Sex, Lies, and Journalists

"Pope Sets Meeting on Sex Scandal," announced the lead headline on the front page of The Washington Post a few days ago. The New York Times led with the same news, though—traditionally chary about any story that unites the words "sex" and "scandal"—it saved the charged phrase for the subhead: "Vatican Summons All U.S. Cardinals to Talks on Abuse: New Awareness of Sex Scandal's Impact in America Cited."

Thus, on a day full of news about war in the Middle East, including an extraordinary pro-Israel rally that brought an estimated 100,000 demonstrators to the foot of the U.S. Capitol, two pillars of the American media deemed the pope's move the biggest news of all. And they were not alone, either, as other leading papers and television news shows gave the news prominent play.

All of which makes it official: The Catholic Church's pedophilia crisis, which began in Boston last year with one monstrous priest, has quickly become an international news story of the first magnitude. To anyone familiar with the story's particulars, this should come as no surprise. Here is a tale of corruption at the highest levels of an immensely important global institution; of the powerful exploiting the powerless; of public lying, private cover-up, and high-grade hypocrisy. In short, it has all the elements of a truly epic news story, the sort of thing that comes along once or twice in a generation and winds up changing society in fundamental ways.

So why did it take us so long? If it's no surprise that this story caught fire in the last few months, what is surprising—and a little mysterious—is that it didn't catch fire until the last few months. Sexual exploitation by religious leaders is as old as religion itself. That the church harbored sexual abusers isn't news to anyone, least of all Catholics. For a very long time, this was a story just waiting to explode.

Over the last few decades, a handful of American journalists recognized this and tried to light the fuse. Among them was National Journal's own Carl M. Cannon, who, as a reporter for The Mercury News, in San Jose, Calif., investigated child sexual abuse inside the American Catholic Church. In two extensive articles published in late 1987, Cannon reported that the church had been covering up for abusive priests for years, in communities all around the country. Cannon's work was hardly ignored: It won a journalism prize from the White House Correspondents' Association. But like other stories that appeared now and then in various American communities, typically prompted by allegations about a single priest, it came and went. Whenever a new story broke about a priest abusing altar boys or other young people in his charge, it was as if the community in question saw the news, cringed, and turned the page.

What's different today? What circumstances caused the story of Boston's Father Geoghan to persist in the news—and then mushroom to the point where hundreds of priests across the country are under scrutiny, the pope has stepped in, powerful editors see this as a gigantic news story on a par with the Mideast turmoil, and the public seems to agree?

A few weeks ago, New York Times reporter Frank Bruni addressed the question. In a front-page piece, Bruni, co-author of a 1993 book called A Gospel of Shame: Children, Sexual Abuse, and the Catholic Church, wrote: "The Vatican and its American emissaries weathered an earlier spasm of intense attention to child sexual abuse by priests in 1992, touched off by the case of a former Massachusetts priest, James Porter, who molested scores of children. After that, journalists moved on to different subjects, advocates for change labored in relative silence, and the church went about its usual ways. There are differences now. In many cities and states, law enforcement officials are scrutinizing the church more aggressively than they did then, prompting church leaders in some dioceses to release the names and files of priests accused of child sexual abuse. Journalists and lawyers seem more intent on connecting the dots of the crisis in a way that leads to the highest levels of the church in the United States."

Something else has happened since 1992, an event that changed the way the American public thinks about a certain kind of news, and the way journalists report it. I'm talking about the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal. Though it broke just four years ago, it's already hard to remember how shocking it was at the time to read explicit news stories about the sexual activities of the president. When the Starr Report was issued in September 1998, there was a debate within major news outlets as to whether it was appropriate to publish the report in all its lurid detail. Many newspapers, including The Post and The Times, decided for various reasons that they should publish the report, and they did.

There was a brief public outcry. Then, rather quickly, the discussion ended. The Clinton-Lewinsky story continued, culminating in impeachment proceedings, and explicit coverage of sexual allegations against the president became routine. The cringe factor, that very human reaction to publication of sexual stories about public figures, went away, and the public (and journalists themselves) got used to the idea.

Priests are not politicians, and the Clinton scandal had nothing whatsoever to do with child sexual abuse. But since 1998, news about sexual scandals involving all kinds of public figures has become acceptable media fare, unshocking and, in some cases, even welcome. And the church is confronting an abominable truth it should have confronted long ago.