Religion, like politics, is a subject to be avoided in polite conversation. Newspapers, however can't operate by the rules of Emily Post. Within the bounds of good taste, they strive to present the world as it is, warts and all.
When The Brainerd Dispatch ran a cartoon that criticized the Roman Catholic Church on Thursday the reaction was as fierce as it was predictable. Letters and phone calls quickly confirmed newsroom predictions that the cartoon would raise the ire of many subscribers. Critics of the newspaper called the cartoon "anti-Catholic" and argued The Dispatch exercised poor judgment in publishing it.
In a nutshell, Thursday's cartoon showed a woman character who maintained that while the church was uncompromising and unforgiving when it came to women's sexual conduct it didn't take a similar stance when it came to pedophiles.
The notion for the cartoon didn't spring out of thin air. Recent stories in newspapers and on television have outlined charges against a now-defrocked U.S. priest accused of molesting more than 130 children over 30 years, while the Boston archdiocese shuttled him from parish to parish. Cardinal Bernard F. Law, archbishop of Boston, has acknowledged there were some individuals "that needed to be removed that had not been." Accusations of sexual misconduct have been made recently against 14 New Hampshire priests for their behavior over a quarter-century.
The sexual abuse of children is not a Catholic problem. It's a problem our entire society must face. For many years, the authority figures of our society, Catholic and non-Catholic, turned their eyes from the ugly realities of child abuse. Unfortunately, hiding our heads in the sand didn't make the problem go away.
Prosecution of sex crimes against children has increased in recent years. Criminals are turned over to the court system and sometimes given the chance to receive treatment for their sickness.
Catholic church leaders have admitted to mistakes regarding the handling of such criminals. It's not a perfect institution. No organization made up of humans is.
Churches and religion are institutions that members hold very close to their heart. They console us in times of trial. They celebrate with us when our children are born and later married. They provide something to hang on to when human existence seems bleak.
The question for this newspaper is can the Catholic church or specific policies of that church be criticized without the critics being labeled as anti-Catholic? Can't reasonable people disagree about how any church's policies affect the public?
As a newspaper, we knew we'd offend some people by raising the issue of pedophiles who, in this case, happen to be Catholic priests. Some employees of The Brainerd Dispatch objected to the cartoon. Still, should a topic be off limits because it's controversial? I wouldn't like to live in a community where certain questions aren't asked or certain institutions aren't challenged.
I selected Thursday's cartoon and made the decision to run it.
The charge that The Dispatch's editorial decision was the result of anti-Catholic bias was particularly disturbing to me.
Although I worship at another church now, I was raised Catholic and educated by the good sisters who taught at my Catholic school. The priests and sisters at my grade school were conscientious men and women who devoted their lives to God.
The Catholic church I grew up in was no a stranger to controversy and dissent. After the sweeping changes of Vatican Council II issues that dealt with the church's role in society were debated fervently. The church was strong enough then to handle self-examination as well as the criticism of outsiders. My hunch is that it still is.
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