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Jewish Journal

Good and Bad Tidings

by Rob Eshman

May 23, 2002 | 8:00 pm

We in the Jewish community can learn a lot about what has not been in the Catholic press.

If you read the mainstream Catholic newspapers over the past few months, you will find handfuls of articles and columns about sex offenders in the church. The editorials and columns are, at most, gently critical of the way church leaders have handled the crisis. The reports quote extensively from church officials on the steps they're taking to address the problem. They do not balance these assertions with quotes from those critical of the church.

We know now that repeating what these leaders say with no independent verification, no rejoinder, no balance, is a blank check for obfuscation -- witness the latest revelation that Cardinal Roger Mahoney transferred an admitted pedophile from post to post without alerting parishioners of his record.

The reason such actions are not reported in the mainstream Catholic press is simple. Each archdiocese in this country publishes its own newspaper. "Diocesan papers are like the newsletters printed by IBM or Xerox," Tom Roberts, editor of the independent National Catholic Reporter, said in an interview with The Philadelphia Weekly. "They are not going to report the bad stuff. The mission of these papers is not to dig in and tell the stories that the bishop does not want told and, frankly, that readers don't want to know about."

The Tidings, published by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is a great many steps up from other mainstream Catholic papers. Editor Mike Nelson is a very good writer and editor, but the content of his 100,000-circulation newspaper is limited by the fact that Tidings is a publication of the archdiocese. "We haven't pretended that it didn't happen," Nelson told me, regarding the sex scandals. Nelson wrote an editorial shortly before the April meeting of cardinals in Rome that urged the church to be realistic about a "problem that is not going to go away."

The Tidings also ran a two-part, 6,000-word critical analysis of the crisis by New York Times religion writer Peter Steinfels. "Cardinal Mahoney suggested we run that piece," said Nelson, who credits Mahoney with allowing more press freedom than is common at other such publications.

It's hard to fault church leaders for exercising veto power over what goes into the media they fund. The last thing a house organ can do -- even if it wanted to -- is throw stones at the house. "The nature of who we are as an in-house publication is that we have limits on what we can do if we want to have jobs in the morning," Nelson told me.

But the larger Catholic community has paid a price for the lack of an independent Catholic press. The problem of sex offenders remained hidden until uncovered by general papers, and the cost has been a sense of betrayal and mistrust, amplifying the tragedy the actual offenses. "People don't care about apologies forced by headlines," Roberts said.

There are obvious lessons here for the Jewish community and its press. At a March conference of the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA), editors of Federation-affiliated papers spoke of being pressured not to run opinion pieces that were critical of the Israeli government. Other communal organizations or machers often pressure editors to stay away from reporting on communal problems. Such reporting, they claim, impinges on their fundraising efforts, or tears at the fabric of Jewish unity.

But all indications point to the opposite: that healthy Jewish communities support an independent press. Gary Rosenblatt, editor of The New York Jewish Week, wrote a fearless series of articles exposing sexual abuse by Rabbi Baruch Lanner of the National Council of Synagogue Youth, an arm of the Orthodox Union. Other papers have taken on conflicts and scandals in their communities as well. Doing so often loses advertisers, but it gains readers. Tellingly, Nelson told me that he never received a single call from a victim reporting priesthood sexual abuse. People who feel wronged in this community do call us -- they know we serve them as well.

John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York -- widely considered on the cutting edge of Jewish communal leadership -- told AJPA members that, painful as it sometimes is for him, Jewish papers should be honest brokers of the news. That way, he said, the Jewish press helps new generations of Jews "understand and become participants" in Jewish life.

The publisher and board of directors of this paper have wisely followed the path toward independence. The Journal's largest advertisers include The Jewish Federation, but we are not an agency of that organization or of any other. As a business enterprise, we are grateful for our clients' support. We endeavor to reward their faith in us by producing a paper each week that reaches the hands and hearts of as many L.A. Jews as possible. Beyond that promise, we are always open to input -- but not influence -- from all parts of the community.

And we hope and trust the result will be a stronger community for us all.

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