern minors and people who misuse positions of trust. I wrote a similar piece for my local Catholic newspaper and immediately drew the fire of a Chronicle columnist, Stephanie Salter. She could not believe I faulted bad journalism. After all, she wrote, the prestigious New York Times was leading the charge on this one. But Salter missed the point, which is that teachers were overlooked while priests were targeted. Perhaps double standards are a fact of life in today’s news business. (I sometimes feel truth-in-labeling laws should force newspapers to use honest nameslike The Daily Conduit, Double Standard and Shill, a long title that resulted from several mergers.)
I do not want to sound like the cock that crowed and thought it made the sun rise, but the AP finally did an extensive piece on the teacher sex scandalor lack of scandalshortly after my commentary appeared in Catholic San Francisco. It reported that an AP national survey found that dozens of cases of sex between teachers and students were reported so far during this year alone. It also cited the 1998 Education Week report that found 244 cases in a six-month period involving allegations ranging from unwanted touching to sexual relationships and serial rape. The Chronicle, by the way, ran the AP storyon its last page.
Even though it used the AP story, The Chronicle still has a problem dealing with the subject. While radio and television were blaring a story in July about the arrest of a Bay area teacher on charges of molesting students since 1997, the newspaper was silent. This even though the suspect had been named the district’s elementary school teacher of the year. On Aug. 16 the newspaper reported that the Archdiocese of San Francisco had placed 74-year-old Monsignor John Heaney on leave while it investigated accusations of molestation that dated back 40 years. The piece was a long one and included a picture of Heaney, the San Francisco Police Department’s senior chaplain. The disparity was too much for me. I got off a message to the reporter who covered the Heaney story, asking why the teacher had been ignored. A story about the award-winning teacher’s arrest appeared the next day, Aug. 17. Police had been notified by the parents of a 10-year-old victim as early as July 31.
The newspaper’s staff, of course, may have been too busy to note the discrepancy. By this time, The Chronicle was also reporting that one of its veteran writers faced sex charges involving a minor, which made me wonder how many journalists are in similar situations.
As for balancing the scales of news justice, all this was too little and far too late. I feel flattered, however, that I may have goosed the wire service and the newspaper into finally acknowledging an oversight.
I am sure one of the things my critics will point to is the coverup angle. But with teachers, no coverup is needed. The press is doing it for them.