yearend poll

For God's sake, let's tell the truth

Archbishop John Foley was speaking to an audience of Catholic communications officers and editors, so he made sure that he didn't bury his most important statement.

The first principle of dealing with the news media, he told a Vatican conference in 2001, was simple: "Never, never, never tell a lie." Then the president of the Pontifical Office for Social Communications offered more advice that would prove to be prophetic.

"Truth will always come out," he said. "Failure to tell the truth is a scandal, a betrayal of trust and a destroyer of credibility. ... So sacred is the responsibility to tell the truth that one must be ready to accept dismissal for refusal to tell a lie."

Principles of openness and honesty were tested as never before during 2002 as another wave of scandal hit the Catholic Church. In the end, members of the Religion Newswriters Association selected the clergy sexual abuse scandal as the year's most important news event. Four of the poll's top five stories were linked to the scandal and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston was named newsmaker of the year.

The RNA occasionally offers a dubious prize -- its "Into the Darkness Award" -- to the group that has done the most to hide information from the media and the public. This year, it was awarded to the American Catholic hierarchy.

"The institutional church is slowly learning that evasion and stonewalling and spin are not in its best interests," said Father Donald Cozzens, author of "Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church."

"After all that has happened during this year, isn't it obvious that telling the truth is the best way to serve our people? It's the best way to protect our children. It's the best way to restore trust and regain our role as moral leaders. At some point we simply have to say, 'For God's sake, let's tell the truth.' "

Here are the top 10 stories in the RNA poll:

(1) For the third time in two decades, clergy sexual abuse shakes Catholicism. At the heart of this scandal are new revelations that many bishops have moved priests alleged to have abused minors from parish to parish without warning legal authorities and the faithful. Some bishops apparently have approved secret settlements to avoid disclosure.

(2) Cardinal Law resigns after rising protests by clergy and laity over his handling of abusive priests. Reports increase that the Boston archdiocese is considering bankruptcy, as the number of lawsuits climbs over 400. Sexual scandals claim several other bishops, including the liberal Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland.

(3) Controversy erupts as some evangelical s openly criticize Islamic doctrine, often quoting the testimonies of Muslims who have converted to Christianity. The Bush White House tries to keep its distance, as Franklin Graham says Islam is an "evil and wicked religion" and Southern Baptist leader Jerry Vines calls Muhammad a "demon-possessed pedophile."

(4) U.S. Catholic bishops listen to the stories of abuse victims and then pass a "one strike and you're out policy" against any priest who has abused a child. Five months later, the policy approved in Dallas is changed -- on orders from the Vatican -- to include church tribunals to hear the cases of priests who proclaim their innocence.

(5) The growing clergy sexual abuse scandal fuels the creation of new networks of Catholic laity, including the Voice of the Faithful, which draws 5,000 to a convention in Boston. The Vatican faces waves of protests from outraged Catholic conservatives as well as liberals. Support groups for victims surge with each new round of media coverage.

(6) In yet another church-state cliffhanger, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of programs that use government-funded vouchers to allow children to attend religious schools.

(7) A Circuit Court of Appeals judge in San Francisco causes a firestorm by ruling unconstitutional the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. The judge soon stays his own ruling to allow for an appeal.

(8) The National Council of Churches and other bodies on the religious left express their opposition to a U.S. invasion of Iraq. American Catholic bishops and a coalition of progressive evangelicals express similar concerns, asking if "just war theory" allows a preemptive strike.

(9) Palestinian gunmen take refuge in the Catholic and Orthodox sanctuaries of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, leading to a 39-day siege by Israeli forces. Suicide bombers and military actions continue throughout Israel and the West Bank.

(10) Scholars announce the discovery of a stone burial box bearing the words "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." Is this a 2,000-year-old archaeological breakthrough or a hoax?