(This article first appeared in the June 2018 issue of the Anglican Journal.)
It’s a question that never gets old. Why do media, including the Anglican Journal, write about bad news?
Each time the Journal publishes a story about alleged abuses and conflicts within the church, I find that the phone calls and (sometimes) scathing correspondence are never far behind. I often get asked these questions: “Why does the Journal air the church’s dirty laundry in public? Why are you sowing discord? Why can’t you just publish good news?”
Most of us who are lucky enough to live in a democracy often take freedom of the press for granted. But those who suffer under authoritarianism know how crucial it is to have a media that acts as a watchdog, rather than a lapdog. When it does its job, a free and independent press holds the powerful to account, serves as a check and balance, gives voice to the voiceless, sheds light and promotes healthy discussions on issues that affect the common good, moves people to action and helps bring about positive change.
The same principles ought to apply to churches, which are powerful institutions, given the moral authority they command and often ascribe for themselves.
One would think—following the child sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church worldwide and the sad legacy in Canada of the Indian residential school system that has implicated various denominations, including the Anglican church—that we would have learned that obfuscations, wilful blindness and cover-ups ultimately do more harm than good.
Many Catholics were shocked not just by the fact that abuses were committed for decades, but that these were kept from police authorities and from parishioners.
The absence of compassion for the victims, a disregard for their rights and the deliberate deception exercised by church authorities have often been cited as major reasons why some faithful Catholics left the church. They’re also among the reasons why others stay away from religion altogether.
Fr. Thomas Reese, an American Jesuit, makes a strong case that instead of silence and cover-up, “a better strategy would be to recognize that scandals represent bad news and good news.” The bad news, he says, “is that something happened.” The good news “is that the perpetrator got caught.”
Scandals, Reese further argues, “should be seen as an opportunity for the church to show that it can act responsibly in the face of scandal, because scandals are an inevitable part of life.”*
One can argue that even the Bible is replete with “bad news”: Jesus is crucified; Cain kills Abel; Yael drives a tent peg through a general’s head; Schehem rapes Dinah. These are but a few of the violent accounts.
Since churches are meant to be sanctuaries, they need to be safe, especially for children. Victims of wrongdoing, as well as their families, need to know the church cares about them and their plight more than its own reputation and survival.
Writing about abuses keeps parishioners and the public informed about what’s going on, which can help prevent other offences and irregularities from taking place. Cover-ups allow abuses to happen again and again; writing about them can help embolden others to share their own experiences and receive justice.
Churches depend on their members for financial and material support—stakeholders shouldn’t be the last to know of important developments that affect them. Concealing undermines faith and trust in the institution. Stewardship experts who push for financial transparency often say that folks will assume ownership of their organization’s mission and be more generous with their resources if it is honest and transparent.** On the other hand, they become resentful when something is kept from them or when they are lied to. The impact of hiding the truth can be especially profound in this digital age, when nothing is off-limits anymore, where institutions are subjected to a level of scrutiny and accountability they have never known before and where communication travels fast and far.
Honesty, not bearing “false witness,” is also commanded by God. The Bible has a lot to say about speaking the truth, including this passage that resonates with me: “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).
Jesus himself said, when questioned by a high priest about his disciples and his teaching, “I spoke openly to the world…I said nothing in secret” (John 19:19).
Offering you a staple diet of bad news is, of course, not something we would advocate. This would not represent reality, either.
* Scandals in the Catholic Church: bad news, good news—Religion News Service
** Why the Church Needs Financial Transparency—Chris Brown, Ministry Today Magazine