USA Today offers old news on Catholic priests and sexual abuse, missing some newer angles

dog collar.jpg

When you hear the term "breaking news," what do you think of?

I think news consumers, at this point, are pretty skeptical about this term. They know, of course, that there really is such a thing as breaking news. Major decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court are breaking news. The attack on the GOP softball team was breaking news. Another van mowing down citizens on London Bridge would be breaking news.

Also, there are @POTUS tweets that justify the "breaking news" label. There are, in my opinion, many more that do not. And have we reached the point where "Game of Thrones" developments are truly "breaking news"? If not, I'm sure that's just around the corner.

Anyway, like a few religion-news consumers, I received the USA Today email push product that pinned the "breaking news" label on a long, long news feature with this headline: "Across the nation, priest sexual abuse cases haunt Catholic parishes."

Now, I have followed clergy-abuse cases since 1982 or thereabouts -- press coverage exploded in 1985 with the Gilbert Gauthe case in Louisiana. Here at GetReligion, we have poured out oceans of digital ink discussing the many waves of this story. It's a horrifying scandal and, along with the ghastly cover-ups by some bishops, totally deserves the word that Catholic conservative Leon J. Podles used as the title of his brutal, horrifying book -- "Sacrilege."

But when I saw this "breaking news" label, I immediately wondered: "Really? What has happened now?" Let me stress that I think there are angles of the scandal worthy of new and in-depth coverage (along with the massive and largely uncovered scandals in other major institutions, such as public schools).

So what is the breaking news in the USA Today "investigation," which involved quite a few reporters? Here is the long overture:

In May 2003, Thomas O’Brien, then bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix, admitted to sheltering at least 50 priests accused of sexual abuse, often shuffling them around to parishes across the state.
O'Brien's admission, released under an agreement with the county attorney, acknowledged he "allowed Roman Catholic priests under my supervision to work with minors after becoming aware of allegations of sexual misconduct." He also waived his own immunity should sexual misconduct allegations against him surface. 
Thirteen years later, in a lawsuit filed last September, O'Brien -- now bishop emeritus -- was accused of sexually abusing a grade-school boy. 
In recent months, USA TODAY Network reporters at the Pacific Daily News have uncovered scores of allegations involving 14 Catholic priests on Guam, where a former altar boy's accusation last summer that Archbishop Anthony Apuron sexually abused him in the 1970s has prompted other revelations.
Abuse cases also have roiled Catholic parishes elsewhere the nation, sometimes decades after evidence of the crimes first emerged.

It's rather strange to open a "breaking news" report with a reference to 2003. Also, the Guam cases are certainly important, but they appear to be flashbacks into old and tragic nightmares. They are news, yes. But does the Guam story represent some kind of new development in the scandal as a whole?

A long-time reader of GetReligion, Catholic media pro Thomas Szyszkiewicz, sent me this reaction to this "breaking news" alert. I'll let him speak for himself:

I click on [the alert] it and start going through it expecting some "breaking news." But what do I find? Old news. One after another of summaries of stories from around the country listing what apparently are USA Today network stories that have covered priestly sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. And for what purpose? Who knows? Sure, they've got the Pacific Daily News in their network which is covering the allegations against Archbishop Apuron, but there's no breaking news there. And they start off the story with allegations against former Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien, allegations which were filed last September ... So why did they write this story?

I read his note after my first rushed glance at this story. I just re-read the long, long story carefully and, well, I think I found one interesting summary paragraph that does contain a sort-of new angle on the story (although not really).

This is way down in the text. Some would apply the word "buried."

Bishop [Glen] Provost turned over accusations against Mark Broussard to police; Bishop Douglas Deshotel cooperated with local authorities when F. David Broussard was arrested. The Diocese of Lafayette now says it marches in step with the Catholic Church's mandates to protect children and since 2003 has enacted practices including criminal background checks and fingerprinting for clergy and others who have contact with minors.

My point? Is there a new development at the heart of the new scandal? The story -- "breaking news," after an expensive USA Today investigation -- does not seem to contain one.

However, might there be a new development in terms of the church hierarchy's response to the scandal? In other words, what is the evidence that more Catholic leaders truly "march in step" with the strict new church procedures and protocols?

Now, that would be a new story, kind of. I have read stories that looked at local bishops and isolated efforts. What if USA Today had devoted national resources to writing THAT story? Did the anti-abuse actions taken in the Pope Benedict XVI era have a positive effect, one that is obvious both to church leaders and to CRITICS of the hierarchy? And how are things going in the Pope Francis era?

I also noticed this short passage, linked to efforts to lift the statute of limitations on the filing of civil lawsuits linked to sexual abuse.

Read this carefully. Can you spot the angle that might be newsworthy?

Minnesota Catholic dioceses are wrestling with new accusations of priest abuse after a 2013 state law temporarily lifted the statute of limitations to file civil actions. Under the law, victims age 24 and under as of 2013 have unlimited time to sue. Those over 24 had a three-year window that ended in May 2016; by that time accusers had filed more than 800 claims against churches, schools, the Boy Scouts and a children’s theater. 
The heightened scrutiny led to the downfall of two bishops, and two Catholic dioceses -- including the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis -- filed for bankruptcy in 2015.

Whoa. Minnesota lifted the statute of limitations on cases involving groups other than churches? The state, to be specific, left staffers in public schools open to new civil suits? Maybe I have missed other stories on that angle, but that strikes me as important.

So what happened? I mean, other than the newsworthy Catholic cases? Might USA Today dedicate similar resources to an investigation of what happens when the legal door is opened for new scrutiny of secular institutions, as well as religious ones?

Such an investigation would almost certainly document some new news, as opposed to old news. It might even lead to "breaking news." You think?

Please respect our Commenting Policy