Monday, June 21, 2010

Truth be told?

I had a boss once who always told me he didn’t want any “spin” on his messages. “If I tell the truth, I don’t have to remember what I said,” he explained. His honesty served both him and the organization he served well.

It appears that Catholic News Agency would benefit from a similar strategy. To put it plain and simple, the quotes they attribute to Cardinal Francis George in their story (also posted on EWTN) are just wrong. I was in the room, as a member of the USCCB staff, for the presentation. And the official audio file that recorded the session for USCCB archives confirms my memory.

While the cardinal did present a sequence of events to the bishops, he never used the phrase “so-called Catholic,” accused the Catholic Health Association of creating a “parallel magisterium” or said the meeting of the three bishops with Sr. Keehan had “frustrating results.” And that’s just three examples. Not to mention that the reporting of the events is just plain wrong: for an example, the Stupak Amendment was not defeated in the Senate in December 2009, as the article states.

The one hour session was executive, without media present, because Cardinal George felt it was important to report personally to the bishops how he and the three committee chairmen directed the staff to represent the Conference's position with both the CHA and the Congress in the final days of the debate on healthcare reform. He asked the bishops to provide honest appraisal of those efforts.

To honor the bishops’ privacy and confidentiality, we will not be releasing the transcript. It’s unfortunate if someone breached that confidentiality; also unfortunate if CNA tried to take an educated guess at what the cardinal might have said and cobbled together its own fabrication of the session.

For CNN to elaborate even more on what CNA said in error is even more disturbing. If CNN had tried to verify the citations, it would have learned that CNA fabricated quotes. It also would not have made its huge and erroneous assumption that the issue in question was an example of the bishops at odds with the sisters.

There’s certainly plenty of disagreement between the bishops and the Catholic health care organizations regarding the implications of the health care legislation. But to confuse the situation with quotes that aren’t true is just plain dishonest.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Sexual Abuse of Minors Seen in Perspective

Discussions of sexual abuse of minors by clergy are taking a turn. Publications now seek to assess what the U.S. church has done to address it. The magazine Catholic Digest took a major step in its July issue with a Q&A with Teresa Kettelkamp, head of the U.S. bishops’ Office for the Protection of Children and Young People ( She notes, for example, “Now we know the signs of abuse, how abusers groom their victims and families of victims, and the efficacy of treatment. Most of all, we know that for the abuse to be stopped, it must be reported to civil authorities. No exceptions.”
The Digest Website also has an insightful letter from Mark Chopko, now in private practice, but the U.S. bishops’ general counsel, 1987-2007 ( Chopko notes “I have often wished there would be reporting on all the positive programs that dioceses and religious orders have in place that serve victims, and serve to prevent new ones. If the programs got even half the attention that decades-old claims continue to get, there might be a better public understanding.”
Both express horror at sexual abuse of children yet acknowledge that the U.S. bishops have done much to deal with this sin and crime.
Several challenges confront writers on clerical sexual abuse.
Overcoming shock. Sexual abuse of a minor is so appalling that when you hear of a new case, it seems like it just occurred, even if it happened 25 or 50 years ago. Last year the church dealt with six instances of minors who were abused in 2009. That’s six cases too many but a far cry from the thousands of cases in the past. No one feels relief that there were so few cases in a church of 68 million people because there shouldn’t be any cases at all. The fact is, however, that the number of cases in the Catholic Church today is drastically fewer than there were in the past and even fewer than found in other institutions such as public schools now.
Figuring out why so many cases occurred from the late 60s to early 80s. Research by the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice is finding that this crime seems time-bound, or, as they say, historical. As a human problem it can and will occur anytime, anywhere, but data shows that most cases in the church occurred late-‘60s-to early-‘80s. Why then? This was a time when the Western world eschewed society’s rules. Drug use, divorce, disregard of the law and sexual license were prevalent. Is there a connection?
Judging by today’s standards. Society changes, and recent society has changed rapidly. Child welfare used to be tied to the Humane Society and the Society for the Protection and Care of Animals. That’s a staggering fact today, given current awareness of children’s rights. Society has come a long way. Given what we know now, a church leader today who operates from a ‘70s mindset today does so at peril. Give-a-guy-a-second-chance once seemed like the decent thing to do; now it’s practically, if not actually, criminal. There is no way today you can condone reassigning a sexual abusing priest, but is it right to use today’s awareness to condemn decision-makers who acted decades before with the limited knowledge at hand?
Holding the church to a higher standard. The day sexual abuse of a child by a priest is not a page-one story will be a sad day. Church leaders call others to virtue and should be as virtuous as possible themselves. Yet at the same time it is unfair for the government to abandon rules of justice when dealing with the church. It’s tempting to want to dismiss statutes of limitations, which exist for good reason, when it comes to clergy sexual abuse since hearing about the crime invokes a lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key gut reaction. But if justice is to be blind to favoritism, all institutions, such as churches and schools, deserve equal treatment under the law.
Writers now have the benefit of perspective as they look at sexual abuse by clergy. They also can see what the church accomplished once it addressed the problem – including the training of more than five million children and two million adults in safe environment programs. And the training continues.
With the blessing of accumulated time – the period since 2002, when the bishops adopted their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People – media now can view the crisis with perspective. Catholic Digest has risen to the challenge providing insightful coverage of a problem we must never forget.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Gulf Oil Spill -- a Catholic Response

In the past week, the U.S. bishops responded not once, but twice to the tragic situation in the Gulf of Mexico that's been unfolding since the April 20 explosion of an oil rig, resulting in what's now being termed as the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

As the scope of this disaster steadily grew in the midst of failed attempt after attempt to rectify it, Catholics joined the rest of the population in a sense of mounting helplessness and frustration over how this could happen, as well as how it might be stopped and its ill effects reversed. In the face of this complex mess of questions, the bishops have offered a response with multiple layers and a broad scope that reflects the richness of Catholic life and teaching.

Most recently, Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah, bishop promoter of the Apostleship of the Sea, took to Youtube with the announcement that the Apostleship of the Sea was establishing a network to work with dioceses along the Gulf Coast. In his message, he cites the work of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, who (with the help of a $1 million gift from BP) have already provided direct assistance to thousands of people affected by the oil spill, mostly fishermen and their families, with food, gift cards, counseling, monetary relief and other assistance. Giving to Catholic Charities in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast dioceses, like Houma-Thibodaux, is one immediate way Catholics can make a positive impact.

Bishop Boland also outlines the varying layers of response the Church has to such a disaster. There's direct assistance, mentioned above, but there's also prayer -- prayer for those who lost their lives in the oil rig explosion and their families, prayer for the many fishermen and others who've lost their livelihoods due to the damage to the Gulf, prayer that the damage to the Gulf can be reversed and prevented in the future.

As bishop promoter of Apostleship of the Sea, Bishop Boland's primary focus in this disaster is on ministering to mariners and those whose livelihood relies on the sea, but he also focuses on the environmental consequences of this disaster, largely because in Catholic teaching, they're closely linked. He quotes Pope Benedict XVI (aka the Green Pope) in his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, "The way humanity treats the environment influences the way its treats itself, and vice versa."

Bishop Boland delves deeper into the environmental justice aspect of the disaster with a quote from Pope Benedict's 2010 World Day of Peace Message: " ... the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our life-style and the prevailing models of consumption and production, which are often unsustainable from a social, environmental and even economic point of view."

In other words, the Church urges an examination of conscience at a personal and cultural level. How did this disaster occur? Why was there such a pressing need for oil that we jeopardized our own environment to obtain it? How has my own consumption contributed to this? How can we better serve the environment in our energy production and use?

But the Catholic response to the oil spill drills down (forgive the usage) even deeper into the Church's teaching. Having already covered prayer, solidarity, charitable giving and environmental justice, the missing piece of the puzzle is social justice. That's why, at a June 12 meeting, the Subcommittee for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development -- the anti-poverty program of the U.S. bishops -- approved up to $300,000 in out-of-cycle grants for efforts to assist those affected by the oil spill.

To understand the purpose of these grants, it's important first to look at the mission of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which is to promote work that empowers the poor to break out of poverty themselves by attacking the root causes of poverty. In this case, communities of fishermen along the Gulf Coast are threatened with poverty as their livelihood is wiped out by the spill. Fortunately, they have assistance from Catholic Charities and others to help them in the short term. But in the long term, their livelihoods will depend on being able to navigate the labyrinth of government for funding, engaging in cooperative developments and other practices to ensure that work is distributed equitably among fishermen and, ultimately, restoring the Gulf so that they can all work again.

The grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development will go to groups who will help these communities to do just that. Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans said of these grants, "This gift is indeed generous and will be used to provide hope and stability for these hard-working families affected by the disastrous oil spill." And since the Campaign is funded by an annual collection, it's another way that Catholics can help too.


Meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida, for a retreat-styled spring meeting, the U.S. bishops issued a statement on behalf of the entire body of bishops on June 18, voicing prayers and solidarity for those harmed by the oil spill.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Diocese Count 6-11-10

This morning's appointment of Milwaukee auxiliary Bishop William Callahan, OFM Conv., as the new bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin, completes a game of episcopal musical chairs that was set into motion in early 2009 with the appointment of then-Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan to New York.

Upon Dolan's vacating, Bishop Callahan was made temporary administrator of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, meaning he was in charge until the appointment of a new archbishop. This person turned out to be then-Bishop Jerome Listecki of La Crosse, whom Pope Benedict appointed Archbishop of Milwaukee in November of 2009. La Crosse has been without a bishop ever since.

Now, a mere seven months after losing its bishop to Milwaukee, La Crosse is taking a bishop away from Milwaukee, and Bishop Callahan goes from being an auxiliary to the head of a diocese.

Nationwide, this appointment leaves four U.S. dioceses vacant, that is, without bishop ordinaries. By length of vacancy, they are:

-- Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, since the November 2009 appointment of Bishop Kevin Rhoades to Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana.
-- San Antonio, Texas, since the April 2010 appointment of Archbishop Jose Gomez as Coadjutor Archbishop of Los Angeles.
-- Orlando, Florida, since the April 2010 appointment of then-Bishop Thomas Wenski as Archbishop of Miami.
-- Ruthenian (Eastern Rite) Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, since yesterday's death of Archbishop Basil Schott at the age of 70.

Along with this list, another five U.S. bishops are serving past the retirement age of 75:

-- Archbishop Alexander Brunett of Seattle, age 76
-- Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, age 76
-- Archbishop Eusebius Beltran of Oklahoma City, age 75
-- Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, age 75
-- Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah, Georgia, age 75

Our prayers are with the late Archbishop Schott, the Eastern rite Catholics of Pittsburgh and beyond, all Catholics who wait to welcome a new bishop, and the bishops themselves.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Bishop Zavala on Catholic Media

Catholic media professionals from the U.S. and Canada have been gathered for the past week in New Orleans for the annual Catholic Media Association convention. Among the highlights of their gathering was a message from Pope Benedict himself at his weekly general audience.

Yesterday, June 3, Bishop Gabino Zavala, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and Chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Communications Committee, delivered a talk on what it means to be a faithful Catholic media organization today. Bishop Zavala plunged right in to the tough questions and dynamic tensions that define the reality of Catholic media today, and in this writer's humble opinion, he hit it out of the park.

Full text follows ...

What Does it Mean to be a Faithful Catholic Media Organization in the 21st Century?

Bishop Gabino Zavala

June 3, 2010


I am very happy that we have a chance to have this conversation about what makes for a faithful Catholic media organization. I think this is a crucial question for the Church in North America in this time of unprecedented changes in media and telecommunications. It seems every month there is a new website or technology that appears. No one can keep up with everything. Not even we bishops, known as we are for our technical expertise!

All joking aside, I want to say very clearly that we bishops do not approach this conversation as if we have “the answer” to the question of what it means to be a faithful Catholic media organization. Rather, we are looking forward to a positive, constructive exchange of ideas. We expect to learn from you and your expertise as people immersed daily in the realm of media. Nor do we expect that there is a “one-size-fits-all” answer. But we do believe there is much to be learned by exploring the question together.

“Faithful” Catholic Media – What is it Not

To sharpen our focus, let me start by saying what a faithful Catholic media is not. Today's secular media culture is often competitive and can have little regard for the damage done to people's lives and reputations. There is a tendency to be mean-spirited and engage in personal attacks. Many times the secular media present only a superficial rendering of a story, often choosing what is sensationalist over in-depth reporting.

While I think we can all agree that we do not want to see any of these qualities in our own publications, programs or Web sites, I think we have to admit that at times they are present. Avoiding them requires ongoing vigilance, since secular media and its influence are vast.

I also do not think that we should go to the other extreme and simply say that faithful Catholic media organizations are those who engage in apologetics to defend bishops at all costs. That is too simplistic and does not respect the intelligence of Catholics in North America. They deserve a Catholic media that takes a more nuanced perspective.

Lastly, I do not believe that faithful Catholic media organizations should present themselves as speaking for the Magisterium. Only the Magisterium can speak for the Magisterium. While this sounds self-evident, it bears saying because there appear to be some organizations who do not see this point.

Elements of a “Faithful” Catholic Media

I want to now shift to talking about the elements of a faithful Catholic media organization. As I said at the beginning of the talk, there is not a “one-size-fits-all” formula and I cannot give a comprehensive list of characteristics. But there certainly are elements worth pointing out.

Let's begin with the idea that faithful Catholic media organizations work from a perspective of being part of the Catholic community, not outside it. This carries two assumptions:

First, Catholic media should work from a Catholic perspective, not the so-called “objective” perspective of the secular media (and of course we know that secular media are not objective anyway). I believe that it is crucial to have media with a distinctly Catholic voice that offers the unique Catholic perspective on the world and humanity.

Second, Catholic media has a responsibility to the larger Catholic community. Two useful words here are “loyalty” and “service.” As I said before, I am not suggesting that Catholic media should engage purely in apologetics. Rather, I think that faithful Catholic media organizations are loyal in that they wish to see the Church succeed and care about its health and well-being. Their service to the Church is to report the truth, because the truth does set us free. Their loyalty is their care about the Church’s well-being, from its most vulnerable members to the community as a whole. So I am suggesting that the faithful Catholic media organization is one that both reports the truth and does so with an eye to how that reporting can best serve the Church.

At their core, Catholic media organizations have two main roles to play in our Church: to inform and to teach.

To Inform: This is the most basic and obvious role – keeping Catholics informed about local and global events in the Church – and many of you already do this very well. There are so many wonderful stories in our large, diverse Church, stories that only Catholic media can cover. As you cover these stories, I want to encourage you to move beyond just reporting news. Rather, I would hope that you would situate your reporting within Peter 3:15 and report within a context of how to give hope.

Teach: Catholic media has a second, unique role of teaching and helping Catholics to deepen their understanding of their faith and how it is lived out in the world. To do this requires that Catholic media be staffed by people who are theologically trained and able to use media to effectively teach. As bishops we are concerned that this is not always the case. And so we must challenge Catholic media to make this investment. And we bishops must be willing to help with this as well. I hope that our conversation today and tomorrow will identify ways in which we can collaborate in this area.

Catholic Media – Tackling Difficult Subjects

Of course, sometimes the truth that must be reported is not easy. We are all aware that we are living in challenging times for the Church. So what is the role of the faithful Catholic media organization in the context of scandal and other difficult and divisive stories?

I believe that we cannot be afraid to name the truth of what is happening. Our Catholic people are intelligent and they want and appreciate getting the “straight scoop.” However, there are several things that we bishops are looking for when Catholic media tell difficult stories.

The first is to adopt a basic principle of “Speak the truth in love.” Speak the truth out of a love for the Church, and a love for the people of God. There also has to be a place for mercy. All too often, secular media seems to seek the destruction of individuals when they are caught in a mistake. This is not what our Lord taught us. And so this is something Catholic media can teach the secular media – how to report divisive or scandalous stories in a spirit of love and mercy. To do this, we have to have a “nose for grace” and a conviction that God turns everything to the good. So even in the midst of dark and depressing stories Catholic media can be asking, “What is the potential for good in all of this?”

Second, Catholic media should always proceed with humility and civility. The humility comes from the realization that none of us have all the facts of a story. There are always other perspectives beyond our own. Committing to civility means moving away from positions of attacking or being defensive so that genuine dialogue and exchange can take place. It is OK to point out when mistakes are made. As humans, all of us make mistakes. But I think that when Catholic media point out mistakes, it must be done with fairness and civility.

Third, we hope that Catholic media will always work to present Church teaching fairly and accurately. It is fair to present multiple opinions on a topic. But we hope that Catholic media would present the Church's position accurately.

What Makes Catholic Media Unique

I deeply believe Catholic media has a unique role to play in our Church and as a witness in our secular society. In particular, I want to emphasize three unique and vital roles for Catholic media.

First, in a world with a plethora of media outlets, many of whom are delivering news and commentary about the Church, the role for Catholic media has never been more important. We need a Catholic media that can help Catholics (and everyone) understand what is happening in our world and our church from a Catholic perspective. The more information and data there is out there, the greater the need for interpretation – how do we make sense of it all? What does this mean, to be holding one’s iPhone in one hand and the Gospel in the other? How does the information in one device mesh with what has been handed down in our faith? And this is a vital role that only Catholic media can fulfill.

The second unique role for Catholic media is to model a civil and respectful media. As I said earlier, secular media often falls into a trap of being cynical, disrespectful and sensationalist. Whatever is rudest or most sensational is what they often gravitate to. Catholic media can model what a civil, substantive media can and should be. Civil, substantive media pursues and presents stories of substance and depth that enrich all of our lives. This is very important in today's media culture.

As I talked with brother bishops in preparation for this presentation, there was consistent agreement that one aspect that is most alarming to us about media is when it becomes unchristian and hurtful to individuals. For example, we are particularly concerned about blogs that engage in attacks and hurtful, judgmental language. We are very troubled by blogs and other elements of media that assume the role of Magisterium and judge others in the Church. Such actions shatter the communion of the Church that we hold so precious.

The third unique role for Catholic media is to provide bishops with guidance about how to best engage with media organizations. You are much more practiced in this area than we are. And so we need your help. I know we are not always the best students in this area, but we need your input and guidance. Let's talk about how we bishops can do a better job of letting you help us in the area of media.

Relationship with secular media

I also want to take a moment to discuss Catholic media's relationship with secular media. The time has passed when the Church could either ignore the secular media or expect that the secular media would give the Church the benefit of the doubt. So it is crucial that we as a Church recognize that we have to engage and educate the secular media. Otherwise, we will continue to be saddled with depictions of our Church in the popular press that are inaccurate and unflattering. And these in turn influence many Catholics, especially those who are not currently participating in our Church.

We bishops have a key role in improving the Church's relations with the secular media. But so do you. Catholic media can help educate the secular media about our Church and its realities. We have such a rich tradition that it is difficult for non-Catholics to grasp it. So there is a great need to help secular media better understand our Church, in the hopes they will be able to more accurately report on it.

As their media colleagues, Catholic media is an excellent position to provide this education for secular media. To do this will require cultivating relationships with the secular media. And then taking additional steps to educate them about Catholic issues and provide useful background and depth on Catholic stories. Of course, there is no guarantee of success in this effort. But we bishops believe it is one that is well worth taking on.

What Catholic Media should expect from Bishops

In this talk I have identified some hopes and expectations that we bishops have of Catholic media. But you also have a right to have expectations of us as bishops. It is essential that we strengthen our collaboration – and good collaboration requires efforts on both sides.

Sadly, the reality of the current economic times means that we bishops are not in a position to offer increased financial support to Catholic media. But there are three things that you have a right to ask of us:

Spirit of Collaboration: You have a right to expect that we bishops and our diocesan offices should view your organizations as collaborators, rather than as outsiders.

Access and Support: We bishops recognize the value of Catholic media, and should be doing everything we can to help you succeed. That means providing access to both the people and the information that you need to get your questions answered when you are working on a story.

Quick Response: The world of media moves at an incredible speed and we bishops need to recognize that. Often you are working on a deadline. Providing a response to your request after your deadlines is often of little help, so we must learn to respond quickly.

Conclusion and Questions that we bring to the conversation

As I said at the outset, we bishops do not have all the answers. We are here for a dialogue and as learners as much as teachers. I hope you have found the ideas I presented to be helpful. And now we want to hear from you.

I have four questions that we bishops would like to hear your thoughts on. They are:
How can Catholic media in North America (US and Canada) best serve our Catholic faithful? What are the particular challenges we should be looking at?

How can Catholic media maintain its integrity as journalists? What are the journalistic standards for a Catholic who also sees himself/herself as having a vocation as a media professional in the Church? Or one who is operating as a media professional?

How do these issues change when looked at in the context of the 21st century media environment, with Internet and bloggers? What other issues arise? What does it mean to be a universal church in a global communication environment?

When does an organization cease being a Catholic news organization? What are the boundaries between being a Catholic news organization and a Catholic public relations agency?