14May Media reporting of abuse affects outcomes

Unintended Consequences

Pádraig McCarthy


People in positions of responsibility in business and banking and construction and politics, whose decisions and actions contributed directly to the current economic difficulties in Ireland and elsewhere, had no intention of bringing about those difficulties, or of destroying their own businesses. They were carrying out their work and making money. Some may have had misgivings at times, or even moral qualms, but they went ahead; now we have the consequences. Unintended consequences may result from someone driving home following several alcoholic drinks. And from bishops and others who were concerned for the reputation of the church and of their priests. And from investigative journalists who go for a good story. All can be blinded by too narrow a focus on their own speciality, and in the process may wreak havoc. If we fail to consider the consequences of our actions, we are on dangerous ground.

I am seriously concerned at what may be unintended damaging consequences of the ways media have reported on child sexual abuse in Ireland. Those same media have been remarkably effective in bringing to light terrible violations of vulnerable people, both in the abuse and in the way those in authority failed when confronted with that abuse. Without taking from that, we need to examine other consequences. RTÉ, the National Service broadcaster, is currently undergoing investigation in relation to Prime Time Investigates and Frontline programmes.

I intend to focus on print media, the Irish Times. This is not to suggest that this newspaper is particularly wayward. The exercise could be repeated with other parts of the public media. It is the newspaper with which I am most familiar (and for which I pay daily). I have two reasons. Firstly: In July 2003, the then editor, Geraldine Kennedy wrote on their website: “We have moved in recent years from being the newspaper of record to the newspaper of reference … Our readers want access to the raw facts themselves and then they like to accept, or reject, our analysis of what they mean … When we get it wrong, we say so.” I suspect the current editor would share those aspirations. Since the newspaper aspires to be the “newspaper of reference”, to which historians in coming years may refer for reliable accounts, it is good to examine how this stands up.

Secondly: the Irish Times has an on-line archive search facility (on subscription), which facilitates this kind of study. The on-line search facility is helpful, although it cannot provide full results on its own. Other media may have similar facilities, but I could not undertake a fully comprehensive survey. I hope others may be encouraged to do so.

On the subject of child sexual abuse, we have had in Ireland the Ferns Diocese Report (Oct. 2005), the Ryan Report on abuse of children in institutions (May 2009), the Murphy Report on Dublin Diocese (Nov 2009), and the Murphy Report on Cloyne Diocese (July 2011). These reported shocking abuse, and they received wall-to-wall coverage in print and broadcast media. Remember the successive waves of outrage as these reports were published. Could anything be worse?

But imagine the outrage at an institution where 42% of the female residents reported some form of sexual abuse (contact & non-contact) in their lifetime, and where 28% of the male residents made a similar report. This is not imagination. This is the situation in the institution we know as this state, the Republic of Ireland, as described in the SAVI (Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland) Report of April 2002, page xxxiii, in the Executive Summary. This report was carried out on behalf of Dublin Rape Crisis Centre by the Health Services Research Centre, Department of Psychology, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. The Report is available on-line. The church reports are important; the findings of the comprehensive SAVI Report provide the indispensable context. But do you remember any outrage in April 2002 when this report became public? Among your friends who know of Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne, how many are in any way familiar with SAVI?

A contributory reason for the absence of outrage after SAVI must be the level of reporting in the media. In March 2012, I checked the archive of the Irish Times for “SAVI Report”. There was a news item (on the website) on 19 April 2002, but it does not mention the name of the report. The following day, a 608-word item (page 3) tells of a conference in Dublin to launch the report, but again does not mention the name of the report. The first reference to SAVI by name which appears in a search for “SAVI Report” is on 24 June, under the heading “Drink is the real rape problem”. The report is now ten years old. The search for “SAVI Report” on the Irish Times archive shows 41 articles referring to it in those ten years. Ten of those articles were by columnist Vincent Browne; five were letters to the editor.

SAVI has been totally eclipsed by Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne. The Murphy Report into the handling of abuse cases in the diocese of Dublin was published on 26 November 2009. On the following day there were 35 items dealing with the report (Ferns, 2005, had 32). Where SAVI had 41 articles in ten years, the Dublin Murphy Report had 107 in the first week. To make quite sure, I paged through the issues for each day on-line to spot the items, because many of the articles dealing with the report did not surface in the search results, probably because they did not contain the words “Murphy Report”. Comparison by word-count would be better, but is beyond my capacity.

Why this extraordinary difference in reporting? Clearly a newspaper wants to publish stories which interest readers; but it is vital that the most important stories come to attention. Perhaps there is a perception that the SAVI Report, a survey dealing with the overall facts of abuse in Ireland, lacks punch and a clear target. In the report on 20 April 2002, there is one photograph of Dr Gill Mezey of London. On the other hand, the Murphy Report and the other church-related reports have a very clear target, a prominent institution which kept records. There were names and photographs aplenty to put with it. These are some of the dynamics of newspaper publishing, and there may be other factors of which I am unaware. Michael Breen (see end) quotes R E Cheit (2003): “… the cases (of child sexual abuse) that receive significant coverage are likely to follow a common pattern in crime reporting; one that exalts the unusual … These stories tended to involve ‘the bizarre and the unusual’, the dramatic, and/or the famous”. Perhaps something here explains the extraordinary imbalance in reportage of clerical abuse.

Search results on the other reports to date show similar levels. I have not weeded out items which do not in fact refer to those reports, but the number of results in search from the Report dates until the present give some indication: Ferns 216 results; Ryan 546, Dublin 488, and Cloyne 209. Repeat searches sometimes show slightly different results. With Ryan and Dublin, there is probably a larger proportion of spurious results due to the names Murphy and Ryan. Nonetheless, in this tsunami, SAVI’s 41 are wiped out.

Michael Breen (page 6) quotes B C Cohen (1963): “(The press) may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about”. Breen goes on to quote M McCombs and D Shaw (1993): “Agenda setting is considerably more than the classical assertion that the news tells us what to think about. The news also tells us how to think about it.”

Finally: what kinds of words and labels are used, and how do they reflect reality? According to an archive search from 1859, the first time the word “paedophile” Is used in the Irish Times is in an article by Maeve Binchy on 12 August 1975. Then follows the deluge: 1975 to 1995 – 477 hits; 1996 to 29 March 2012 – 2,030 hits. The earliest reference I can find to sexual abuse of children is on 25 February 1971. The website archive search function may not be fully effective.

See what SAVI (page xxxv) tells. 24% of abusers of girls were family members; 14% of abusers of boys were family members. (The 2010 Report of the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland says that of those who were subjected to a single incident of child sexual violence, 49% were by a family member.) In one out of every four cases the perpetrator was another child or adolescent (17 or younger). Page 88 has a table showing the profile of abusers identified as being Authority Figures for those reporting child sexual abuse. As a proportion of all abusers, just 1.9% of abusers of boys are described as “Religious minister”, and 3.9% as “Teacher (Religious)”. Abusers of girls are 1.4% “Religious minister” and 0% “Teacher (Religious)”. No denomination is specified.

Now compare those percentages with these search results of occurrences on the Irish Times archive, 1996–2012, first taking a general term, and then adding “priest” or “clerical”:

“Paedophile”:       2,030;    “Paedophile priest”:                       416  (20.49%)
   Compare:            “Paedophile teacher”: 4; “Paedophile doctor”: 1;
“Paedophile lawyer”: 0; “Paedophile journalist”: 0.
“Sex abuse”:                         3,114;                   “Clerical sex abuse”:                       554  (17.79%)
“Child sex abuse”:               1,570;    “Clerical child sex abuse”:             657  (41.85%)

Without actually having it stated, use of language in this manner could convey the idea that clerics /priests are responsible for anything from 17% to 41% of child sexual abuse. Neglect of SAVI information, disproportionate reporting of church reports, and implicit demonising of Catholic clerics, may all combine to produce unintended consequences. If this pattern is repeated across other print and electronic media, it may explain the results of the Iona Institute poll in November 2011, that a clear majority of the public overestimate the number of Catholic clergy who are guilty of child abuse.

On 6 November 2002, Helen Goode, one of the team who produced the SAVI report, asked in the Irish Times: “How will society more generally address the 97 per cent of child sexual abuse, still largely hidden, and not perpetrated by clergy?” Failure to address this is clearly the most damaging consequence of failure of the SAVI Report to receive the attention it warrants. If SAVI had received proportionate attention, greater public outrage is likely. The media may object that this is not their job; that the government should have acted anyway. This is true. But public outrage can be powerfully motivating for government. If overwhelming media attention is on a real but small fraction, the tragedy of the far larger number of people who have suffered such vile invasion of their persons is in serious danger of being neglected and unaddressed.

One would hope that people versed in law are sufficiently expert not to be influenced by unbalanced media presentation. It could, however, be a contributory factor in some unbalanced statements from the Murphy Commission in the Dublin Report, about which I wrote in the Furrow, February 2010. It could have affected the Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, a solicitor, in his statement the day following the RTÉ Prime Time Investigates programme Mission to Prey in May 2011 which included false allegations about Fr Kevin Reynolds; in his statement (still on the website of the Department of Justice), the Minister unguardedly used the word “revelations” instead of “allegations”. Unbalanced media reporting may facilitate “the bizarre and the unusual” (see Cheit quotation above): we have “Dutch Catholic-run institutions castrated boys for homosexual feelings” heading in the Irish Times (21 March 2012). The 505-word report then softens to “may have been castrated”. A disturbing story; but, in targeting “Catholic”, it ignores the context of a eugenic mindset in many countries at the time: about 400 “therapeutic castrations” in the Netherlands 1938-1968; predominantly non-Catholic Sweden and Finland rank high in sterilisations of those considered deviant or feeble-minded, as do California and North Carolina.

I write of “unintended consequences”: I attribute no ill-will to those working in the media. The “big story” can carry us all along. Because I am a Catholic priest, some may say I’m protecting the Catholic Church. This is true; the best way to do this is to acknowledge honestly the abuses and injustices for which some Catholics, lay and ordained, are responsible, and to work for justice for all, regardless of faith affiliation.

Much more could be said. I have no professional expertise in this kind of study. The numbers I give are indicative, not definitive. If anyone can correct or add to or debunk my method or results, I will be glad to hear; especially, perhaps, someone from the Irish Times! Meanwhile, SAVI belatedly needs to receive urgent attention and acted upon. We now have the experience of child protection in Church to provide lessons. We cannot guarantee that no child will be abused, but failure again to address the 97% must not be an option.


I have drawn on work by Michael Breen (then of Dept of Media and Communication Studies, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick) in his study entitled Through the Looking Glass: How the Mass Media Represent, Reflect and Refract Sexual Crime in Ireland. This was published in Irish Communications Review, Vol.10, 2007, pages 5-22. It examines the Irish Times in detail, and makes some comparisons with RTÉ.
See http://www.dit.ie/icr/media/diticr/documents/ICR%2010_2007-2%20Breen.pdf.

I have also drawn on work by a blogger who uses the pseudonym “The Thirsty Gargoyle”. (I do not know his/her identity.) Two blogs in particular stimulated my attention: Ireland through a glass darkly of 2 Aug. 2011, and A dangerously one eyed view of 26 Nov. 2011. This commentator examines reporting in the Irish Times.
See http://thethirstygargoyle.blogspot.com/search?q=ireland+through+a+glass+darkly and http://thethirstygargoyle.blogspot.com/search?q=A+Dangerously+one-eyed+view.

The SAVI Report (2002) can be downloaded from http://www.drcc.ie/about/savi.pdf or http://epubs.rcsi.ie/psycholrep/10/.

SAVI Revisited (2005) can be downloaded from http://www.drcc.ie/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/SAVI_Revisited.pdf.

[I was unable to carry out a similar examination of the Irish Independent, because their on-line archive is not yet complete. The year of the Ferns report (2005) and the year of the Ryan and Dublin reports (2009) are not yet on-line.]

5 Responses

  1. Paddy Banville


    Thank you. You’ve done a great service to the full truth and to the other 90% of victims (percentage is rounded off against the Church)

    Ive just finished a similar piece myself which might make its way here in time.

    Again, thank you. You’ve put hours, perhaps days of work into this contribution.

  2. Fr Sean Coyle

    Thank you for this valuable article.

  3. Annette Murphy

    There’s an article here on another priestly scandal (not what you might expect), which might be of interest to the readers.


  4. Rory Connor

    The link posted by Annette refers to an American priest who was accused of sex abuse, immediately removed from ministry and then not restored by his Bishop even after his accuser had withdrawn the allegation. The case of Nora Wall in Ireland is somewhat similar. Her former colleagues in the Sisters of Mercy apologised to her accusers when Nora Wall (and Pablo McCabe) were convicted of rape in June 1999 (immediately after RTE’s broadcast of the “States of Fear” series). The case against them very quickly fell apart when the accusers gave an interview to the Daily Star that revealed their names for the first time – and ONE of their previous victims recognised the name of the woman who had falsely accused himself!
    The Sisters of Mercy never apologised to Nora Wall. Nor did they withdraw their statement that their “hearts go out” to the false accusers!!
    As for the Media Reporting which is the subject of Padraig McCarthy’s article the following is an extract from the Wikipedia article on Nora Wall:
    Carol Coulter, Legal Affairs correspondent for the Irish Times wrote on 1 December 2005 that “[The case] took place at a time of heightened sensitivity to the problem of the sexual abuse of children in institutions, especially those run by religious orders. The RTÉ series States of Fear had ended a month earlier, generating widespread debate and indignation.” [42] An Irish Times editorial on 17 December 2005 entitled “Nora Wall” stated that: “The charges were laid at a time when allegations of the abuse of children in institutions had entered the public domain. The case was heard within a month of the broadcast by RTE of the States of Fear programmes. The jury could not but have been affected, it seems, by the horrific abuse exposed in that series and by the complaints of the child victims that no-one listened to them.”.[43]
    Wall told teacher and religious affairs journalist Breda O’Brien that she has no doubt that the atmosphere generated by States of Fear was a central factor in the jury’s willingness to believe the allegations.[1]

  5. Rory Connor

    Padraig McCarthy states that: I write of “unintended consequences”: I attribute no ill-will to those working in the media. The “big story” can carry us all along.
    I am not so tolerant myself. Nora Wall and Pablo McCabe were CONVICTED of raping a child immediately after RTE’s broadcast of the “States of Fear” series in April/May 1999. However they were originally ACCUSED in 1996 shortly after RTE’s broadcast of “Dear Daughter” in February of that year.
    Every single teacher, doctor, nurse, social worker etc in this country now has to take specific precautions against being falsely accused of child abuse. This includes the requirement that they never be alone with a child. Thus a child who is being abused at home and wishes to talk privately to his teacher cannot do so as there must be another adult present to protect the teacher against an allegation! The media are largely responsible for creating this atmosphere of hysteria that does nothing to protect children. Quite the reverse in fact.