Catholic editor calls San Diego daily newspaper to task on sex-abuse case coverage

.- San Diego’s major daily newspaper has provided sloppy and imbalanced reporting of the sex-abuse cases involving the Diocese of San Diego, alleges the editor of the diocesan newspaper.

In a recent issue of The Southern Cross, editor Cyril Jones-Kellett published a lengthy commentary outlining how the Union-Tribune’s coverage of the issue over the last few years has been biased and in favor of the plaintiffs and their lawyers.

Jones-Kellett gives a chronological account of his conversations with the newspaper’s reporters and editorial staff regarding their reporting. He clears up several major gaffs that the daily has published and presented as fact.

The editor also acknowledges that the diocese has not cooperated with the newspaper or given the newspaper interviews because diocesan officials, it seems, are wary of the newspaper and “its penchant for confusing or exaggerating aspects of its stories on the Church”.

Reporters admit their frustration to Jones-Kellett about this. Still, the Catholic editor says, this does not permit reporters to favor one side over another.

For example, the Union-Tribune has repeatedly reported that the diocese is “flush with money and that it could satisfy all the claims of those who are suing it simply by selling some assets and writing big checks,” writes Jones-Kellett.

“And by repeatedly implying that the diocese is awash in superfluous real estate, the newspaper almost certainly contributed to the public relations efforts of attorneys who are involved in ongoing lawsuits against the diocese,” he continues.

The daily’s editors have written that the diocese could afford to pay claims up to $200 million by simply selling "some of its unusually diverse real estate holdings, including commercial projects, apartment buildings, condominium complexes and undeveloped land."

“The diocese does not own apartment buildings, condominium complexes and commercial properties,” Jones-Kellett clarifies, adding that the daily had simply “accepted uncritically the assertion by plaintiffs' lawyers that the diocese owns the properties of parishes and schools.”

The Union-Tribune failed to explain that churches, schools, rectories and other parish properties are owned by local parishes. The diocese simply holds the title in trust. There’s a big difference between ownership and trusteeship, says Jones-Kellett.

Furthermore, the newspaper has also run inaccurate claims about the value of the diocese’s assets, he says.

When the diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February, it declared $156 million in assets and $100 million in liabilities.

In a report published on July 31, 2006, the Union-Tribune claimed its accounting of diocesan properties “placed tax-assessed value at more than $500 million.” The newspaper did not indicate which buildings were included in the assessment.

In a later report, the daily newspaper said plaintiffs' attorneys “pegged the assessed value of the diocese's holdings at $600 million.” The Union-Tribune seemingly revised its own assessment of the diocese’s property records and published that it assessed the value of diocesan real estate at about $400 million.

However, the Union-Tribune told Jones-Kellett that the original reporting of $500 million was a typo and that it would not print a correction because the error was made months earlier.

Jones-Kellett suspects that the $400-million figure was derived by including parish properties, such as schools and parish centers, which are not owned by the diocese.

“By continuing to report that the diocese is worth $400 million,” writes Jones-Kellett, “the Union Tribune is publicly siding with plaintiffs’ attorneys on the issue of parish and school properties.”

Fair reporting would have shown that the diocese, under the leadership of Bishop Robert Brom, has taken sexual abuse seriously, writes the Catholic editor. In addition, it would have shown that the bishop’s apologies to victims and his vows to keep abusers out of ministry “were consistent with longstanding policies and practices of this diocese.”

“Fair reporting also would have shown that the diocese was telling the truth about its inability to pay scores of settlements for mammoth sums,” he states.

“Why does it matter what the Union-Tribune reports?” Jones-Kellett asks. “Because other news outlets [such as radio and television] around town rely on the Union-Tribune for much of their reporting.

“When people hear the same reporting coming from multiple sources, the ‘facts’ begin to seem very solid.”

Last week, the diocese proposed a $95-million settlement plan.

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