DALLAS: When the US Conference of Catholic Bishops assembled last week in Dallas, the approximately 300 attending members of the clergy were met with hundreds of activists staging well-organized events, and an equal number of reporters eager to cover them. The result was nothing less than a communications circus.
"It's very surreal to be sitting in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel, meeting with Time magazine and Newsweek, and have all these bishops walking around us, said Cathy Renna, news media director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), whose organization held a series of events to support transgender communities in the church.
More than 750 media members from around the globe - including a large number of local organizations from cities with significant Catholic populations - converged on the gathering, which in past occasions has drawn less than one tenth of that number.
They came to hear what the Catholic Church had to say about the ongoing sexual abuse scandals and plans for new policies, but were no less interested in the dozens of activist groups that held vigils, workshops, prayer sessions, and public meetings with clergy members.
"There is a tremendous amount of interest. We've been doing lots of media work, confirmed Mary Louise Cervone of Dignity/USA, a gay Catholic group that came to protest the scapegoating of gay clergy in sexual abuse cases. "I haven't stopped talking since 9am."
The causes represented by activists ranged from liberal to conservative.
Groups such as GLAAD came with messages of inclusion and tolerance. They were met with protesters from conservative organizations such as the Family Research Council, which believes there is a link between homosexuality and sexual abuse of children.
The conference created hundreds of stories, including a front-page piece in USA Today, and an expose on Frontline.
Despite the diversity of opinions, most felt the press was doing an excellent job of covering the story.
"In terms of fairness and sensitivity, the media is doing a really good job, said Renna.
But she added that a "lockdown in terms of information by the Catholic Church had led many activists to depend on journalists for insight into what is happening at the official Bishops meetings.
On Thursday morning, the first day of the gathering, CNN reported that for the first time since the bishops began convening in 1919, lay people were to speak during the conference. Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, admitted, "We have really lost a lot of credibility, but I think the best approach is to meet here (and) get a strong, clear direction."
A collaborative poll by CNN, USA Today, and Gallup confirmed that the perception problem seems to lie more outside the church than within. One in five Catholics has a great deal of confidence in the bishops to deal appropriately with the problem.
The public at large, however, reported a lower level of confidence.