Media Bias and the Church in Ireland (Part 1)

Irish Journalist Gives Perspective on Public Opinion and the Abuse Crisis

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By Ann Schneible

DUBLIN, Ireland, JUNE 11, 2012 (Zenit.org).- In a country where the Church has been under attack, both by the secular media without and from clerical corruption within, Catholics from around the world have gathered together this week to celebrate the Eucharist in Dublin, Ireland.

Speaking in the context of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, David Quinn, who is director of the Iona Institute and a freelance contributor to the Irish Independent and the Irish Catholic, spoke with ZENIT about the crisis in the Catholic Church in Ireland, and the public perception of the Church as has been generated by the secular media. Quinn is one of the speakers at the Congress.

ZENIT: Some have said that the clerical abuse crisis was symptomatic of decades of neglect on the part of the Church. Could you explain this?

Quinn: After independence in 1922, Ireland had a way of asserting its independence visibly, and it decided that a good way to do that was to become ultra-Catholic in terms of identity. Nationalism and Catholicism got merged, and the Catholic Church became extremely powerful politically and socially, and sometimes authoritarian. This, even without the scandals, caused a backlash which began to gather steam from about the 1960s on. Part of the over-reaction against the authoritarianism of the past is bishops who were essentially scared to exercise authority at all. 

The scandals will be part of that. For example, the report of the Dublin Diocese which was commissioned by the government, called the Murphy report, found that one of the reasons – contrary to popular belief – why the scandals escalated, was because of the abandonment of Canon Law; that basically they stopped using the punitive and disciplinary aspects of Canon Law. They decided, instead, to be “pastoral,” which meant that they decided to see the priest as the victim of his impulses and would send him off to therapy rather than punish him, and regard him as “sick” rather than as an offender. 

Then of course, we have very poor catechetics, very poor liturgy, and just an avoidance of anything controversial: the quiet life above all. It was essentially the emergence of a kind of “I’m okay, you’re okay” religion, based on the idea that the goal of life is to be nice to people, and not be very demanding beyond that. 

ZENIT: Is the abuse scandal the center of the media’s focus in Ireland in regards to the Church?

Quinn: Obviously, any coverage and commentary on the Church in the last 20 years has been very dominated by the abuse scandals. Now the abuse scandals, in fact, peaked between 1965 and 1985; that’s when most of them happened. And this is, in fact, the period where Canon Law was abandoned, and things went out of control; not only were they not going to the police, they were not even internally handling it properly. But, these cases came to light later… In the 1990s, what was going on in the 1970s and 1980s came to light. And we are still living with the incredibly awful legacy of that period. 

Your average member of the public, I would say, thinks that the scandals are still happening, that the Church still does not have proper child protective procedures in place, has no awareness that the scandals peaked in that 20-year period – which is now quite a long time ago. In fact, the Iona Institute, which I run, commissioned an opinion poll and discovered the average member of the Irish public believes that one in four priests has abused a child, which is an overestimation of a factor of maybe 8 to 1 thereabouts. So, they are looking at priests, and if they see a hundred of them they think twenty-five of them have abused a child. And they probably think that the average age of the child is about five. There is no proper understanding of it, and there is no interest on the part of the general media in bringing about a proper understanding either. 

We see a huge double standard in terms of coverage when some other organization is found to have a catastrophic child protective failure, there is never the same amount of coverage, and never the same amount of outrage. People say we expect a higher standard of the Church. My response to that is: “Fine, but can you at least get half as outraged about state failings as about Church failings? Because you don’t get even 10% as outraged.” 

I have to say that with a certain amount of hesitancy because the Church deserves a lot of what it has got, a lot of the criticism it has received. But there is no doubt as to the double-standard being applied as well.

[Part 2, on the media and the Eucharistic Congress, will be published Tuesday.]
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