"Betrayal"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

“Betrayal” – Linden MacIntyre's personal essay on childhood abuse victims in Nova Scotia

I am writing with regard to your October 2, 2010, complaint and request October 21, 2010, for a review by the Office of the Ombudsman concerning a CBC Television documentary, Betrayal, on The Fifth Estate last October 1. I thank you for your patience in this matter. The Office is a small one and, as I assumed the role in November, I spent some time helping the incumbent Vince Carlin deal with a considerable backlog. I should note that two policies have changed since your request: The CBC has published new Journalistic Standards and Practices, and my Office now routinely identifies complainants in releasing reviews online. Neither policy will apply in your complaint because it arrived beforehand.


CBC Television's The Fifth Estate carried a “personal essay” from its co-host, Linden MacIntyre, on childhood abuse victims in Nova Scotia. As adults they are seeking restitution, in part, through lawsuits against the Catholic Church. The Church has started to sell some property in Nova Scotia to finance the legal settlements.

MacIntyre grew up and lives part-time in the region. He interviewed victims, their advocates and Church officials for the program. The style of the documentary was distinct from a typical investigative work by the program, in that MacIntyre had a lifelong connection with the geography and history of his subject.

The complainant asserted that the broadcast discredited the Church and offended Catholics. He said it failed to note several relevant facts about the issue. Among them:

  • That the Vatican's secrecy policy was to protect the Church and not the abused children.
  • That the Church investigated abuse allegations but didn't do much except transfer priests to another parish.
  • That the Church doesn't have the skill or power to conduct such investigations.
  • That compensation will not stop abusers.

The complainant also asserted that the program's efforts to link the Vatican and Pope to the decisions regarding abuse were “unfair and unjustified.” He said that priests who break a vow of celibacy in the Church are forgiven by the Church when they repent.

In subsequent correspondence, the complainants also expressed concerns about public comments about the program online. He said they spread hatred to the Church.

The executive producer of the program and the director of current affairs wrote the complainant and indicated the program had received ample involvement of the Church in the documentary. They said an official in the Church's Antigonish diocese praised the report for its balance. They asserted the subject matter was important and that the views of the victims deserved to be heard.

CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices in effect at the time of the program and the complaint (since revised) intersect in several ways with the concerns.

On the issue of diversity, the policy stated: “The CBC would fail to live up to its mandate if, in the attempt to upset no one, to disturb no institution, it undertook to limit the comprehensiveness of its reporting of contemporary society. Equally, it is important to examine and keep before the public those positive aspects of our society as well as those which are being called into question, and those trends or events which are important but that may not be spectacular.”

The policy said programs dealing with matters of public interest “must supplement the exposition of one point of view with an equitable treatment of other relevant points of views. Equitable in this context means fair and reasonable, taking into consideration the weight of opinion behind a point of view, as well as its significance or potential significance.”

The policy noted that journalists “will have opinions of their own, but they must not yield to bias or prejudice. For journalists to be professional is not to be without opinions, but to be aware of those opinions and make allowances for them, so that their reporting is, and appears to be, judicious and fair.”

It said single programs dealing with a controversial issue “should give adequate recognition to the range of opinion on the subject.” But it said that “in exceptional circumstances, a program may be based on the personal view of an individual. When that occurs, the audience must be made aware of the personal character of the program. The personal view must be that of an individual with demonstrable expertise in the subject matter of the program.”

The policy also covered point-of-view documentaries: “A documentary may take the form of a writer's journey through a story, an individual first-person narrative. The phrase ‘point-of-view' is sometimes used to describe this form which leans on the documentarist's perspective to yield special insights. On occasion, the writer's revelation of his or her own initial biases and attitudes can actually lead to a particularly candid form of journalism. This is an accepted form of documentary practice.” It added later: The latitude to develop a thesis or convey a personal perspective, however, does not release the author, or the CBC, from the requirement to be factually correct.”

Conclusion

The program dealt with a difficult, uncomfortable subject that can spur concerns of antagonism to the Church. But I found its treatment of the subject, and the host's personal role in the documentary, within accepted CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

The Church was provided ample opportunity to discuss its approaches to the financial settlement of the victim claims and to speak on behalf of the Vatican in articulating policy. I do not share the assertion of the complainant that relevant information was excluded from the personal essay to stack an argument.

There is documented evidence that the Church has shifted priests to other parishes when complaints of abuse surfaced. There is also evidence that the Church did not provide police with an understanding of those complaints.

On the matter of the public comments about the program, I note the complainant's view that some of them convey harsh feelings, including personal and spiritual animus. A worrisome concern generally is that online comments affect an organization's reputation, even when they are not their creation. But online comments are outside of the Ombudsman's purview. Only when such comments are integrated in CBC journalism do they fall under this Office's mandate.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman