The BLOG: Voices

The Holy Spirit and other journalists

Late in August 2003, I got into trouble with an auxiliary bishop because I had publicly praised The Boston Globe’s Spotlight reporters writing about the sexual abuse scandal and the criminal cover up. My terrible blunder happened a few days before Pentecost Sunday the previous year, at a gathering for priests in Jamaica Plain aimed at comforting us. The scandal was already the worst disaster in the Church’s history. A Jesuit had offered a few words, encouraging us to trust in the Holy Spirit. In the brief comments that followed I found myself saying to my brothers in the priesthood that the Holy Spirit had spoken indeed to all of us — priests and laity — and for months, but through the pages of the Globe and other local media. It was common sense and, in any case, my personal opinion.

“A year ago, at a meeting I organized,” the same bishop said when I met with him at his request the following year, “you praised the writers of The Boston Globe and of The New York Times, and I don’t like that.” Startled though I was, I reminded him that Cardinal Law himself had said as much at a large meeting with priests at St. Columbkille’s School in Brighton in March 2002. He sort of agreed, which deflated my shock a bit, and we went on, rather amicably, chatting over other pastoral matters. Alas, unbeknownst to me, my praise of the Globe reporters was going to be the beginning of the end for me, but that’s another kind of clerical soap opera.

Because of the movie “Spotlight,” I find myself, again, defending the work of journalists in the secular press. Whatever agenda or intentions an investigative reporter may have, that’s not my concern as a reader; provided the truth of the matter comes out and does so without defamation and respect for the facts. Such is the essence of journalism or writing in general. To see in that coverage of the abuse and the cover-up by the hierarchy (everywhere) anti-Catholicism, or a Satanic conspiracy, or a new persecution of the church is ludicrous, certainly in the case of articles published by the Globe and the Times during those decisive months.

Nothing in life is perfect, but journalism remains a sine qua non of social life; a light that no citizen would want extinguished. It may not be an absolute in matter of truth, but it is absolutely necessary in a just society. This great professional call and responsibility has been highly praised by the modern Catholic Church. The media are “gifts of God,” I read in a document more than 50 years old (Miranda Prorsus, 1957), and the great Second Vatican Council, the one that wanted to open the windows of the church to the world, contains rather eloquent pages about the journalist’s mission, one akin to the gospel of truth, a teaching amplified in other official documents like Communio et Progressio (1971) and Aetatis Novae (1992). “By the very nature of their profession,” according to the latest official Catechism, “journalists have an obligation to serve the truth and not offend against charity in disseminating information. They should strive to respect, with equal care, the nature of the facts and the limits of critical judgment concerning individuals. They should not stoop to defamation” (n. 2497). Line by line of printed copy, the Globe’s reporters were not working for the devil but rather for the spirit of truth. Without their work, anyone can imagine a continuance of horrors.

If the Catholic Church had followed its own teaching on journalism these last decades, or perhaps centuries since the European Enlightenment, informing Catholics well in its media, without fear, with honesty and integrity, there would have been no ecclesiastical crisis, and, more importantly, fewer victims of abuse. Yes, I will say it even if I risk episcopal ire once again: Imagine the Pilot, Boston’s diocesan newspaper, and proud to be the oldest in the country, receiving the Pulitzer in public service in 2003. Where was the Pilot’s reporting of the crimes against the children? Since Catholics are the ones paying for such newspapers and other Catholic media, should they not expect the truth to be told? For years, serious crimes against children and teenagers had been committed and infamously covered up, yet local Catholic publications remained silent.

An institution with lofty ideals such as the Catholic Church should not think itself diminished in any way by humbly acknowledging and confessing when it comes to criminal actions. Roman Catholics have been told that all manner of sin is healed and forgiven in humility and private confession, and so it is. Common sense must prevail. When there is a fire in the church, the pastor, or whoever, will call the nearest fire station. Likewise, a robbery in the rectory, or any other crime, should be reported to the police. Should a reporter happen upon the scene, he should report and call attention to the facts to inform and protect the common good. The common good should, indeed, be the sovereign goal at the center of the Christian faith.

Alvaro Silva is a Catholic priest and independent scholar in Chestnut Hill, Mass. He has just published his first novel, “Camina la noche,” in Barcelona, Spain.