Victim Advocates Outnumber Church Defenders 13 to 1 in Evening News Coverage of Catholic Abuse Allegations

All three broadcast networks reported allegations of abuse by Catholic priests during their nightly news programs on March 25. But none of them provided an objective report.

ABC, CBS and NBC ran a combined total of 13 sound bites from victims and victim advocates, who claimed the Catholic Church, and Pope Benedict XVI in particular, covered up sexual abuse by Father Lawrence Murphy.

They alleged that Murphy abused 200 boys at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee, WI, throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Only NBC's report included a defender of the church: George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

But there were plenty of accusations in the three reports:

"The pope is involved in an international worldwide conspiracy to avoid scandal to protect themselves, their reputation at the peril of the children," Jeff Anderson, an attorney representing the victims, claimed on ABC's "World News with Diane Sawyer."

"The pope knew about this. He was the one who handled the sex abuse cases," Gigi Budzinski, told CBS "Evening News" on behalf of her deaf father who was allegedly abused by Murphy. "So I think he should be accountable because he did nothing."  

 "His innocence was stolen from him," Budzinski told NBC's "Nightly News."

All three newscasts also mentioned the efforts of former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland to bring the abuse to the attention of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, but none mentioned that Weakland broke with church doctrine when he engaged in a homosexual relationship or that he himself had been accused of sexual abuse.

A 2009 Washington Post review of Weakland's book labeled him a "progressive Catholic" and detailed how in 2002, "while the clergy sexual abuse scandal was at its height," the Archdiocese of Milwaukee paid $450,000 to Paul Marcoux, a man who accused the Archbishop of sexually abusing him.

"It may seem strange, but I felt a new freedom, a sense of being liberated for the first time," Weakland wrote about his sexual orientation in his book, "A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop." "It had become public knowledge that my orientation was homosexual. There was nothing more to hide; no one could anything more to me. I was free."

Those bits of Weakland's history were ignored by ABC, CBS and NBC, as all three held him up as a lone crusader against the Vatican.

"At first, aides to the future pope allowed officials in Milwaukee to hold a secret church trial for Father Murphy," ABC's Dan Harris reported. "But after Father Murphy sent this personal appeal, telling the future pope he was in poor health and had repented of any of his transgressions, the trial was shut down. The former Archbishop of Milwaukee disagreed with the move as he recounted in this dispositions."

ABC then played a clip of Weakland saying, "Which I pleaded that even though he was retired, and in ill health, that he be reduced to the lay state. To bring some kind of closure to this in our deaf community. And instead, it dragged and he died about six months later."

NBC's Stephanie Gosk, quoted a letter Weakland wrote to a deputy of Ratzinger's in her "Nightly News" report. Weakland's letter read in part: "True scandal in the near future seems very possible."

CBS's Mark Phillips also reported that a letter from Weakland to Ratzinger "asked whether the offending priest should be brought before a church court."  Phillips continued, "‘This offense is under your jurisdiction,' it said, ‘so I seek your counsel.'"

Gosk's report was the only one to offer a rebuttal from the Vatican and a defense of the church: "The Vatican newspaper says it is a clear and despicable attempt to strike out at this pope at any cost."

The Ethics and Public Policy Center's George Weigel, labeled a "Vatican expert," told NBC, "These documents and the German case will incriminate the pope, quote-unquote, only if people believe that the Catholic Church is a criminal conspiracy of sexual abusers. No reasonable person believes that."

While Vatican officials may not be quick to jump on television in their own defense, there are plenty of other Catholic groups that would gladly defend the church. The Catholic League has issued nine press releases within the past 12 days about the media coverage of the abuse allegations. Surely, they or someone they could suggest would have been available to the networks for an interview.

The tilted coverage was not just the province of the evening news programs. CBS's "Early Show" has also recently smeared the Catholic Church. CNN hosted a three-person panel with Christians who advocated for liberal reforms in the Church and failed to include any defenders of its tradtions.