Thursday, August 07, 2003

It depends on the meaning of "uncovered." This morning, while I was driving to work, I heard a curious report on the radio. The announcer said that CBS News had uncovered a confidential 1962 document from the Vatican specifying how the Catholic Church should respond to complaints of child sexual abuse.

Curious because I knew that a copy of the report had been sitting on my desk at work since last week -- and that my colleague Kristen Lombardi had obtained it a few days earlier than that.

Upon looking into it further, I learned that the first report on the existence of the document was published on July 29 in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. The 923-word page-one piece, by Kathleen Shaw, began like this:

The hierarchy of the Catholic church has been instructed by the Vatican at least since 1962 to keep certain cases of clergy sexual abuse secret under pain of excommunication, according to Boston lawyer Carmen L. Durso.

A copy of the directive was sent yesterday to U.S. Attorney Michael J. Sullivan at his Boston office by Mr. Durso, who said he believes the church has been obstructing justice.

The next day, the Boston Herald's Robin Washington covered much the same ground in a story on page eight. His lead:

A Latin document bearing the seal of Pope John XXIII outlined a 1962 Vatican procedure for shielding sexually abusive priests, two lawyers for plaintiffs in cases against the church maintain.

Yet when the CBS Evening News began last night, here's how anchor Scott Pelley introduced the story:

We begin tonight with a surprising development in the sex-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. For decades, priests in this country have abused children in parish after parish while their superiors covered it all up. Now it turns out the orders for this cover-up were written in Rome at the highest levels of the Vatican. Correspondent Vince Gonzales has uncovered a church document kept secret 40 years, until now.

The transcript does not appear to be freely available online (I got it from Lexis-Nexis). But you can read a version of the story on the CBS News website that includes this: "CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales has uncovered a church document kept secret for 40 years."

What is going on here?

Houston lawyer Dan Shea, who represents some of the alleged victims, is the person who has called the document to the attention of much of the media. Earlier today he told me, "The real credit for this goes to Kathy Shaw and Robin Washington. Hey, smoke and mirrors." As for CBS, Shea said, "They interviewed me for the piece. They spent an hour-and-a-half with me in my office in Houston. And I never even showed up in the piece."

I couldn't reach Shaw. But Washington's comment was succinct: "This is ridiculous. It's beyond the pale."

CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius, though, defended her network's actions. She said of the T&G and Herald reports, "I think they did a great job, and I think that we did our own reporting about it and put a piece on the air. It's that simple."

Genelius added that Gonzales could have broadcast his report earlier, but that he expended considerable effort trying to authenticate the document.

When I asked whether CBS's claim that Gonzales had "uncovered" the document might be fairly interpreted as meaning that the network was claiming an exclusive, she replied, "We never claimed any exclusivity on it, nor would we."

Well, maybe CBS makes a distinction between "exclusive" and "uncovered," but I seriously doubt that it's a distinction any typical news consumer would make.

The broadcast strongly implied that CBS was breaking news. It wasn't.

No comments: