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June 23, 2004

What's in a Scandal Story

Over among the comments on Domenico Bettinelli's blog, Rod Dreher has been wondering whether it's "outrage fatigue" that has kept the Dallas Morning News's series on the international movements of priests accused of abuse from getting the attention he believes it to deserve. I responded that the problem may be more that there's no real news to the discovery that abuse was (to some extent) not restricted to the United States, and as I suggested might be a problem before the series began, there isn't much investigation about the why to make more of the what worth raised anxiety.

Today's iteration, as the worst so far, provides a good example of the various factors that may be keeping the heavy investment of the DMN from paying off as well as I'm sure the paper expected. Reading it, I couldn't help but feel that the reporters hadn't managed to find as much as they thought their global travels would reveal.

Overall, the story is just odd. The priest, Yusaf Dominic, was young and perhaps not particularly talented. He was ordained in Pakistan — information that immediately derails the mind to more pressing matters — and found his way to London by the early '80s. Thereafter, he moved from country to country again, winding up back in England. In 1996, two young men came forward to accuse him of having molested them in 1984. He was arrested, a priest bailed him out, he went to a "clergy treatment center," and he skipped the country — back to Pakistan. Since then, he hasn't stayed still for long, moving around the world, relying on suspicious cover provided by his home base's bishop.

There's no mention of any further incidents, after 1984, and the Dallas Morning News only tracked down one of the accusers, of whose tale the reporter offers very little to give any sense of the form of the abuse, even in the article's "The human toll" section. The allegation appears to involve a single night, when the boy was nine; to the priest's plea that the accusation is false and had something to do with money, the alleged victim says only, "That's B.S."

As I suggested, there's less here than in the other stories, but they've all had a similar feel of expecting unstated premises to be accepted, as if they all pull up short of something, for whatever reason, and assume the reader will fill in the blanks. In other places, they dig up and point to anecdotes that are difficult to see as damning.

In this vein, today's piece spends seven paragraphs explaining that it "is a crime in Britain even to agree to indemnify someone who is liable for a bail payment." After Dominic skipped the country, the diocese paid the money that the priest who had bailed him out of jail had posted. Maybe the Church officials knew that the action wasn't licit; maybe they did it for some reason other than that the liable priest would have had difficulty coming up with $3,600. I don't know, but none of the incriminating possibilities seem required by the facts.

The most dramatic aspect of the story, which Rod noted in the aforementioned comments, is that a church in Newark housed Dominic during the same summer that the American bishops instituted their "zero-tolerance" policy. But here, again, there simply isn't enough of a concrete nature to get worked up about. We get no specific dates, and we hear that his presence there was, above all, "odd" from an administrative perspective. The diocese apparently sent a background check form to the archbishop in Pakistan, but he never returned it, and Dominic cut his trip at around the two-month mark "because of problems with his religious worker's visa."

In short, the worst we can confidently claim is that there was more confusion around this priest than there ought to have been — including among civil authorities — and he slipped through some cracks. It would seem that the hierarchy in Pakistan played some role in the abscondence, but reporter Brooks Egerton gives the reader no reason to take quotes and insinuations at face value. Before the piece has even gotten rolling, Egerton brags that the "Dallas Morning News tracked [Dominic] down after Scotland Yard failed." Such unnecessary commentary makes it very difficult not to believe that the entire article has been crafted to fit Egerton's preferred storyline, perhaps with visions of recognition and rewards.

All of this — the vague or missing details, the sense of similarity to stories already heard, the distance of incidents in time and place, the lack of internal counterpoise, the wall before the why of the larger problem, and the distrust-instilling heavy hand of the reporter — weighs this series down. It does so much more, in my opinion, than any "scandal fatigue." The experience of reading the stories, multimedia presentation notwithstanding, is akin to hearing one son's bathetic tale of an exotic scrape while finally beginning to catch one's breath after having accompanied the other son to the emergency room. Is that fatigue or perspective?

ADDENDUM:
Terry Mattingly thinks (or appears to think) that the lack of response is a conspicuous silence largely attributable to factors external to the stories themselves and the reportage. As "a cynic might say":

This is not a sexy story anymore. And the Boston Globe owned the old story, two years ago. The Globe has the Brand Name nailed down.

The U.S. bishops have done something and discussing whether they did the right things gets complicated. We are headed into an election year and the sacramental status of Sen. John Kerry is getting the Catholic ink. People are tired of the story and it does not sell newspapers, magazines or books. The Catholic left has reasons to be silent and so does the Catholic right. We don't have sexy art, yet.

These factors come into play to some degree (although I'm skeptical about the brand-name idea), but I still think the minimal splash has more to do with the nature of the series (so far) than with readers' predisposition to ignore or downplay it.

Posted by Justin Katz at June 23, 2004 10:04 PM
The Church
Comments

Well put, Justin. It leads to an interesting question: How would one write a news article about the "why" of the scandal?

Posted by: Joe Marier at June 24, 2004 9:51 AM

Joe,

I suppose the place to start would be to investigate why particular members of the hierarchy are doing what they're doing. This, in my opinion, has been a palpable absence in this sort of piece. Are there family connections? Are there previous statements of ideology that align with the shady actions? Is there some sort of dirt that the powerful person doesn't want revealed? I've never studied journalism, but these strike me as 101-level questions to ask when approaching a scandal.

(I didn't mean to imply, if I did, that the secular press should explore the theology.)

Posted by: Justin Katz at June 24, 2004 10:53 PM

Y'know, I am beginning to get the impression that these shadowy in-general-ne'er-do-well priests are a significant layer of familiar sludge at the bottom of each bishop's cup, and that the BishBoss doesn't really notice any more. It is shocking to the layman to grasp, that the chaste, dutiful, loving priests may not be the whole, or even the predominant story, just the poster boys that immunize us to the operation of a whole "world-system" operation still called the church.

The church founded on This Rock (however that's properly interpreted) will not be prevailed against by the gates of Hell. However, it is no longer clear to me that the definition of the church is coextensive with any portion of this crowd.

Posted by: atillathehoney at June 29, 2004 5:13 PM