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Meet America’s top Catholic anchor

Raymond Arroyo interviews George W Bush at the White House in April 2008 (CNS photo/Joyce N Boghosian, courtesy of the White House)

I’m standing staring at St Gabriel. It’s not a vision, or a statue, but the nickname of EWTN’s dual-path satellite truck. It is currently outside the John Paul II Cultural Centre in Washington DC. The centre was originally set up as a Catholic museum and think-tank. It is now also home to the set of one of EWTN’s flagship broadcasts, The World Over Live with Raymond Arroyo, and the truck is here to transmit his weekly Friday broadcast back to EWTN’s control room in Alabama.

Mr Arroyo and his broadcast are unique in many ways. His is the only EWTN broadcast based out of the US capital. His set is very modern, clean and slick, more like BBC’s Newsnight than the main set of EWTN in Alabama, which provides a more informal setting.

His show is “basically a weekly international news magazine from a Catholic perspective”, he informs me outside his office. He also argues that the show is not editorially geared towards the US but being in Washington DC he is “covering the stories of the day, like the health bill, but we also chase world leaders, many of whom come to the JPII centre here… the head of the Iraqi parliament or the former president of the Czech Republic, we try and cover all of the issues; politics, culture, daily living, as well as breaking news, covering the Pope and his journeys and news concerning the Church itself”.

As I sit down with the audience waiting for Mr Arroyo to assume his anchor’s chair I’ve been informed that the broadcast begins with a news round-up, or headlines. In this particular broadcast Britain gets a mention.

“For the first time, British television will broadcast ads for abortion services,” Mr Arroyo announces. “The Marie Stopes International is responsible for the not-so-subtle ‘Are You Late?’ advert. Marie Stopes is using a loophole in UK advertising standards that would allow the airing of post-conception-counselling-services, so long as it comes from a non-profit, and not a commercial abortion provider. The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has joined other pro-life groups in opposition to the ad.” 

With the exception of his editorial comment – “not-so-subtle” – which I would have left out, it is a straight piece of news reportage. He then likes to start the round-table discussions with news makers or issues that are impacting on the Catholic Church. “Welcome to The World Over Live,” Mr Arroyo says. “We’ve got a lot to bring you this week. The sex abuse crisis remains in the news after the Vatican’s attorney announced his defence strategy for the Holy See. Here to discuss it is Washington DC attorney Robert Bennett and canon lawyer and assistant professor at the Catholic University of America, Fr Phillip Brown.”

So there is no shying away from the current sex abuse scandal, the fact that it happened and could have repercussions for the Catholic Church, not just in America but globally. What follows is an extremely intelligent, highbrow round-table discussion on the issue for some 20 minutes. But the editorial drift of the interview is geared towards a US demographic. I do take him to task on this and his response is robust.

 “When the Pope wrote the letter to the Irish I had a guest on specifically to see how this is playing out in Ireland and the rest of Europe and how does this compare with what the US lived through,” he says.

Mr Arroyo is here referring to the Boston Catholic sex scandal in 2002 where criminal charges were brought against five Catholic priests who were eventually found guilty and received custodial sentences. There were also alleged cover-ups, $100m in lawsuits followed and it resulted in the resignation of the then Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law.

“This is a great example of where the experience of the US presaged much of what is now hitting Europe,” Mr Arroyo says. “Where as many US Catholics are yawning. This is 10 years old. Everyone in Europe is just waking up to the problem there. To be honest just after 2002 many people went to the the Vatican and said we have an international problem here.

“We’ve been doing 10 years of research into this so that’s a perfect example of why European Catholics should tune in. There’s an experience here that I don’t see or read in any of the British press. The John Jay Criminal College Report of 2004 (commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops) was an extensive probe into the causes and context of the sex abuse crisis facing the US Catholic Church at the time. All of their findings play out and are mirrored in the European situation. It’s not different at all as it is essentially a human problem, in addition to being an administrative one that is particular to Catholicism in its own way.”

As I interview Mr Arroyo and watch his broadcast play out it becomes clear is that he is a very professional news anchor and journalist. The force of his personality holds the broadcast together and his professionalism has paid off. He is now also EWTN’s news director.

He became the first and only person to do an interview with Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) in English and if he wants an interview with heavy-hitters, for example, George W Bush when he was in office, or to be the first to interview Mel Gibson on the set of his film The Passion of the Christ, he has the influence to get them, Catholic or not. That is not to say he is without his faults: being a personality in a television network you can become a lightning rod for criticism but I think EWTN value him greatly.

Arroyo’s background is different to that of many other EWTN’s presenters. It is in the arts. He originally trained at New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of Drama. He studied under the great Stella Adler who taught “Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, Robert de Niro… and myself,” he quips. His arts background also often reflects in his broadcast. His show producer advised me that one of their next guests is there to discuss the role Catholicism plays in Shakespeare’s plays. Mr Arroyo did became a theatre actor and director but he found the repetition of doing the same show night after night boring and not intellectually challenging enough for him so he “segued” into journalism.

He started with some work for the Associated Press in New York, where he was groomed – he only minored in journalism – before becoming a Capitol Hill correspondent for another channel. It was only by chance that an editor assigned him to write a feature on Mother Angelica and the launch of EWTN that he first came in to contact with the network. He was introduced to Mother Angelica and they clicked. She instantly offered him a job but he declined. At the time he was in talks with a network to become their Capitol Hill correspondent. It was a Reuters start-up that would later become a network called Fox News. But Mother Angelica persisted and in the end he and his family (he is married with three children) made the move south to become part of the EWTN family. He has now been there for 13 years.

From my time spent with him it became clear to me that he has many loves; his family, the Catholic Church, his work, but there is one I haven’t mentioned yet and I think it does very much to define the man he is. It is New Orleans.

“It’s a very odd American city, surrounded by water,” he says. This much he found out first hand. He was living there with his family in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit – the costliest natural disaster in the history of the US. He managed to drive his family out before his house was swamped by seven feet of water. 

“It is also, I would argue, the most Catholic city in America,” Mr Arroyo says. “It is also one of the most venal. The sacred and profane walk side by side in New Orleans and it is very healthy in this sense: Catholics in New Orleans live out their Faith. We have these major festivals which are essentially at their core Catholic festivals. And the way of life has its own rhythm, as Walter Percy, a novelist from the South commented: ‘New Orleans has its own liturgical rhythm.’ I feel that in myself and I carry it with me.”
Special thanks to Raymond Arroyo and his senior producer Chris Edwards in helping with this article