Artfully Writing About Sex Abuse By Catholic Priests

Jun 5, 2012
Originally published on September 19, 2012 3:20 pm

A Web version of a recent report by Barbara Bradley Hagerty about the Philadelphia sex abuse trial of a Catholic monsignor and a priest prompted the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights to accuse NPR of taking a "bigoted swipe" against priests.

The league took offense over a phrase in Hagerty's online report—not included in her on-air version—in which she said of the priest, James Brennan, that he was "accused of trying to rape a minor, which is not that unusual."

Hagerty contacted me even before the league's statement and a number of other listener complaints came pouring in to me. She said that the offending phrase of "which is not that unusual" was "inartfully written" and wished she could take it back. It comes across as saying that attempted rape of minors by priests is not unusual, when what she meant was that it was the trials of priests for alleged sexual abuse that are not so unusual, she told me.

Hagerty said that she was trying to draw a distinction between the trial of the priest for attempted rape and the trial of the monsignor, William Lynn, for failing to protect children from predator priests while he was a senior official in the Philadelphia archdiocese. This is the first trial of a church official for re-assigning a priest to parish work even after the priest had been accused of child predations.

Any writer—me included—can easily recognize how Hagerty wrote the clumsy phrase. What was missing was an editor to catch it. As Jeffrey Katz, the deputy managing editor for digital news, explained to me, the Web version written by Hagerty came in on a weekend, when staffing is particularly thin. The digital staff does extraordinary work in turning out massive amounts of usually well-produced copy, but even on weekdays the editing corps on, like almost all Web editions in American journalism, is over-stretched. Katz said he would delete the offending phrase and post an editor's note.

What also is missing is a little bit more measure by the Catholic league. Hagerty, NPR's religion reporter, is widely recognized for her sensitivity to religious beliefs and institutions in her reporting. In this instance, the whole of her report is eminently fair. So are four other stories that the reporter did on the trial. She bends over backwards in the stories to give the church's perspective on the charges. Yet, the statement by Bill Donohue of the Catholic League is written with the slashing tone of today's polarized politics, using language such as "doubly despicable," "unconscionable," and "bigoted." Seen one way, the phrase used by Hagerty is in fact correct.

Between 1950 and 2002, according to a 2004 report commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, 283 priests were accused of manual penetration of a minor, 64 priests were accused of penetration with an object and 920 priests were accused of penile penetration or attempt. This is a very small percentage of the total number of priests in the nation, but it's a large absolute number nonetheless. As a Catholic myself, faced with this kind of record, I think a little more humility is called for before going into attack mode.

A second contention by Donohue in the league's statement, moreover, is confusing and possibly flat wrong. He wrote:

What makes this offensive characterization so doubly despicable is that Father James Brennan was initially charged with anally raping his alleged victim, yet at the end of last year the charge was amended to attempted rape.

The implication is that Hagerty mistakenly accused Brennan of rape, instead of attempted rape. Yet, the reporter specifically referred to Brennan as a "a priest accused of trying to rape a minor," which is correct. If, on the other hand, Donohue is suggesting that attempted rape is less objectionable than actual rape and that NPR is thus exaggerating the case, then I disagree. Such hairsplitting is morally shaky, to put it lightly.

To his credit, Donohue did add to the bottom of his incendiary statement that in being interviewed by NPR journalists, he did generally find them to be "professional."

Following are the full statements by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and by Hagerty and Katz. As anything to do with religion provokes multiple interpretations, I offer them so that you can take issue with mine, if you feel that I am wrong, and add your own.

First, here is the disputed opening of the NPR online report on May 27, though I suggest that you read the full story:

A clergy sex-abuse trial is reaching a crescendo in a Philadelphia courtroom. One defendant is James Brennan, a priest accused of trying to rape a minor, which is not that unusual. What's drawing attention is the second defendant, Monsignor William Lynn. Lynn is first high-level Catholic official to be criminally prosecuted — not for abusing minors himself, but for failing to protect children from predator priests.

For comparison, here is the introduction to the radio version of the same story, read by Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin:

A clergy sex abuse trial in Philadelphia is reaching a crescendo. It involves a priest accused of sexually abusing a minor and allegations that a senior official in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia knew about widespread abuse and did nothing. Monsignor William Lynn is the highest level Catholic official to be criminally prosecuted for failing to protect children from predator priests.

Donohue of the Catholic League wrote:

We are asking NPR to respond to our complaint. In this day and age when it is considered taboo to make sweeping generalizations of a negative sort about so many demographic groups, it is astonishing that NPR would allow this bigoted swipe at Catholic priests.

For the record, almost all priests in the nation—now as well as before—have never had a single charge of sexual molestation made against them. Of those who have, a large share of the accusations have been proven false. Of the guilty, the most common form of abuse was "inappropriate touching"—not rape—and the most common victim was an adolescent. So to feed the perception that it is not unusual to find rapist priests is unconscionable.

What makes this offensive characterization so doubly despicable is that Father James Brennan was initially charged with anally raping his alleged victim, yet at the end of last year the charge was amended to attempted rape.

I hasten to add that I have done several interviews with NPR recently and have found their correspondents to be very professional. But what happened in this instance cannot go unanswered.

Hagerty's response:

Actually, I don't think it's inaccurate--according to a study funded by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, more than 900 priests have been accused of raping or trying to rape minors. But I think it was inartfully written, and I'd drop the phrase "which is not that unusual" if I had it to do over again. The reason I put in that phrase was to distinguish it from what really is unusual--a high level Catholic official being tried for endangering children.

And Katz's explanation:

I agree the lead to Barbara's piece was not well-phrased. Once you pointed this out to us, we removed the phrase "which is not that unusual." We've also posted a clarification at the top of that page.

Obviously, it would have been better on the front end had one of our editors either removed that statement or rewritten it to make the intended meaning more clear. Our Web producers and editors handle a tremendous amount of copy 24/7, and they are particularly stretched thin on the weekends. They take great pains to make sure our stories are factual, fair, clearly written and grammatically correct. But mistakes do happen – and when they do, as in this case, we provide a correction or clarification as soon as we learn about it.

I should also add that Barbara is clearly one of the most conscientious correspondents at NPR when it comes to filing for the Web. This particular phrase was overly vague, and we all regret the unfortunate connotation.

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