Against journalism: how the press causes cover-ups

“We Catholics should be thankful to the media.  At least they’re forcing our bishops to come clean and mend their ways.”  How many times have I read that?  People say it as if it were common sense, and yet it gets things exactly backwards.  To see why, consider two alternatives:

  1. You are a Catholic bishop in an alternative universe where the press is always friendly to the Church, and any news unflattering to the clergy is always snuck in the back pages or suppressed altogether.  News comes to you that one of your priests is buggering altar boys.  What do you do?  You can turn him in to the cops, in which case a perverse and blasphemous situation will be ended.  Although it means going public, the friendly press will see to it that the embarrassment doesn’t spread.  In fact, there will be less embarrassment if the bishop acts now, since fewer families will get first-hand experience with the abusing priest’s predilections.
  2. You live in the real universe.  The press is unremittently hostile to the Church.  The same accusation comes to your attention.  What do you do?  You can call the cops and go public.  Then the creep will be behind bars where he belongs.  But now the price is much higher.  If news gets out that a Catholic priest is banging altar boys, the press will have a field day.  They’ll go absolutely ape-shit across the whole country.  “Ha!  So now we know the Church is a pervert, criminal organization, and all its teachings are lies that even it doesn’t believe or follow!”  Thousands of people who read these news stories–with the spin the reporters are guaranteed to put on them–will lose faith and abandon the Church.  This will cut them off from Christ and the sacraments, meaning that they’ll be much more likely to burn in hell for all eternity.  Can you allow that?  What are the alternatives?  Can we deal with this quietly somehow?  Maybe this priest is just out of his head and needs therapy.  If you send him to therapy, you won’t have to tell anyone else why, and maybe it will fix the problem.  Maybe a strongly-worded private rebuke…

You see my point.  I’m not asking you “what should the bishop do?”  One could make a good case that the right thing to do is to turn the pervert in to the police regardless of the consequences in either universe.  Notice, though, that this choice is much harder to make in the second universe than in the first.

An adversarial press causes cover-ups.  The press responds so hysterically to wrongdoing in the organisations that it hates, that these organisations simply cannot afford for this wrongdoing to become public.  Why not just eliminate the wrongdoing altogether?  Because it’s impossible.  No leader can control everything his subordinates do.  There will always be immoral priests.  There will always be soldiers who commit war crimes.  There will always be civil servants who accept bribes.  To deal effectively with these things, we can’t keep losing our heads over them, and this is exactly what the hysterical, pitchfork-wielding media leads us to do.

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