"Sex Crimes & The Vatican"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


The documentary “Sex Crimes & The Vatican” amounted to an attack on the Catholic Church

I am writing in regard to your July 27, 2010 complaint and request for a review by the Office of the Ombudsman concerning a documentary, Sex Crimes & The Vatican, part of The Passionate Eye series on the CBC News Network.

Your complaint concerned a BBC documentary procured by CBC News on the controversial conduct of Catholic Church officials, specifically involving the sexual abuse of children and efforts to conceal that conduct and evade authorities.

The program was narrated by a BBC journalist but fronted by Colm O'Gorman, who runs an organization helping victims of abuse, and featured first-person reports from several centres around the world, including Ireland, the United States and Brazil. The documentary focused on criticism that bishops shielded priests who had committed offences, often transferring them to other parishes where they continued to offend.

Former Catholic Church officials discussed policy on abuse and several victims were featured. Current Catholic officials declined to be interviewed for the documentary, which first aired in 2006 and was repeated earlier this year due to new developments. CBC News updated the documentary at its conclusion with new information about one of the figures in the story and a general outline of a new statement on abuse as articulated that week by Pope Benedict XVI.

You asserted in your complaint that the documentary amounted to an attack on the Catholic Church. Even though you acknowledged that abusers were harming the reputation of the Catholic Church, you questioned the judgment of CBC News to carry such a directly critical documentary.

In my review of your complaint, I had to consider whether the documentary violated CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices. I had to evaluate if it was accurate and balanced, in particular. There are unique provisions for documentaries to permit single points of view to be presented.

The policy reads: “From time to time, we air documentaries created from a single perspective.” To do so, CBC News requires that the creator has “special knowledge” or “expertise,” and that there is a “compelling argument . . .that provides insight into a controversial subject and may provoke public debate.”

To ensure balance when such a program is presented, CBC News policy stipulates that other perspectives and opinions on the same subject be published and broadcast in other programs, segments and platforms. “When the subject is highly controversial, we consider scheduling additional programming with alternative opinions, in an appropriate time frame.”

Quite naturally, there is always cause for concern when sensitive, difficult subjects like sexual abuse are documented on television. Matters of taste have to be taken into consideration, as do issues of fairness when accusations are made. For some viewers, the simple depiction of this subject matter is uncomfortable.

In reviewing the documentary, I determined there were strong factual evidence and a reasonable effort to provide the Catholic Church with an opportunity to defend its policies and practices. I believe the documentary was restrained in its description of abuse. Moreover, CBC News responsibly provided a contextual update to lend new understanding to the issue at the documentary's conclusion.

CBC News has demonstrated its commitment to coverage of this and many other policy issues involving the Catholic Church and other religious institutions, not only in their contemporary challenges but in their contemporary achievements. It also has a commitment to coverage of faith, spirituality and worship.

While there is a provision to schedule additional programming when the subject matter is highly controversial, I believe the issue is widely covered and not newly revealed. I believe there is no imbalance of coverage on the issue across CBC News' programs and platforms and see no need owing to controversy for any additional programming beyond regular coverage.

I cannot conclude there was any violation of CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk Lapointe
CBC Ombudsman