Archbishop John Nienstedt

Who will protect sheep from shepherds? Inquirer and Globe team spotlights sins of many bishops

Who will protect sheep from shepherds? Inquirer and Globe team spotlights sins of many bishops

I’m not sure that we’re talking about a true sequel to the massive 2002 Boston Globe “Spotlight” series about sexual abuse of children and teens by Catholic priests.

Still, there’s no question that journalists at The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Globe have — working together — produced a disturbing report documenting the efforts of many U.S. Catholic bishops to hide abusive priests or, at the very least, to avoid investigations of their own sins and crimes during these scandals.

The dramatic double-decker headline at the Inquirer says a lot, pointing readers to the key fact — that U.S. bishops keep stressing that only Rome’s powers that be can discipline bishops, archbishops and cardinals::

Failure at the top

America’s Catholic bishops vowed to remove abusive priests in 2002. In the years that followed, they failed to police themselves.

For the most part, this report avoids pinning simplistic political and doctrinal labels on Catholic shepherds who are, to varying degrees, involved in this story.

If you know any of the players mentioned in this report, you will recognize that it offers more evidence — as if it was needed — that this scandal is too big to be described in terms of “left” and “right.”.

I am sure that critics more qualified than me will find some holes and stereotypes. Experts will be able to connect the dots and see the networks that protected abusers or even produced them. Informed readers can do this, because the Globe-Inquirer team consistently names names. We will come back to one interesting exception to that rule.

Another point: It really would have helped if editors had acknowledged that there are valid theological, as well as legal, issues in this fight. Yes, there are bishops who have used centuries of theology about the role the episcopate plays in the church as a defense mechanism to hide their actions. However, this doesn’t mean that the theological issues are not real. Maybe call a theologian or historian — or several?

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14 years after the Globe: Minneapolis Star Tribune doggedly pursues local sex-abuse saga

14 years after the Globe: Minneapolis Star Tribune doggedly pursues local sex-abuse saga

I had been at the Washington Times for more than seven years editing the pop-culture page, when I was tapped to become the paper’s religion editor in 2003. I’d been doing a fair amount of religion reporting before that, but I hadn’t covered the beat full-time since my stint at the Houston Chronicle in the late 1980s.

One thing that had changed in the intervening years was how the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church was all over the news, and had been since early 2002. That was the year that religion reporters around the country had to grind out piece after piece on all the revelations first pouring out of Boston and then in dioceses around the country.

That was the part of the beat I didn’t want to take on, as it entailed a return to my days as a police reporter -- although this time the criminals were erring clergy. Many of the other facets of the police beat: interviews with traumatized victims, poring over court records, showing up at hearings, were there, all with the added monstrosity that those responsible were acting in the name of God while the faith of many were destroyed. I quailed from volunteering to do stories no one else in the newsroom wanted to touch. So did other reporters, as GetReligion has reported in the past.

However, I did take on the beat and ended up doing many clergy abuse stories, as it turned out, which is why I have so much respect for reporters who continue to plug away at all the ripples the scandal continues to have.

It was 14 years ago this month that Boston Globe’s first stories ran. One newspaper I want to give a shout out to is the Minneapolis Star Tribune, whose religion-beat reporter Jean Hopfensperger continues to report on an issue that refuses to go away.

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A tale of Twin Cities: Pioneer Press outdoes Strib with stellar story on bishop's meeting with abuse survivors

A tale of Twin Cities: Pioneer Press outdoes Strib with stellar story on bishop's meeting with abuse survivors

After I wrote in this space that the Minneapolis Star-Tribune 's over-reliance on SNAP marred an otherwise good story on Archbishop John Nienstedt's meeting with abuse survivors, I received an e-mail pointing me to the Pioneer Press's take on the same story.

The e-mail was from the meeting's organizer, Bob Schwiderski, and although he himself did not say which story he preferred, for me it is no contest. Pioneer Press columnist Rubén Rosario didn't look to SNAP, or any outside advocacy group, to tell readers how they should feel about the archbishop's meeting. Instead, he did all his reporting from the ground, gathering information only from those directly involved with the event. In this way, Rosario has composed an outstanding piece of journalism, hitting all the right notes while writing on a topic that is notoriously difficult to get right. What is more, he has achieved such balance even while being personally close to the issue, "[as] a victim of childhood sex abuse[, ...] raised Catholic." 

I could and will go on about some of the things about Rosario's article that particularly struck me, but I urge you to read the entire piece.

Like the Strib story, it begins with a dramatic vignette:

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'SNAP' decision mars a good story on outreach to clergy-abuse victims

'SNAP' decision mars a good story on outreach to clergy-abuse victims

From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune comes a story on an event that the reporter calls "a first in Minnesota, and perhaps a first in the nation": a visit by Catholic Archbishop John Nienstedt to a support group for survivors of clergy sex abuse. Although the reporting is mostly solid, the article has a notable factual error that betrays a near-universal problem with mainstream-media stories on clergy abuse: an over-reliance on the authority of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

The lede aims for drama:

It was a first in Minnesota, and perhaps a first in the nation. A support group for survivors of clergy sex abuse hosting the man who represents the church they believe betrayed them — Archbishop John Nienstedt.

The ground rules for last weekend’s meeting quietly were laid in advance. No media allowed. No robes or collar on the archbishop. The survivors would be respectful.

Held in a suburban library conference room, the unlikely meeting allowed survivors to share their painful stories with Minnesota’s top Catholic leader and provided Nienstedt a rare and inside look at the impact of abuse.

“I really didn’t think he’d be there until he actually showed up,” said Shawn Plocher, a Minneapolis man who was abused as a child. “This is a group of hurting people who want some sense of healing or closure. … I’m hoping things are heading in the right direction.”

Next there are some good quotes from Nienstedt expressing how moved he was by the meeting. After that come the obligatory remarks from SNAP's spokesman:

David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said he was unaware of any similar event elsewhere. Former Twin Cities Archbishop Harry Flynn met with Louisiana clergy abuse victims in a prayer group several times, he said. And SNAP met with some bishops at the 2002 U.S. Conference of Bishops meeting in Dallas that hammered out the church’s policies on clergy sexual abuse.
“In Dallas we heard, ‘This isn’t the last time you hear from us,’ ” said Clohessy. “Without exception, we heard nothing when we got home.”

If Clohessy is "unaware of any similar event elsewhere," he would do well to look at the website of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., which has been hosting similar events for several years running. He could also read Catholic San Francisco's September 2012 feature about how two auxiliary bishops of that diocese met with six victims to develop a policy for helping victims. That article quotes one of the survivors, Paul Fericano:

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