06 May 2013

Media Bias in New Jersey

I have said before that the media is often biased against the Catholic Church.  By that I do not mean that the media is biased simply whenever they put out a negative story about the Church's leaders or members.  The Church is full of sinners--that's rather the point of it--and especially when those in positions of trust abuse that trust, that it is fair to report as news.  The problem comes when the media holds the Church to a very different standard.

A case in point is the recent unfortunate facts that have come to light in the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ, regarding a priest who confessed to criminal sexually contact of a child some years ago.  In this post I try to point out the double-standard in the mainstream media (in this case the Newark Star Ledger) and why this bias damages, not the Church primarily, but the public at large.

Although the priest in the case (Michael Fugee) was convicted of the crime, his conviction was overturned on appeal.  Nonetheless, he admitted his wrongdoing.  Instead of a second trial, the Prosecutor chose to enter into an agreement with the accused priest and the Archdiocese.  The agreement called for the offender to undergo counseling as part of a two-year Pre-Trial Intervention program pursuant to a separate Consent Order, to which the Archdiocese was not a party.  In the Agreement, the Archdiocese agreed to the following (the agreement is available online):
...the Archdiocese shall not assign or otherwise place Michael Fugee in any position within the Archdiocese that allows him to have any unsupervised contact with or to supervise or minister to any minor/child under the age of 18 or work in any position in which children are involved.  This includes, but is not limited to, presiding over a parish, involvement with a youth group, religious education/ parochial school, CCD, confessions of children, youth choir, youth retreats, and day care. 
The story as presented indicates that this was violated.  The priest was asked--and in fact did--hear the confessions of young people, attend retreats, and went on pilgrimages at which young people were present.  Although he was never given an official position in a parish--the priest was apparently assigned to desk work in the Archdiocesan offices--it seems friends who knew him (priests and laypeople) invited him to these activities, knowledgeable of his background.  The Archdiocese maintains it was unaware of these activities.

I will state--just to be clear--that the news media had every right to pursue the story.  I would also say, based on the accounts that I have read, that the Archdiocese has handled the matter poorly, to say the least.  Even though the accused priest has (thankfully) not been accused of any wrongdoing since his initial arrest in 2001, there seems to have been a clear lack on its part of supervising the priest and ensuring that the agreement was followed.  I highlight the aspect of the media reporting not to draw attention away from the horrible nature of crimes against children, but precisely because I think this type of reporting weakens the protection of children.  What I mean, as I hope will be made clear, is that the anti-Catholic bias of the mainstream press causes it to fail to call to account all the actors who have a duty to protect children--in this case especially the police and county prosecutors, but also in other cases mental health professionals.

The main reporter in this for the Newark Star Ledger has been Mr. Mark Mueller.  Mr. Mueller has been quite persistent in calling the Archdiocese, especially through its spokesman, to account for the actions of this priest.  The main thrust of his article has been to highlight the "escalating scandal" surrounding the Archbishop on the "lax supervision" over this priest.  All perfectly legitimate lines of inquiry.

But at this point you might ask, was the agreement only between the Archdiocese and the priest?  Obviously, no.  The agreement was also signed by Mr. John Molinelli, the local County Prosecutor. What about its duty to follow-up on the agreement that it entered into?  Surprisingly (to me, anyway), no reporter has ever asked.

With the wonders of social media, I decided to ask the reporter.  I noticed on Twitter that another Star Ledger Reporter, who had complimented Mr. Mueller's reporting skills, this question:
In reply he kindly gave this reply:

In other words, he agrees with me that the question was a good one.  If it was so good, why was it never asked before?  Notice too the rest of this reporter's answer, in which he tries to give a reason.  Ask yourself, what if the Archdiocese gave the very same answer?  Would the Star Ledger have just accepted that answer and moved on?  He seems to accept this as a quite plausible response if it had been made by the county.  Would the media have accepted it as so plausibly made by the Archdiocese?

I also asked the question to Mr. Mueller, who has been the most active reporter on this story.

His gave a reply which seemed to answer a very different question:
I thought that was a strange answer, and not at all answering what I asked, so I asked again.

I got an equally cryptic reply:
I must admit a bit of frustration here.  The 140 character requirement of Twitter can be limiting, but I thought my questions were fairly clear.  Anyway, another attempt:
Again, I received an answer that I found very confusing.  I really have no idea what question he thought I was asking, but this was his reply:
Finally, I thought, "well he obviously did not understand my question."  So, I tried just rephrasing it in the hopes that would clarify things:
That seemed to do the trick, as Mr. Mueller kindly and briefly replied:
Again, I want to say I have no problem with the investigation by the media into what the Diocese did or did not do.  The issue of protecting children is a very important one, it affects the public good, and reporters should be aggressive in covering it.  More importantly, the Church should welcome calls to accountability on this issue as a way to ensure the best possible environment for children.

But the press should be aggressive in covering all the parties to this issue.  In this case, a police/prosecution error led to the overturning of the conviction on appeal.  In order to salvage what was left of their case, the County Prosecutor decided to enter into this agreement.  One could argue that they have an even greater duty to see that the agreement was fully enforced, especially considering it was their error that made this agreement necessary.

So then, why has the Prosecutor never been asked about his role in the supervision of this agreement.  Why is there no talk about the "engulfing scandal" surrounding the prosecutor?  Why have their been no Star Ledger headlines about the "lax supervision" of the Bergen County authorities on this agreement.

The Agreement itself has no provisions regarding follow-up or supervision--either by the Archdiocese or the County.  Did the County enter into this agreement with no intent of ensuring that it was being complied with?  Is the County considering changing the format of such agreements to spell out supervision issues?  Why have police officials only come to this so late?

If the Star Ledger believes that the Archdiocese has been lax in its oversight in a way that children were put in risk, cannot this be said to an even greater degree with respect to public officials?  The Archdiocese has no police powers--and is forbidden from having police powers as a private entity--but the county does.  Why did it not exercise them in supervising this case?

Obviously, then, the Star Ledger believes the Archdiocese and the County should not be asked the same questions.  In the whole run of its investigation it has vigorously questioned one and strangely ignored the other.  The question is, why?

I believe it may have something to do with the pervasive anti-Catholic bias that runs rampant in the news media.

Regardless, when the media fails in its duty to properly investigate stories like this, when it focuses on the Church (or any private entity) alone, it means the government officials charged with the protection of children are let off the hook.  And that is in nobody's best interest.

I hope, for the sake of the importance of this issue, the Star Ledger and other media outlets begin to pursue these public officials with the same zeal they have pursued ecclesiastical ones.