By Father John Flynn
ROME, MAY 28, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Sexual abuses mixed with allegations of Church abuse make for an explosive media formula, as Italians can testify. The state-owned television broadcaster, RAI, sparked a debate after it announced that it wanted to buy the rights to transmit a BBC program, “Sex Crimes and the Vatican.”
Last Tuesday the RAI announced its purchase of the documentary. But owing to strong protests over the program’s credibility, RAI director general Claudio Cappon stipulated that the talk show that will host the transmission, “Year Zero,” also has to give time to Church representatives for a rebuttal.
Along with presenting an account of child abuse, the BBC program makes accusations concerning a supposed Vatican-ordered cover-up. The documentary also accuses Benedict XVI of complicity in covering up sexual abuses in the past when he was a cardinal.
The tendentious nature of the BBC program was exposed in a declaration made last year by English Archbishop Vincent Nichols, who is chair of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults.
In an Oct. 2 press release, which came the day after the BBC broadcast the program in England, the archbishop acknowledged the distressing fact of child abuse. He clarified, however, that the part of the program that attacks the Vatican and the Pope “is false and entirely misleading.”
The prelate said it was false because the BBC program misrepresents two Vatican documents. The program refers to a 1962 document, “Crimen Sollicitationis,” which Archbishop Nichols explained, was not directly concerned with child abuse, but with the misuse of the confessional. A second document, “Ad Exequendam,” dated 2001, does not, he argued, hinder investigation of child abuse, but is rather “a measure of the seriousness with which the Vatican views these offenses.”
This isn’t the first time BBC programs have taken on the Catholic Church. After strong criticism the BBC eventually decided not to transmit its 2004 cartoon series, “Popetown.” The cartoon ridiculed Pope John Paul II and the Church.
The cartoon resurfaced last year in Germany, where MTV bought the rights with a view to transmitting it just before Good Friday, reported Deutsche Welle on April 12, 2006. Protests failed to block the program, with MTV deciding to broadcast the entire 10-part cartoon, after a test transmission of the first part, reported Reuters on May 9, 2006.
The BBC’s attitude toward religion was examined by the English newspaper Daily Mail in an article published Oct. 23. Following what was termed an “impartiality” summit convened by BBC Chairman Michael Grade, the paper cited “senior figures” as admitting that the broadcasting corporation was guilty of an anti-Christian bias.
Moreover, the Daily Mail reported, during the meeting, BBC executives admitted they would happily broadcast the image of a Bible being thrown away — but would not do the same for the Koran.
The BBC is not alone in its hostility to religion and the Catholic Church. Another recycled show, this time an American cartoon, “South Park,” recently came under fire in New Zealand. A May 23 press release by the New Zealand group Family Life International detailed a complaint made by Catholic bishops about an episode insulting the Virgin Mary, broadcast last year.
The bishops presented evidence in an appeal against the decision last year by the country’s Broadcasting Standards Authority, which refused to uphold their complaint about the insult to Mary, along with complaints about other episodes.
A lawyer for the bishops, Richard Laurenson, told the High Court in Wellington on Wednesday that the program breached the broadcaster’s obligation to maintain good taste, decency and fairness. A decision has been reserved in the case.
Another recent case comes from Canada, where a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation pilot program that portrays altar boys as drug addicts and the communion host as snack food has sparked protests, reported the Ottawa Citizen newspaper on May 16.
The program, “The Altar Boy Gang,” was denounced by the Catholic Civil Rights League. “With this program, the CBC has moved into the area of blasphemy of sacred rituals,” the organization declared. It also accused the CBC of double standards, noting that the insults toward the Catholic Church came after it hired a Muslim consultant last year to ensure that Islamic practices were respected in the program “Little Mosque on the Prairie.”
Earlier this year, it was a recycled Italian export that took on the Church, this time in the United States. The University of Minnesota decided to perform a play, “The Pope and the Witch,” by Italian author Dario Fo.
A Feb. 22 article in the Catholic Spirit, the diocesan newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, reported that Minnesota’s bishops and several Catholic organizations objected to the play.
The article explained that the play, among other matters, depicts a “delusional, unnamed pontiff.” It also depicts the Vatican as being involved in the drug trade, and finishes with the Pope’s assassination.
An editorial in the same issue of the Catholic Spirit argued that allowing the performance of such a work “pollutes the atmosphere of mutual respect and that promotes the kind of prejudice and intolerance the university says it opposes.”
The increasing number of programs hostile to Christianity was commented on by Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds, England, in his pastoral letter for the New Year. In his text, dated Dec. 31, Bishop Roche decried the spreading abuse of Jesus’ name in television shows.
“It was if my television set had been infested with anti-Christian and deeply disrespectful and derogatory sentiments,” he declared, speaking of his experience in turning on the television recently and switching from channel to channel.
“There is an ease and a carelessness today in which it is possible, without any resistance, to ridicule Jesus, his Church and his followers,” noted Bishop Roche. He then went on to urge believers not to become infected by this tendency and to respect the name of Jesus in everyday conversations.
Hostility toward religion was also one of the topics that Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor addressed during a March 28 lecture, at Westminster Cathedral Hall in London.
The archbishop of Westminster declared that he feared contemporary society is increasingly marked by “secular dogmatism or cynicism” toward Christians. He stated: “So when Christians stand by their beliefs, they are intolerant dogmatists. When they sin, they are hypocrites. When they take the side of the poor, they are soft-headed liberals. When they seek to defend the family, they are right-wing reactionaries.”
The lecture took place in the context of a fierce debate over government legislation which imposed on Catholic adoption agencies the obligation to hand children over for adoption to same-sex couples. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor argued that it was no accident that the state’s increasing anti-religious tendency takes place at a time of a “new secularist intolerance of religion,” which increasingly marks society.
The question of how the media treat religion was dealt with by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, in its 2000 document “Ethics in Communications.” The council acknowledged the many positive contributions of the media to everyday life, and also how people benefit through the transmission of religious news and ideas.
Nevertheless, the ethics document also noted how sometimes religion unfairly suffers at the hand of the media due to incomprehension or even contempt. Often, religious fads are lauded, while legitimate religious groups are treated with hostility, the council explained in No. 18 of the document.
The council called for a greater application of ethical principles in the world of communications. “Communication must always be truthful, since truth is essential to individual liberty and to authentic community among persons,” the document exhorted (No. 20). A truthfulness sometimes sorely lacking in some media reports on religion.