A flood of recent stories involving affairs in the Catholic Church reveals the difficulties in doing any honest reporting, where facts are easily attainable and verifiable.
In fact, when it comes to journalists covering stories in the Church that involve assorted types of scandals, authentic journalists quite often encounter a wall of resistance and secrecy more befitting the mafioso than an institution dedicated to saving souls.
A mindset of cover-up and lack of transparency permeates the operations of every level of the Church — starting in parishes all the way up to how the Vatican is run.
Members of the hierarchy and their staff frequently resort to hiding behind spirituality in an attempt to conceal truths from being revealed that should be revealed. On other occasions, they don't even resort to that, merely clamming up and refusing to answer legitimate questions.
This clandestine approach is exercised everywhere throughout the Church these days, despite promises for more transparency and so forth — promises that have turned out to be lies. The last term that could be applied to various dioceses and religious orders is transparency.
The lack of transparency is applied unilaterally, including finances — in some ways, most especially finances. For example, almost no diocese in the United States publishes its finances, meaning specifically what their gross receipts were and an easily understandable list of expenses.
The vast majority of money a given diocese normally receives are free-will charitable contributions made from the laity. Of course there may be investment income, but even there, the original principal invested also came from donations by the laity.
That U.S. bishops somehow believe they owe no financial reporting accountability to the very people giving them their money — sometimes at great personal sacrifice — is an approach that is no longer acceptable in this day and age.
Laity have a moral right to know what the salaries are of diocesan department heads, how much is spent on legal bills and so forth. The finances of practically every diocese are almost completely clouded in secrecy and there is no effective way to get at the information, because unlike other non-profit, 501(c)3 organizations, the Church is protected from having to report fully to the public owing to special treatment of direct religious organizations.
This sets up the opportunity for massive fraud as well as theft, misappropriation of funds, etc. Again, the bishop and a small band of insiders are the only ones who actually know the truth, and at present, there is no way to get at the information if you are a journalist (other than raising the issue and bringing public pressure to bear).
Reporters, in fact, who want to get to the heart of corruption in the Church are stonewalled at every turn and do not have at their disposal any of the usual weapons in a typical journalist's arsenal.
There is no FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) filing that can be made. There are no public hearings that one can sit in on. There is no official record or transcript of closed-door meetings. Press conferences where a reporter can fire off a series of questions with follow-ups are rarely held.
Even more basic, everyday avenues are usually closed off: Phone calls are not returned, e-mails about uncomfortable topics are simply ignored, and when they are responded to, it amounts to little else than an incomplete response or deflection, which when followed up with, ends up being ignored.
Requests from investigative journalists, who are rightly perceived as going to be asking hard questions, are seldom, if ever, granted. What this climate of secrecy and lack of transparency and accountability has created is a widening gap of lack of trust between shepherds and their sheep.
Over and above that, the U.S. hierarchy has insulated itself behind a wall of what appears to be "news organizations" like EWTN News, Catholic News Agency, Crux and so forth.
However, as has been demonstrated time and again, these "news" outfits are little else than organizations that just repeat or reprint diocesan press releases, accepting them at face value and not probing further. They exist in total contradiction to the very principle that journalism is founded on: independence.
They profit from their relationships with the hierarchy in a variety of ways — access, respectability, invitations, "rubbing elbows," being featured as speakers at an assortment of conferences — all of which ensures money keeps flowing into their operations.
Because of the "don't bite the hand that feeds you" reality, these outfits will never ask the hard questions or do the necessary digging to discover and then publish details of a scandal that lay Catholics have a right to know.
It will go down in Church history that one of the most glaring indictments against so-called Catholic journalists and media leaders is that it took secular media to reveal the evils in the Church: homopredation against adults as well as minors, and a string of reports about financial malfeasance amounting to billions of dollars.
The Catholic establishment media stand convicted of either complicity or incompetence in their enormous failure for the past decades. In fact, their failure in these areas is what gave rise to independent Catholic media, which have arrived as the proverbial new kids on the block, with attitude and skill.
It has become regular practice now, as a result, for establishment Catholic "reporters" to publish information on a scandal only after the fact, once it has become known through other media outlets. They arrive late to the game and then trumpet that they are "reporting."
Even in the cases where they do dig deeper and expose a formerly unknown fact, it is almost exclusively when there is little to lose in terms of their relationships with the hierarchy because their fallback position can always be that it was already known, or the cat is already out of the bag about Bishop so-and-so.
The challenge for the new, independent media is penetrating the cloak and dagger world of silence and cover-up that is commonplace in ecclesiastical circles. This necessitates a different type of approach, given the reality of no real journalistic tools of the trade which can be employed (FOIA, etc.).
Almost all information independent Catholic media report comes exclusively either from insiders who will not talk without promises of identity protection, or from outside sources who have unearthed damaging details through legal avenues like depositions or court testimony. Frequently, getting at the underlying issues within the court records is a tough mountain to climb because of court-ordered gag rules or secret settlement agreements.
Still a sufficient number of leaks and a steady flow of damning information is available revealing a corrupt network of cover-up and deflection that has become the modus operandi of the Church in the United States. The challenge for authentic, independent Catholic journalists is enduring the propaganda attacks of the bishops' media hacks, as well as piercing through the culture of lies and deflection.
Despite the challenges, which are real, those dedicated to full truth in reporting affairs in the Church — always with an eye to the major reform needed within the halls of power of multiple chanceries — have this steady and guaranteed maxim to give them comfort: It is the nature of truth to be known.