It seems like an easy question: What are the sex scandals in the Catholic church all about?
If you look at the coverage, week after week, it’s clear that many journalists covering the latest wave of news about the scandals are still wrestling with this issue.
Obviously, the scandals center on acts of sexual abuse and harassment by Catholic clergy. The question, apparently, is this: Who are the victims? Reporters have to answer that question in order to get to the next big question: What sacred and secular laws are being broken?
After decades of following this story, and talking to activists on the Catholic left and right, the basic facts are pretty clear.
The vast majority of the victims are young males between the ages of 11 and 18. Then there are significant numbers of prepubescent victims, male and female, being abused by criminals who can accurately be called “pedophiles.” Also, there are many adult men (many are seminarians) and women involved in sexual relationships with priests and bishops, some consenting and some not. The size of this last group is assumed to be large, but there are few facts available.
With this in mind, pay close attention to the lede of the latest New York Times update on the Vatican’s shocking move to stop U.S. Catholic bishops from taking actions to discipline bishops accused of various sins and crimes.
BALTIMORE — Facing a reignited crisis of credibility over child sexual abuse, the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States came to a meeting in Baltimore on Monday prepared to show that they could hold themselves accountable.
But in a last-minute surprise, the Vatican instructed the bishops to delay voting on a package of corrective measures until next year, when Pope Francis plans to hold a summit in Rome on the sexual abuse crisis for bishops from around the world.
Many of the more than 350 American bishops gathered in Baltimore appeared stunned when they learned of the change of plans in the first few minutes of the meeting. They had come to Baltimore wanting to prove that they had heard their parishioners’ cries of despair and calls for change. Suddenly, the Vatican appeared to be standing in the way, dealing the bishops another public relations nightmare.
What is the crisis all about? The answer, throughout this article, is “child abuse,” and that’s that.
It’s interesting to note that the article does not include references to two crucial words in this latest wave of scandal ink — “McCarrick,” as in ex-cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick — and “seminaries” or “seminarians.”
This is an extremely narrow view of the scandal, especially in light of the fact that it was the Times that published the blockbuster report that ran with this headline: “He Preyed on Men Who Wanted to Be Priests. Then He Became a Cardinal.”
What is missing, of course, is the factor that retired Newsweek scribe Kenneth Woodward has described as the “double lives” factor — priests and bishops who are hiding a wide variety of sins against church teachings, as well as outright crimes. This is not a left or right issue.
The Washington Post printed an important story about the McCarrick scandals that raised a related question about adult victims. Here’s the GetReligion post on that topic: “Washington Post sees big McCarrick picture: Why are broken celibacy vows no big deal?”
Obviously, the abuse of prepubescent children is a crucial element of this hellish story. However, in terms of raw statistics, this is not the defining element of the scandal — which is how many journalists continue to treat it. Let’s return to the Times update:
Many Catholic commentators have called the abuse scandal the greatest crisis in the Catholic church since the Reformation.
Since June, a prominent American cardinal has been forced to resign, a Pennsylvania grand jury has found that 300 priests had abused more than 1,000 child victims and more than a dozen state attorneys general have opened investigations into the church. And that is just in the United States.
Yes, that is a cloaked reference to McCarrick. However, note that — once again — the scandal is about “children,” with no other crimes or violations of clergy vows mentioned.
The Associated Press story on this meeting has a more accurate wording, at least when dealing with the McCarrick angle:
Abuse scandals have roiled the Roman Catholic Church worldwide for decades, but there have been major developments this year in the U.S.
In July, Pope Francis removed U.S. church leader Theodore McCarrick as a cardinal after church investigators said an allegation that he groped a teenage altar boy in the 1970s was credible. Subsequently, several former seminarians and priests reported they too had been abused or harassed by McCarrick as adults, triggering debate over who might have known and covered up McCarrick’s misconduct.
The Washington Post has an update that pretty much manages to avoid specific references to those different forms of sexual abuse. However, the Post has a big sidebar that digs into a big issue that has helped create all of this journalism fog. The headline states: “The 2018 Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis brings new energy — and anti-gay activists — into the survivors' movement.”
In other words, Catholic conservatives of various kinds have become more active in these debates, which increases the heat. Leaders on the Catholic left and the right are often divided on their views of Catholic doctrines affecting same-sex issues — thus complicating discussions of the abuse of male teens and adults.
Here’s a sample paragraph from this Post sidebar:
Monday’s two public events were dominated by the older groups — research site BishopAccountability and SNAP — whose leaders focus on oversight and justice and participate less in the controversial debates over the perceived roles of celibacy and homosexuality in the crisis. Tuesday promised the first mainstream prominent appearance of Church Militant, a right-wing advocacy group and news site that routinely blames the scandals on homosexual priests and, since the crisis blew up this summer, has hammered Pope Francis and more liberal bishops, accusing them of being part of an elaborate coverup to shield gay clergy.
I have two questions about this.
First of all, Church Militant is a very, very conservative and at times abrasive group of conservatives. Who else, at the USCCB meetings, is raising issues linked to clergy sexually abusing teenage males and adult males? There are conservatives who do not blame the scandal on gay priests, but argue that homosexual activity plays an important role in the wider, more complex, scandal. Who else is in Baltimore right now and what are they saying?
Second, it would be good for these stories to include essential facts and questions that may unite the Catholic left and right.
For example: What is the percentage of victims that were prepubescent? Is the abuse and harassment of seminarians a big problem? What specific seminaries are involved? Bishops on the left and right have been part of these coverups. What motives would they have in common?
Stay tuned and read carefully.
Keep asking: What trends are at the heart of these scandals?