Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Yesterday" Wasn't Yesterday

In my own persona, I “like” the AlterNet Facebook page, and I link to articles on their site not infrequently from the Curmudgeon Central page. I particularly like the fact that articles there are actually long enough to cover an issue in some depth. To be sure, most material on AlterNet is politically somewhere to the left of Dennis Kucinich, but it tends to be well-researched and well-documented, so the reader is free to judge for him- or herself where the journalism stops and the bias begins. Equally importantly, there is no pretense of objectivity: it’s a poor-man’s The Nation, not Newsweek. Moreover, to the extent that I have found errors of fact on the site, they have always been what I would describe as fervor-based: true believers are ready to assume the worst about their political adversaries, so that while they sometimes post drivel, they generally do so in good faith.

Until now, that is. How’s this for an attention-grabbing headline: ”Vatican: Priests Have Been Raping Nuns to Avoid Hookers with HIV”? That’s the title of a piece by Joshua Holland, dated today, February 24, 2011. Motivated by incredulity, anger, curiosity, and probably a little prurient interest, I read the article.

What is described there is horrific:
The Catholic Church in Rome made the extraordinary admission yesterday that it is aware priests from at least 23 countries have been sexually abusing nuns….

The reports, some of which are recent and some of which have been in circulation for at least seven years, said that such priests had demanded sex in exchange for favours, such as certification to work in a given diocese.
OK, so who wouldn’t be outraged? But I am trained as a scholar, and it is pretty much a part of who I am to go to the primary source if I can find it. Regular readers of the CC Facebook page might notice that while my friends are posting articles from the Huffington Post or Think Progress, I link instead to the internally-linked sources for stories on those two openly progressive sites. If I can get there, I want as objective a view of the facts as I can get… then it’s time to see what some commentator says. I’ll post the commentary if I agree with it, but if the writer is (in my view) blowing something out of proportion or even actively misreading, I’m going to either say so or avoid the story altogether. I wish I could say this vigilance was born out of some deep moral sensibility; more likely, it’s that I don’t want to look like a fool.

So it is that I found the story on which Mr. Holland’s article is based: an article by Frances Kennedy on the website of the British newspaper The Independent, entitled “Vatican confirms report of sexual abuse and rape of nuns by priests in 23 countries.” There it is: the source for the AlterNet piece.

Please click on that link. Notice anything unusual? Like the fact that the article is dated 21 March 2001, for example? It’s virtually ten years old! Yet Holland’s piece quotes Kennedy’s with no indication that the revelations it references are any older than “yesterday.” Perhaps the sexual abuse of nuns is an ongoing issue, in which case we need new reporting to expose that fact. Perhaps this was an issue a decade ago, but, unlike so many other appearances of hypocrisy (or worse) by the Catholic Church, this one really has been solved. That would be worth knowing, too. But to present a ten year old story as if it were new: that is, to be kind, journalistically useless.

I have my problems with the Catholic Church hierarchy, but they deserve better than this transparent hatchet-job. I really don’t know whether Mr. Holland is an ignoramus or an unethical ass. In terms of my ever taking him seriously again, it really doesn’t matter.

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