Thomas Sutcliffe: Poor journalism saves a guilty church

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The Independent Online

If you measure the success of an investigative report by the fuss it causes then Sunday night's Panorama was surely a triumph. Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the Chairman of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults, immediately denounced the BBC for sensationalism, misleading editing and prejudice. Colm O'Gorman's report, which accused the Pope of presiding over a deliberate policy of cover-up, had obviously done nothing to dispel his belief, expressed three years ago, that the BBC as an institution is hostile to the Catholic Church.

As it happened I watched Panorama because - in a grumbling, muttering, slightly knee-jerk way - I am hostile to the Catholic Church. So it was a surprising experience to find indignation at the continuing impunity of some abusive priests mingling with a whispering disquiet at the editorial approach.

The first doubt occurred when O'Gorman broke down in tears, after visiting the site of an incident of abuse in Brazil. In television terms this was dramatic, and it certainly confirmed the deep trauma of O'Gorman's own past abuse at the hands of an Irish priest. But shouldn't his qualification as empathetic victim have disqualified him from the reporting role in this case?

"Presenters, reporters and correspondents are the public face and voice of the BBC", notes the corporation's editorial guidelines, "they can have a significant impact on the perceptions of our impartiality". That was the problem here. Perceptions.

It wasn't that O'Gorman's investigations were necessarily untrue, but it was all too easy to dismiss him as an impartial weigher of contradictory evidence.

The second doubt occurred when I actually read Crimen Sollicitationis, the 1962 Vatican document which was summarised by one of Panorama's interviewees as "an explicit written policy to cover up cases of child sexual abuse by the clergy". It took me close to an hour to get through it and, at a rough guess, would take another 20 years to fully comprehend. An abstruse, legalistic document of headache-inducing opacity it lays out the procedures to be followed in the case of a specific ecclesiastical crime- solicitation or using the confessional to tempt a penitent towards impure speech or deeds.

It is much preoccupied with secrecy. But much of this furtiveness seems to derive from the fact that the evidence and accusation occur under seal of the confessional, which must somehow be preserved through the subsequent investigation. Happy as I would have been to find hard evidence of a sinister cover-up by the Vatican, it simply won't bear the crude description which, for the sake of journalistic brevity, Panorama gave it.

Crimen Sollicitationis is hardly a document any institution should want to stand by in 2006 - let alone one that sets itself up as moral exemplar. It leaves behind it the distinct impression that the all-important thing is to avoid damage to the church, rather than damage to vulnerable parishioners. And one section does appear to sanction threatening accusers with excommunication to impress upon them the importance of "observing the secret". It would be nice to see Archbishop Nichols explicate that line as part of his rebuttal. But I fear that it will be all too easy for the Church hierarchy to disappear into the arcane small print of canon law and that elements of Paranoma's programme made it easier still.

Wicked ways of theatre

I attended the first night of Wicked last week - a profoundly underwhelming Broadway import which offers a revisionist prequel to the Wizard of Oz story. For reasons that weren't obvious to me this has been a huge hit in the US and as a result this audience was in a state of hysteria.

But I noticed something odd. They cheered the set, they whooped for the principals' first entries and they screeched at the jokes. But when the curtain went down it stayed down and the applause dried up with an embarrassing rapidity. It was like being at a church service where everyone obediently performs the rituals expected of them but nobody actually believes in God - and they're desperate to get off down the pub as soon as the whole thing is over.

* Reading the headline in yesterday's paper: "One in 10 men have paid for sex", I'm afraid my first thought was that the statistic was hopelessly inaccurate.

Surely 10 out of 10 men pay for sex ... it's just that we don't all use money. Some pay in advance and others pay afterwards - and sometimes it's a lot more expensive than anyone had anticipated.

Before I'm charged with rampant misogyny I would like to make it clear that I wish to imply absolutely nothing about the virtue or honesty of the other party to the transaction - nor that women are merely the supplier to man's consumer. Only to note that we haven't entirely shaken off the evolutionary imperatives in this matter.

The charge of cynicism may be a bit harder to shake, except that we're surely far enough out of the trees by now for fair and equal barter to have become a reality. But - quite properly - there is no such thing as free sex. It's not just johns that weigh the cost.

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