Demler responds after comments at forum on clergy abuse strike a nerve
At a Catholic church forum Monday designed to move forward from the sexual abuse crisis in the Buffalo Diocese, WGRZTV (Channel 2) anchor Maryalice Demler upset some in attendance who interpreted her remarks as an unprofessional critique of a competing TV station.
Multiple people came away from the panel at St. Joseph University Church near the University at Buffalo South Campus calling Demler “unprofessional” in what they termed her “insinuations” about the way whistleblower Siobhan O’Connor and WKBW-TV (Channel 7) reporter Charlie Specht handled the story – without mentioning the two by name.
In an email response, Demler said her remarks were misrepresented and that she has the support of another panelist.
The panel, titled “Rebuild My House: Going Forward in Faith Together,” was a follow-up to a recent forum on the crisis in the church. The event was billed as a chance “to address the sexual abuse crisis, how it has been handled by the church, and how we might be able to move forward together.”
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No audio was available of the panel discussion, and some of Demler’s critics acknowledged they didn’t hear her remarks perfectly.
The controversy over the interpretation of Demler’s remarks would seem to validate the decisions of Specht and Buffalo News reporter Jay Tokasz to decline to be part of the panel. Demler was a replacement for Specht, who has been the television leader on the sexual abuse scandal.
“As a working journalist, I didn’t want to be in a position where I was being asked to give my personal opinions,” said Specht. “I wanted my work to speak for itself.”
Jim Faluszczak, a former priest, a whistleblower and a victim of sexual abuse, was one of the attendees upset by Demler’s remarks.
“I found her remarks to be disturbing,” he said. “It was more insinuation than anything about Charlie and Siobhan O’Connor. I was disturbed by her boldfaced posturing as setting herself apart from other journalists. The insinuation about her station’s coverage was counter to Charlie and Siobhan.
“She said we (at Channel 2) are a professional organization and my colleagues adhere to commonly held professional standards. She didn’t name names. But given the context, it is clear what she was insinuating.”
He felt Demler was criticizing Channel 7’s reports, which were augmented by O’Connor’s documents.
“She said they were unfair in sharing internal documents with only one news outlet,” said Faluszczak. “She criticized the release in dribs and drabs. She was insinuating they were trying to keep the story going.”
“She was very unprofessional,” said J. Carroll Becker, another attendee. “She couldn’t separate her Catholic hat from her news hat. She referred to herself as the person at work who redeems the fallen Catholics and sends them to St. Joseph’s.”
Becker, who said she is a sexual abuse victim, also was struck by what she viewed as Demler’s suggestion that O’Connor could have handled the matter internally.
“I tried to go through the church internally and I got revictimized,” said Becker.
Judith Burns-Quinn, who runs the victims support group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), had a similar reaction to Demler’s remarks.
“I felt Maryalice acted unprofessional, speaking negatively about a competing station that has worked so diligently and professionally in exposing the secrets of the Buffalo Diocese,” said Burns-Quinn. “I came out of the forum angry. Every victim I know Charlie interviewed has praised him for his professionalism and empathy. She was denigrating another channel, and this isn’t what the forum was about. I was angry. I was pounding my knees.”
Lee Coppola, a former Channel 7 investigative reporter and former dean of the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Communication at St. Bonaventure University, was the moderator of the debate.
“The tenor of her comments I disagreed with,” Coppola said of Demler.
Coppola, who was one of Specht’s teachers at St. Bonaventure, said he was “surprised” by Demler’s remarks and said he considered Specht a “hero” for his reporting.
“I’m surprised, and I didn’t agree with her,” said Coppola.
“I thought it was journalistically proper,” he said of Specht’s reports. “I thought the way the information was researched and reported was professionally sound.”
Any suggestion that the information should have been given to more than one news outlet would have illustrated an alarming misunderstanding of how investigative reporting works.
“That is what investigating reporting is all about,” said Coppola. “You know how many stories I would have lost if they would have been given to all kinds of people?”
Coppola added he wanted to be fair to Demler, who said she was talking as a “faithful Catholic, not as much as an anchor.”
Demler said in a written response that the summary of her comments was not accurate and a misrepresentation.
“Monday night’s event was emotionally charged, however,” wrote Demler. “I made many comments as an unbiased journalist – which may not have been critical enough for some attendees who are understandably very hurt and angry at Bishop Malone. I also shared the stages of grief I have experienced as a cradle Catholic. In the beginning there was denial, shock, disbelief … and then ultimately after reading all the documents myself … resignation, disappointment and more shock.
“I did attempt to explain our journalistic process at Channel 2 because I have been asked previously why we did not report on this story until after all the documents were released. I explained we could not independently verify the documents because Ms. O’Connor chose to give them to one station. That is not a criticism of Channel 7 nor Charlie Specht – and I do not know why someone would draw that conclusion about my comments.”
Sister Margaret Carney, president emeritus of St. Bonaventure University, was the panelist who sat next to Demler. She supported Demler’s explanation.
Carney noted that Demler didn’t name O’Connor or Specht in her remarks. She added that Demler expressed her initial discomfort about hearing that a key administrator of the diocese had leaked the documents and wondered if there wasn’t another path to get the information to others internally.
“But she said, ‘Once I had the opportunity to see the documents and apply a professional reading and judgment, I recognized the seriousness of the problem,’ ” said Carney.
Carney said Demler noted that she had some difficulty getting the documents because they were only given to one outlet.
“There was no criticism implied,” said Carney. “It was a factual statement.”
“It is dangerous to infer anything beyond the literal statement of the speaker,” added Carney. “Given the height of emotions and anxiety of this crisis, anyone is subject to be misinterpreted. People come with the views, concerns and experiences. People were not sitting in a neutral emotional state.” N.Y. Evening Number: N.Y. Midday Number: Win Four Evening: Win Four Midday: Take Five: 11 13 18
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