Coverage of Tierney, diocese lawsuits divides readers

Last week, I looked at readers’ criticisms that The Kansas City Star had not written about Judge Ann Mesle’s dropping some counts in the sex abuse civil suits against the Rev. Michael Tierney and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. At least one other media source had reported that the most important counts were dismissed, but my reading of the documents didn’t support that interpretation.

I posted the judge’s orders in full on my blog at http:// and invited readers for their takes. I heard quite a few different opinions.

Some readers sharply condemned my thinking that the most serious charges will still remain as the cases go forward. “You obviously know nothing about legal matters, and you embarrass yourself by (writing about) them,” said one caller early Monday, calling me a “bush-league thinker.”

One careful reader agreed that the most significant charges against Tierney were left in the suits, but she felt the dismissal of several counts against the diocese — especially those of “intentional failure to supervise clergy” and “negligent supervision/retention” — were important and merited a story.

I also heard the point of view that these lawsuits weren’t really newsworthy, so none of the stories should have risen to the level of coverage in the first place. One read me language in both court orders that she found salient: “While the 40 plus year delay in the alleged recovery of Plaintiff’s memory is troubling.…”

“If the judge went to the trouble to write that, that’s something (The Star) should have considered,” said my caller. I think she was getting at a principle I’ve heard from readers in the past, and it’s one I agree with: These cases against Tierney and the diocese are civil suits or tort actions, not criminal prosecutions such as the child pornography charges against Father Shawn Ratigan. Anyone can file a civil suit for any reason — and we’ve all heard about the “nuisance lawsuits” that critics think the U.S. legal system allows to proceed without sufficient evidence.

Let me be clear here: I am making no judgment whatsoever about the merits of the allegations against Tierney or the diocese. But I do concur that journalists need to be circumspect in covering civil suits, which — it bears repeating — are not criminal cases brought by prosecutors.

Reader feedback about all these suits involving the Catholic Church is still dominated by self-professed Catholics who want The Star to continue to cover the allegations, regardless of how they play out in the courts.

“I think so many of my fellow Catholics don’t want to see it, don’t want to hear about it and that’s what enables our leadership to fail us,” said one caller. “That sort of denial is a third-layer cover-up. The newspaper is doing nothing wrong by reporting on the facts as they’re presented in the courts.”

This column was originally published in the Kansas City Star on July 30, 2011.

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