May 08, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
By A.C. Thompson
The pages of Catholic San Francisco the official weekly newspaper of the local archdiocese are filled with cleric-penned inspirational columns, puff pieces on refurbished parishes, profiles of holy types, antiabortion screeds, and reprints of Vatican decrees.
But the biggest crisis to hit the church in a generation and almost certainly the most newsworthy story for Catholic San Francisco since the pope hit town 15 years ago hasn't garnered much ink.
As a review of back issues from the past two years shows, for the most part Catholic San Francisco's response to the still-unfolding priest sex scandal has consisted of lame mea culpas that could run under the headline "Mistakes Were Made, Now Put Some Money in the Collection Basket."
In a November 2001 guest column, the archdiocese's lawyer, Jack Hammel, felt compelled to tell parishioners that "money donated to the Annual Appeal [a fundraising drive] is not used to pay sexual abuse claims." In fact, the writer went on to explain, over the past 20 years the archdiocese has spent only $5.2 million or one-half of 1 percent of its budget during the time period settling cases of priestly pedophilia and molestation.
The scandal is, according to an editorial that ran in February, "a sad story, but not the whole story." The editorial counseled, "Now is the time to condemn the acts of the few who have betrayed the vocation and to praise the priests who work untiringly for the good of souls."
Only in the past few weeks, with the story of the church's pedophile-protecting ways spinning out of control and with San Francisco prosecutors investigating the local diocese has the paper taken anything remotely resembling a hard line. The full-color, 96,000-circulation rag, which is mailed out to parishioners, is finally calling for jail terms for all sex-offender priests and is starting to air the opinions of less-than-gruntled clergy members. "We need more than pious platitudes," San Mateo priest Tom Moran griped in a front-page May 2 story. "Early on I felt the apologies were disingenuous, very formulated responses that did not come from the heart. It's as if they have been guided more by attorneys than by the Gospel."
There's definitely a local angle to the scandal. Menlo Park priest Carl Schipper pleaded guilty in August 2000 to sending sexually explicit e-mail messages to minors or rather, to cops posing as minors. A few months later Rev. Bernard Dabbene, a high-ranking archdiocese official, was charged with sexually assaulting a 17-year-old boy on a deserted San Francisco street. And just this spring, to the chagrin of the District Attorney's Office, defrocked monsignor Patrick O'Shea walked out of the county lockup after a superior court judge dismissed 224 counts of child molestation on procedural grounds. Free on a $70,000 bond, 69-year-old O'Shea still faces trial for allegedly siphoning $225,000 from church coffers.
We asked Catholic San Francisco's executive editor, Maurice Healy, about the paper's coverage of the scandal. "We take straightforward, direct, and tough positions," Healy said. "That's our editorial philosophy, and it has not changed. We've covered the issue, the archbishop has written columns addressing it.... We're trying to cover it as a straight news story."
One respected muckraking journalist said we should cut Catholic San Francisco some slack. "I'm inclined to go easy on the diocesan newspapers," said Tom Rogers, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, an influential liberation theology-inspired publication that's covered the priest sex story since 1983. "They are owned and published by the organization they cover. It's going to be the very, very rare bishop who's going to allow his paper to do its own independent digging on this." After all, Rogers quipped, "You didn't expect to learn of the Enron fall from the Enron newsletter."
That's not to say he's impressed by how the church hierarchy is dealing with the situation. "The bishops now are talking about accountability and transparency," Rogers said. "Well, the first step is to tell us what's going on."
Research assistance was provided by Olivia deBree. E-mail A.C. Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org.