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Catholic journalism expert reflects on the moral issues around privacy and data 

Dr. William Thorn, associate professor emeritus of Journalism and Media Studies/Institute for Catholic Media at Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communication. Credit: William Thorn/CNA.

Denver Newsroom, Jul 24, 2021 / 06:01 am (CNA).

CNA spoke recently with Dr. William J. Thorn regarding the recent investigation which led to the resignation of Msgr. Jeffrey Burrill as general secretary of the US bishops’ conference.

Thorn is associate professor emeritus of Journalism and Media Studies/Institute for Catholic Media at Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communication. He holds a Ph.D. in mass communication from the University of Minnesota, an M.A. from the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and a B.A. from Loras College.

Find below the full text of CNA's discourse with Thorn:

At the heels of the recent controversial use of data mining to expose a Church personality, can you walk us through the outlines of investigative journalism and what constitutes the ethical limits of investigative journalism? 

The report on Msgr. Burrill underscores the challenges social media and emerging technologies have created, because it blurs the boundaries of private and public information. Grindr describes itself as "the World’s Largest Social networking app for gay, bi, trans and queer people." As a location-based social networking and online dating site Grindr was one of the first geosocial apps for gay men when it launched in March 2009. As a public social network, it has limited privacy controls. These semi-public social networks compromise the former boundaries of ethical investigation. This boundary is perhaps best illustrated by the stance of a friend who was a city hall reporter. Whenever he got a phone call or verbal comment about some alleged malfeasance, he demanded a public document like a travel expense form or letter which contained the factual basis for an investigation. In other words, neither personal complaints nor hearsay could be trusted, but printed information could be. Traditionally, an ethical investigation builds on facts that are part of the public record or can be verified by public documents or interviews with reliable witnesses. Another ethical principle is to keep the focus on actions that can be proven by factual evidence or witnesses rather than on insinuations about the subject based on circumstantial evidence. Once the verifiable facts are known, the investigative reporter moves to confront the subject and provides an opportunity to deny, admit wrongdoing or explanation. Libel and slander laws provide boundaries and guides to investigative journalism about individuals whose reputation and good name may be at stake. Simply drawing conclusions from an online source seriously challenges verifiability and risks libeling an innocent individual.

Complications are now arising in the field of data mining and journalism. In your opinion, how does the aggregation of questionably acquired data work for or against the previously established moral limits of investigative journalism?

New data mining technology poses a plethora of privacy issues for investigative journalism, regarding both prominent individuals and ordinary citizens, for example, in areas like health and personal habits, which require some verifiable contextual evidence to reach a fact-based conclusion. But legal boundaries differ from moral constrains which require  care for the impact of conclusions based on less than reliable abstract which can destroy or seriously damage an individual's reputation. One of the most egregious moral and ethical compromises of investigative journalism occurred at the early 20th century Denver Post, whose reporters wrote detailed biographies of wealthy silver magnates, including their scandalous, even illegal behaviors. The editors then used these stories to blackmail their subjects. The reports were accurate, their purpose illegal.



Does a source paying for information change the calculation about whether or not a journalist should use that source? 

A source paying for information automatically raises questions about the motivations of both payee and recipient as well as the reliability of information.



Many are celebrating the resignation of Msgr. Burrill and the efforts that led to his resignation. From a Catholic ethics perspective, does this apparently successful end validate the means? 

The end never justifies the means, even if they are digital and seem credible because of technology.  The celebration raises questions about ignoble motives, e.g., revenge or personal animus connected to the investigation.

Another argument with competing voices centers on whether corruption needs to be brought to the light to be healed. Please explain, from the perspective of Catholic ethics, when and where and to what degree it would be appropriate to publish information alleging or proving corruption that is gravely sinful but not criminal. 

Healing depends, in part on the harm involved. In Msgr. Burrill's case there is only circumstantial evidence of behavior based on GPS location with no eye witness or other factual evidence such as a credit card receipt. Data mining based on Grindr's location routine seems a bit specious for "bringing to light corruption," an adage based on rooting out the corruption of politicians and public officials.  Within a Church context like the USCCB, the question turns on the precise corruption and how it can be healed by exposure. Grindr location data insinuate but do not demonstrate the alleged corruption, or perhaps a level of ignorance in the user about the actual privacy of the Grindr app. Healing of sinful behavior does not require public knowledge, as the Sacrament of Reconciliation demonstrates. On the other hand, abuse of public trust or misuse of church funds may help heal the community if exposed, e.g. the sex abuse scandal or embezzlement of Church funds.



Please elaborate on what distinguishes truth-telling from detraction, acknowledging that many Catholics are longing for reform that they don’t see coming from most of the Bishops. 

Facts that demonstrate actual malfeasance distinguish truth telling from detraction, libel, and slander. Reform must be based on demonstrable corruption so it cannot be simply dismissed as petty jealousy or a fervid imagination. Clear court cases and guilty verdicts launched serious reforms in sexual abuse cases.

The fast and growing incorporation of technology in investigative journalism seems to be inevitable and frequently positive. What lines do you think were crossed, if any, in the "investigation" that forced the resignation of Msgr. Burrill? 

Two lines: what hard, non-digital evidence was there of wrongdoing? What corroborating documentary or eyewitness evidence warranted the publication? Was Msgr. Burrill properly and timely informed of the digital evidence and given a chance to defend himself? Or was he blackmailed into resigning "for the good of USCCB?"



Is a church official such as Msgr. Burrill a private citizen or a public official? And what might be the legal ramifications?   

He is a private citizen in U.S. legal terms. His role in the USCCB makes him a public church official, but whether that makes him a public figure under U.S. libel law as defined in 1966 by the Supreme Court in N.Y. Times v. Sullivan seems to be an open legal question. Under the Sullivan decision, elected public officials must expect harsh and even vitriolic criticism, and are required to demonstrate "actual malice" i.e. knowing falsehood or careless disregard for the truth in order to win a libel case. As neither an elected politician nor a public figure, Msgr. Burrill would be protected by libel laws as an ordinary citizen.

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Major donations mean 'tremendous impact' for Catholic school students in western Pennsylvania

Stephen Kiers/Shutterstock

Greensburg, Pa., Jul 23, 2021 / 16:01 pm (CNA).

An anonymous donor and new partners will help continue millions of dollars in funding for a tuition aid program for the Diocese of Greensburg’s Catholic schools. The program is set to support hundreds of students in southwestern Pennsylvania over the next five years.

 

“These are true evangelization efforts. These monies help to ensure that more students will be knowledgeable in the faith,” Dr. Maureen Marsteller, Superintendent of Catholic Schools in the diocese, said July 21.

 

In 2020, the St. Pope John Paul II Tuition Opportunity Partnership gave nearly $2.5 million in tuition assistance to support more than 800 students. These resources offset tuition for 250 students new to the Catholic school system. This boosted Catholic school enrollment by more than 13%.

 

“These are major opportunities for our Catholic schools, each made possible by community-minded individuals who understand the impact that Catholic education can have in a person's life,” Bishop Larry Kulick of Greensburg said. “We are grateful for their commitment to our schools and families through these partnerships.”

 

The scholarship partnership was first announced in July 2020. It was launched with $2.5 million from an anonymous donor the diocese said is “committed to fortifying Catholic education in western Pennsylvania.”

 

To qualify for assistance for the scholarship program, students must show commitment to and enthusiasm for learning. The student or family must be registered members of a faith community, and the student must demonstrate service to that community. A student’s parent or guardian must also show some financial commitment to the cost of education.

 

Beneficiaries do not need to be Catholic. The amount of monetary aid for each student depends on factors such as financial need, other financial aid options, and the number of siblings who attend Catholic schools, according to the Valley News Dispatch.

 

The five-year extension to the program has the support of the previous anonymous donor as well as new named donors including Jay W. Cleveland, Jr., president and CEO of Cleveland Brothers. The Pennsylvania Educational Income Tax Credit program, with commitments from over 100 businesses and individuals, have helped provide tuition assistance forecasted at $20 million over the next five years.

 

“It is truly a great day for us here in the Diocese of Greensburg with this historic and monumental announcement,” Bishop Kulick said at a press conference at Aquinas Academy in Greensburg. The program is a “wonderful opportunity” to ensure that every student who wants a Catholic education will receive it, he said.

 

He said that Aquinas Academy saw a 10% increase in enrollment, aided by the donation.

 

Cathy Collett, principal at Aquinas Academy, said that adding $2.5 million to tuition aid programs “certainly makes a tremendous impact.”

 

There are 11 Catholic elementary schools and two junior-senior high schools in the diocese’s school system, which has more than 2,300 students, according to the diocese’s website. Forecasts suggest the tuition program could help enrollment grow by 80 students, another 10% increase.

 

The diocese also welcomed capital project donations for many school campuses that totaled more than $300,000 in manpower and resources from Lindy Paving, Golden Triangle Construction and Arch Masonry at many of the school campuses. The diocese’s statement voiced gratitude for attorney John Goetz and the law firm Jones Day, Pittsburgh for pro bono legal services regarding the donations.

 

There are about 128,000 Catholics out of a total population of some 640,000 people who live in the territory of the Greensburg diocese.

Lawsuit brings sex abuse allegations against New Hampshire bishop

Bishop Peter Libasci of Manchester. Credit: Jeff Dachowski.

Rockville Centre, N.Y., Jul 23, 2021 / 14:00 pm (CNA).

Bishop Peter Libasci has been accused in a lawsuit of committing sexual abuse while a priest in New York during the 1980s. 

The Bishop of Manchester is accused in a July 14 lawsuit of abusing a male youth on numerous occasions in 1983 and 1984. Bishop Libasci has not spoken out publicly on the allegations, but the Diocese of Manchester says the matter has been reported to civil authorities. 

The anonymous alleged victim, an altar boy who would have been in his early teens, was a student at Saints Cyril and Methodius School in Deer Park, New York, which has since merged with another school. The lawsuit also names the Sisters of St. Joseph, an order which ran the school, claiming they were negligent in allowing the alleged abuse to occur. 

The Manchester diocese told the Associated Press in a statement that it was aware of the lawsuit and that the matter had been reported to civil authorities, but that Libasci’s status as bishop has not, for the moment, changed. 

The diocese did not respond to CNA’s request for further comment. 

Bishop Libasci was a priest of the Diocese of Rockville Centre at the time of the alleged abuse, having been ordained in 1978. The Rockville Centre diocese is one of several in New York that have recently filed for bankruptcy amid a flood of lawsuits. 

In a 2002 agreement, in return for the the state of New Hampshire agreeing not to prosecute the diocese as an institution or any individuals for their past handling of sexual abuse allegations involving clergy, though county attorneys still can pursue individual prosecutions, the diocese agreed to new policies on sexual abuse and to periodic audits of those policies, the AP reported.

Before his 2011 appointment to lead the Manchester diocese, Bishop Libasci was an auxiliary bishop of Rockville Centre, having been consecrated in 2007. 

Sean Dolan, spokesman for the Rockville Centre diocese, told CNA that because the allegations involve a current diocesan bishop, the diocese has informed the Holy See of the accusation, in keeping with the norms of Vos estes lux mundi, Pope Francis’ 2019 document which governs procedures regarding accusations against bishops. 

If a Vos estis investigation into Bishop Libasci is initiated, it will likely be undertaken by Sean Cardinal O’Malley of Boston, Libasci’s metropolitan archbishop, with a 90-day timetable for Cardinal O’Malley to complete any investigation. 

A spokesman for the Boston archdiocese told the NH Reporter that no Vos estis investigation has yet begun, and referred further questions to the Vatican. 

“Following its standard protocol, the Diocese of Rockville Centre also reported the matter to the Suffolk County District Attorney,” Dolan told CNA in a statement.

“The Diocese of Rockville Centre remains committed to the ongoing work of creating a safe environment in the Church.”

The Rockville Centre diocese filed for bankruptcy in October 2020. Several other New York dioceses including Rochester, Syracuse, and Buffalo have also declared bankruptcy. 

The passage of the Child Victims Act in New York in 2019 allowed for sex abuse lawsuits to be filed in past cases in which victims had not yet taken action, long after the statute of limitations had expired. The CVA originally created a one-year window for these lawsuits to be filed; the window closes next month, and hundreds of lawsuits have since been filed.

Cardinal Kasper assails Traditional Latin Mass community for divisiveness

Cardinal Walter Kasper. / CNA/Bohumil Petrik.

Denver Newsroom, Jul 23, 2021 / 13:30 pm (CNA).

German prelate Cardinal Walter Kasper argued that the Traditional Latin Mass was a source of division and scandal within parishes in an interview about Traditionis Custodes with the National Catholic Register on Thursday, July 22, 2021. 

The cardinal stated that those who prefer the Traditional Latin Mass “reject the Second Vatican Council more or less in its entirety” and characterized Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum as a failed attempt at furthering unity.

"It’s my experience that the overwhelming majority of the faithful are firmly against it (the Traditional Latin Mass). I know many people are scandalized when they come to St. Peter’s in Rome early in the morning and see that on many altars priests celebrating the 'old Mass' without any altar boy and no participation of the faithful. They turn to the empty basilica and say: 'Dominus vobiscum','“Orate fratres' etc.," he added.

While Cardinal Kasper did recognize that other threats to unity exist within the Church--notably the German synodal way--he stayed away from characterizing them with the same degree of danger as adhering to the Traditional Latin Mass. 

“As far as I know, none of the bishops wants any schismatic act and there is a slowly growing number in the bishops’ conference who are resistant,” said the Cardinal about the German synodal way. 

The full text of the interview can be found here

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