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Church in Crisis

Web site sheds light on media fascination with abuse crisis


At 6 a.m. with the sun still rising, Bill Mitchell, a chipped yellow Detroit Free Press coffee mug in right hand, is already at his home computer scanning the Internet for the latest clergy abuse stories to appear in morning papers across the nation.

It’s only been eight hours since he last searched, shortly before going to bed. Finding them, he dutifully copies their headlines, adds the name of publication, the first few sentences, and links each to a Web site he runs called the “Clergy Abuse Tracker.” It is hosted by the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla., where Mitchell is online editor/marketing director.

Mitchell, a former Detroit Free Press, Time magazine and San Jose Mercury News editor, compiles and posts 20 or more stories daily, mostly, but not all, from U.S. publications. They all end up on his “tracker” Web site at www.poynter.org/clergyabuse/ca.htm. The site also lists newspapers that have assembled clergy abuse archives and it encourages online discussions of the issues raised by the unprecedented media fascination with the story.

Mitchell said that searching the major dailies, a task he has done since mid-March, takes about 45 minutes in the morning and 45 more at night. He views his efforts as part media experiment, part service to journalists and part service to the church. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and recently an NCR board member, Mitchell is quick to note there is a down side to his daily routine.

“In some ways it’s a depressing experience to begin every day looking at this kind of coverage,” he said in a telephone interview. “But on the other hand, it serves everyone involved to shed as much light on what’s happening as possible.”

“We’re not definitive,” he added, explaining that his Web site initially focused on the coverage appearing in the major dailies. However, as word among journalists and others spread, reporters from smaller publications, he said, began to contact him suggesting he post their stories as well. Mitchell willingly obliges.

The clergy abuse tracker is actually a “Web log,” a relatively new form of Internet publishing that provides regularly updated information and links to other sites.

Print publications, he points out, necessarily filter information as editors decide what gets into the paper. Mitchell’s tracker, on the other hand, gathers information to let readers decide what to read. Mitchell sees newspapers of the future increasingly integrating print with electronic formats.

“The days of eat-your-spinach journalism are over,” said Mitchell. “Editors will continue to play a valuable gatekeeper role in many respects, but more and more readers will figure out ways of gathering the news and information they need on their own terms.”

Close to 1,000 users approach the clergy abuse site daily; 700 have signed up for daily e-mail updates. Most of these users appear to be journalists, but some are victim abuse advocates and the attorneys who represent abuse victims.

In recent weeks, Mitchell has received help in his once-lonely task. Several journalists now help him update the site. They do this through an Internet tool called a “blogger” that allows a number of people from various locations to manipulate Web sites.

Kathy Shaw, a veteran journalist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, has recently begun to assist Mitchell. She heard about the clergy abuse tracker through another journalist. “First I started reading it, then I contacted Bill Mitchell to have the Telegram and Gazette stories posted, and the next thing I knew he invited me to be a volunteer poster.”

“It is a great help to me professionally because I can get a good grip on what is happening throughout the country on this issue. I begin to see patterns developing,” Shaw said. “I have tried looking in the smaller newspapers for abuse stories. It gives a different dimension to the issue because we can clearly see the issue of clergy abuse is affecting the entire Catholic church from the top on down to the tiniest parishes in the smallest towns.”

And what has Mitchell learned through the experience? He said media coverage has been “aggressive” and “impressive.” He does not believe, as several prominent bishops have charged, that the media is out “to get the church.”

“In the long run,” said Mitchell, “I think it will turn out that the media has done the church a great service on this issue by shedding light on the secret problems that have been eroding the church’s credibility for so long.”

Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher. His e-mail address is tfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2002