April 22, 2010
Last week a friend forwarded me an e-mail forwarded to him from another friend to whom it had been forwarded. “Jewish Sam Miller on Catholics” was the title, and under it, “Excerpt from an article written by non-Catholic Sam Miller, a prominent Cleveland Jewish businessman.”
“Why would newspapers carry on a vendetta against one of the most important institutions that we have today in the United States, namely the Catholic Church?” the excerpt began, followed by a list of statistics on how many children Catholic schools educate, how many people Catholic hospitals serve, and how much money Catholic organizations save the American taxpayer.
“But the press is vindictive and trying to totally denigrate in every way the Catholic Church in this country,” the piece continued, followed by more claimed statistics, among them that “12% of the 300 Protestant clergy surveyed admitted to sexual intercourse with a parishioner; 38% acknowledged other inappropriate sexual contact in a study by the United Methodist Church. Meanwhile, 1.7% of the Catholic clergy has been found guilty of pedophilia. 10% of the Protestant ministers have been found guilty of pedophilia. This is not a Catholic Problem.”
Finally: “The agony that Catholics have felt and suffered is not necessarily the fault of the Church.... Walk with your shoulders high and your head higher. Be a proud member of the most important non-governmental agency in the United States.”
General skepticism of the truth of forwarded e-mails is always advisable, and some fact-checking before re-forwarding them or writing about them is definitely recommended. In this case, an internet search for “Sam Miller Cleveland” turned up several references to Miller, a controversial 88-year-old board member of Forest City Enterprises, the megalith real-estate development company based in Cleveland, and promoter of Jewish and Catholic causes. It also turned up dozens of Catholic-oriented sites and blogs quoting from and commenting on Miller’s alleged words taken, some of them stated, from a 2008 speech to the City Club of Cleveland. What appears to be the full text, a six-page PDF file, is posted on the Knights of Malta website, www.maltausa.org/files/newsletter_hospitallers_18_stand_up.pdf.
Though this document presents some positive proposals for interfaith cooperation in confronting sexual abuse, much of it is an unrestrained rant against the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other papers, and their “kangaroo journalists ..., Catholics or ex-Catholics who have been denied something they wanted from the Church and are on a mission of vengeance.” Anybody about to push the FW button should think twice, especially about the accuracy of those numbers on sexual abuse among Protestants.
On a related theme from a mainline source, the April 15 issue of the liberal-leaning National Catholic Reporter, columnist Melissa Musick Nussbaum seeks to redirect the press to more pressing problems. After supplying her own set of statistics on media attention to sexual-abuse cases (those by the Hare Krishna sect and at an Episcopalian-run school in South Carolina have been largely ignored, as has the dramatic drop in abuse claims against priests over the last two decades), she suggests that reporters delve into more recent and even more shocking ones, such as the findings of a U.S. Justice Department investigation issued in January that “an estimated 10.3 percent of youth in state and large non-state [juvenile] facilities report experiencing one or more incidents of sexual abuse involving facility staff annually.”
“The fire is out in one house but still raging in the house down the block,” she writes; it’s “the present emergency” that should be the focus of the news.
Is the press out to get the Catholic Church? Despite these facts and factoids, I don’t think that’s the specific goal. There has not been widespread bias against Catholics, either in the media or in American culture at large, since John Kennedy dispelled it by example 50 years ago. Instead, what reporters are going after today is what reporters are always going after, the man-bites-dog story. Nussbaum is right: “Hare Krishnas and Episcopalians don’t summon the same rich associations as Roman Catholic clergy.” Priests are unique because of their promise of celibacy and because of the mysterious spiritual powers of their office, both enduringly fascinating to the public at large. The ethical bar for Catholic priests is thus much higher than for officials in other institutions, religious or secular, and failing to jump it makes much better news.
On the political level, there are the tantalizing prospects of the cover-up, irresistible to the investigative reporter. Watergate or Toyota, Pentagon or pope, it’s pretty much the same: the thrill of the hunt, and the singular pleasure of bringing down the high and mighty.
Miller in his alleged speech makes an arguable point in contrasting the many good works of the institutional Church with the relatively few numbers of predatory priests. But writing in the April 18 edition of Miller’s despised New York Times, the intrepid investigative columnist Nicholas Kristof, who received a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for his first-hand accounts of the Darfur genocide, makes perhaps a more arguable point in contrasting the Catholicism of Rome to the Catholicism of the trenches, “the rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy ... obsessed with dogma and rules and distracted from social justice” versus “the Church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children.”
Negligence of the hierarchical Church, bashed; praise for the Church of the people, unabashed. That’s a fairly fair assessment.