Religion-beat veteran draws blood while dissecting Penn grand-jury report on clerical abuse

Screen Shot 2019-01-11 at 10.00.49 AM.png

Last weekend was complicated for me, in large part because I needed to get from East Tennessee to New York City for the first half of my Journalism Foundations seminar at The King’s College. Throw in some interesting weather and Sunday was a long day.

So what’s the point? Well, the weekend think piece that I was planning was never posted. In this case, that really matters because this Commonweal piece was an important one, featuring a byline — a New York Times scribe from my era on the religion-beat — that offered instant credibility. And the journalism hook was strong, strong, strong — leading to a Religion News Service column from Father Thomas Reese about the massive Commonweal essay.

So let’s start with the RNS summary:

“Grossly misleading, irresponsible, inaccurate, and unjust” is how former New York Times religion reporter Peter Steinfels describes last August’s Pennsylvania grand jury report in its sweeping accusation that Catholic bishops refused to protect children from sexual abuse.

The report from a grand jury impaneled by the Pennsylvania attorney general to investigate child sexual abuse in the state’s Catholic dioceses has revived the furor over the abuse scandal, causing the resignation of the archbishop of Washington, D.C., and inspiring similar investigations in other states.

Steinfels argues that it is an oversimplification to assert, as does the report, that “all” victims “were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect abusers and their institutions above all.”

Writing in the Catholic journal Commonweal, Steinfels acknowledges the horror of clerical abuse and the terrible damage done to children, but he complains that no distinctions have been made in the grand jury report from diocese to diocese, or from one bishop’s tenure to another. All are tarred with the same brush.

Here’s a crucial theme: Steinfels noted that the report — which created a tsunami of ink in American media — failed to note the small number of abuse cases that were reported as having taken place AFTER the 2002 Dallas Charter, by clergy who are still in active ministries. The Dallas document radically changed how Catholic officials have dealt with abuse claims — at least those against priests.

The Commonweal piece is massive and it’s hard to know what sections to highlight. Journalists (assignment editors included, hopefully) are just going to have to dig in and read it all.

Here is a crucial summary:

… The report makes not one but two distinct charges. The first one concerns predator priests, their many victims, and their unspeakable acts. That charge is, as far as can be determined, dreadfully true. Appalling as is this first charge, it is in fact the second one that has had the greatest reverberations. “All” of these victims, the report declares, “were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institutions above all.” Or as the introduction to the report sums it up, “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all.”

Is that true?

Almost every media story of the grand-jury report that I eventually read or viewed was based on its twelve-page introduction and a dozen or so sickening examples.

On the basis of reading the report’s vast bulk, on the basis of reviewing one by one the handling of hundreds of cases, on the basis of trying to match diocesan replies with the grand jury’s charges, and on the basis of examining other court documents and speaking with people familiar with the grand jury’s work, including the attorney general’s office, my conclusion is that this second charge is in fact grossly misleading, irresponsible, inaccurate, and unjust. It is contradicted by material found in the report itself — if one actually reads it carefully. It is contradicted by testimony submitted to the grand jury but ignored — and, I believe, by evidence that the grand jury never pursued.

These conclusions are dramatically at odds with the public perception and reception of the report.

Here’s what a heard from several religion-beat veterans, and I did not have a chance to email or talk with Steinfels. Truth is, I did not know his piece was on the way.

The bottom line: The sins of the past remain important and they are hellish indeed. However, this headline-grabbing report failed to stress — or to some degree even discuss — the progress made since 2002. It also allowed journalists to once again stress the abuse of children, a hellish reality to be sure, while avoiding topics that are even hotter and more controversial, such as fights over how to discipline bishops, archbishops and even cardinals.

Here is one more chunk of crucial Commonweal material, from a reporter who has followed this drama for decades. Steinfels notes:

Over the past three decades I have read scores of abuse survivors’ stories and heard directly dozens: stories of shattered trust, religious and sexual confusion, and years of life-derailing consequences. Some victims of course slough their abuse off, or at least appear to. For others, it trails them through depression, broken marriages, substance abuse, self-destructive crimes, petty or serious, even suicide. The report’s insistent cataloging of physical acts scarcely captures these human complexities, but it is a start.

The sad and infuriating stories in the report, even in their sometimes excruciatingly graphic detail, were not news to those of us who were reading newspapers and watching TV in 2002. “Reports of sexual abuse by priests of children and teenagers have taken on the dimensions of a biblical plague,” read a story on page one of the New York Times’s Sunday Week in Review. It mentioned estimates of victims over several decades ranging from 15,000 to 100,000. As the senior religion reporter at the Timesfrom 1988 to 1997, I wrote that story in June 1993, almost a decade before the Boston Globerevelations.

Recalling such stories from the 1990s to 2002, I wondered whether Catholics and others had forgotten that flood of painful 2002 revelations, to say nothing of the prime-time exposés of the early 1990s. (In 2002 the Globe ran 770 Catholic sex-abuse stories, compared to twenty-five the year before; the New York Times ran 692.) What about the 2004 and 2011 studies by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluding that 4,392 priests, between 4 and 5 percent of the Catholic clergy, had been responsible for more than 11,000 cases of sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002? Had no one really taken to heart those earlier disclosures?

What precisely, I asked myself, did the Pennsylvania report tell us that was new? Did it refute the crucial and widespread belief that the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People — passed by the Catholic bishops in June 2002, implemented nationwide, and backed by regular audits since then — had changed things dramatically? Did the report speak to the question, uppermost in many parents’ minds, whether children and teenagers were particularly at risk, right now, in Catholic schools and parishes, as media phrases like “the expanding Catholic sex-abuse scandals” or “a new wave of sex-abuse scandals” or sexual-abuse scandals now “engulfing the church” might reasonably suggest?

Grab an electronic tablet and put this monster in a format that’s easy to ready.

After all, Steinfels is going this far:

What does the report document? It documents decades of stomach-churning violations of the physical, psychological, and spiritual integrity of children and young people. It documents that many of these atrocities could have been prevented by promptly removing the credibly suspected perpetrators from all priestly roles and ministry. It documents that some, although far from all, of those failures were due to an overriding concern for protecting the reputation of the church and the clergy and a reckless disregard for the safety and well-being of children. It also documents that a good portion of these crimes, perhaps a third or more, only came to the knowledge of church authorities in 2002 or after, when the Dallas Charter mandated automatic removal from ministry. It documents, well before 2002, many conscientious attempts to determine the truth of accusations and prevent any further abuse, often successful though sometimes poorly executed or tragically misinformed. It documents significant differences between dioceses and bishops and time periods in the response to allegation of abuse. It documents major changes in vigilance and response in some dioceses during the 1990s and, as far as the evidence shows, dramatic changes after 2002.

What does the report not document? It does not document the sensational charges contained in its introduction — namely, that over seven decades Catholic authorities, in virtual lockstep, supposedly brushed aside all victims and did absolutely nothing in the face of terrible crimes against boys and girls — except to conceal them. This ugly, indiscriminate, and inflammatory charge, unsubstantiated by the report’s own evidence, to say nothing of the evidence the report ignores, is truly unworthy of a judicial body responsible for impartial justice.

Why the media were so amenable to uncritically echoing this story without investigation, and why Catholics in particular were so eager to seize on it to settle their internal differences, are important topics for further discussion.

There is, quite literally, a book in here. Hopefully, we will see it soon.

Please respect our Commenting Policy