The problem with religious sex abuse reporting

In the rush to report salacious abuse stories, the media often fail to report positive developments in the religious world’s fight to address child sexual abuse.

Priest [illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
Priest [illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The mainstream media extensively cover clergy sexual abuse. Giving voice to victims and exposing sexual abuse cover-ups in the religious world is more than newsworthy. The appalling hypocrisy, breach of trust by “men of the cloth,” and shocking nature of clergy abuse generates high ratings and deserving outrage.
But in the rush to report salacious abuse stories, the media often fail to report positive developments in the religious world’s fight to address child sexual abuse.
This one-sided coverage inadvertently maligns the religious world by perpetuating myths that nothing is being done to combat sexual abuse, and that abuse is far more prevalent in the religious world than the general population.
Recently, for example, the mainstream media ignored a hassidic community’s historic sexual abuse awareness event, organized by the Brooklyn-based sexual abuse prevention organization JCW. Hundreds attended, including rabbis, teachers, professionals, parents, and even Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson. At the event, hassidic rabbi, YY Jacobson encouraged victims to speak up about abuse. One sexual abuse survivor told the crowd that shame belongs to perpetrators, not victims. The audience stood in applause.
Predictably, the event got no mainstream media coverage. Orthodox Jewish news blogs were the only ones to report the story. Why? Bad news would have made the front page. Good news is ignored. It’s not as if the media aren’t covering the issue. The heartrending story of a young girl sexually brutalized by self-proclaimed religious therapist Nechemya Weberman made headlines for weeks.
The zeal to report a negative, one-sided narrative can also lead to bad reporting. Last year, NBC misleadingly edited a rabbi to make it appear that he was claiming abuse should only be handled by rabbis, when in fact the rabbi advocated working with the authorities.
The one-sided media focus on horrific abuse stories affects other religious communities, too. The Pew Research Center found that during a six-week period, an astonishing 18.1 percent of religion blog posts on The Washington Post, USA Today, The Chicago Tribune and The Houston Chronicle were devoted to clergy abuse scandals.
An audit report published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops revealed that out of 40,000 active priests “there were only ten contemporaneous abuse allegations made against priests even deemed ‘credible’ in all of 2013.” The USCCB maintains that independent experts conducted this study. Even one case of abuse is one too many, but this marked decline in abuse cases sounds newsworthy to explore, right? Wrong. The media were deafeningly silent on this report. The hyper focus on clergy abuse scandals overshadows positive developments.
Sexual abuse of course is not unique to any community.
Data shows that abuse rates in religious communities are the same as the general population. Abuse happens in the halls of secular institutions like Penn State, as in the Jerry Sandusky case, and in religious parishes and institutions around the world.
Studies show that approximately “20% of adult females and 5-10% of adult males recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident.”
Yet, the brunt of coverage is focused on religious communities, not the general public.
These figures serve as a wake-up call to openly and candidly address this society-wide epidemic. When insular religious communities that have historically covered up abuse begin to publicly educate their members on reporting suspected abuse, ferreting out abusers, and removing the shame, fear, and stigma of it, you have progress. That is newsworthy.
It’s in the public interest for the media to persistently expose religious authority figures using their positions of power to exploit innocent children. But by largely ignoring the positive stories of religious communities publicly combating the scourge of sexual abuse, the media unwittingly portray a one-sided perspective that fails to recognize positive in-roads in the religious world.
Eliyahu Federman has written on religion, culture, and law at Reuters, USA Today, Fox News, Huffington Post and elsewhere.