Spotlight

Think piece on SBC sex abuse scandal: What Baptists and Catholics can learn from each other

Think piece on SBC sex abuse scandal: What Baptists and Catholics can learn from each other

In today’s San Antonio Express-News, there’s a front-page story on Southern Baptist leaders promising reforms after a bombshell newspaper investigation into sex abuse within that denomination.

In a three-part series last week, the Express-News and its sister newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, revealed that more than 700 people had been molested by Southern Baptist pastors, church employees and volunteers over a span of two decades. (See our previous analysis of the Texas papers’ reporting here, here and here.)

Sadly, the Baptists aren’t the only religious group making sex abuse headlines this weekend: On the same Express-News front page, there’s the breaking news — via the New York Times — of Pope Francis’ decision to expel Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop of Washington, D.C., from the priesthood.

As noted by the Times, the decision announced by the Vatican on Saturday “came after the Catholic Church found him guilty of sexually abusing minors and adult seminarians over decades.” My GetReligion colleagues Terry Mattingly and Julia Duin have been following the McCarrick story for months. Look for additional commentary this week.

But since this is Sunday, when we like to delve into think-piece territory, I wanted to call attention to a Religion News Service column by Jesuit priest Thomas Reese that seems especially timely in light of today’s headlines.

In the column, Reese writes about “What Catholics and Southern Baptists can learn from each other about sex abuse crisis.”

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Faith struggles of young D.C. Catholic women? Washington Post says it's all 'politics'

Faith struggles of young D.C. Catholic women? Washington Post says it's all 'politics'

For millions of Roman Catholics, the world began changing in the 1980s — with waves of headlines about clergy sexual abuse cases that eventually led to reporter Jason Berry’s cathartic 1992 book “Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children.”

The National Catholic Reporter wrote article after article about the scandals. A crucial moment came in 1985, when The New York Times published a brutal article about the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, who admitted that he abused dozens of children in parishes in rural, southwest Louisiana. HBO eventually made a movie — “Judgement” — about the Gauthe case.

Mainstream news reporters, including me, covered stories linked to the emerging scandal all through the 1980s, as the U.S. Catholic bishops met behind closed doors to discuss how to solve this hellish puzzle.

As a series of documentaries by Minnesota Public Radio stated, “It all began in Lafayette.”

I offered this brief flash back as context for an important, but stunningly faith-free, Washington Post “social issues” feature that ran under this headline: “What it’s like to be a young Catholic in a new era of clergy sex abuse scandals.” Here is the features crucial summary material:

In an era when the church is frequently perceived as behind the times on matters of importance to them, some young Catholics have responded to the latest setbacks by pulling further away from the beleaguered institution, while others have drawn closer.

This generation of Catholic college students has grown up amid the stain of the sexual abuse crisis, which was first exposed by The Boston Globe in 2002 and has since implicated clergy around the world. Most can’t even remember a pre-scandal church.

At the same time, they and young people generally are a critical demographic for the future of Catholicism, which has an aging parishioner base and has struggled to attract and retain young people.

Catholicism has seen the largest decline in participation among major religious groups, according to a report in 2016 from the Public Religion Research Institute.

For starters, the Post does need to run a correction stating that the first national exposure of the clergy sexual abuse scandal did not come in 2002 in the Spotlight work published by The Boston Globe. The Globe work was stunning, and crucial, but it is simply inaccurate to ignore the nearly two decades of work that came before that.

However, the heart of this article consists of interviews with young Catholic women in Washington, D.C., along with experts who describe how their views illustrate the faith impact of the ongoing scandals. There are, apparently, no young Catholic men inside the Beltway.

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Good news and bad news: The role of online journalism in the Catholic sex-abuse scandal

Good news and bad news: The role of online journalism in the Catholic sex-abuse scandal

“Proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear.”

Those words by Saint Catherine of Siena appear most fitting this summer as the Catholic Church in the United States grapples with allegations of widespread sex abuse by priests going back several decades.  

In July, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick after it was revealed that the 88-year-old former head of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., had allegedly abused a teenage boy for years starting in 1969. It was also made public that McCarrick had been accused in three other sexual assault cases involving seminarians.  

Last month, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a shocking report filled with decades of allegations regarding sexual abuses by clerics with children and teenagers — and cover-ups by bishops — that reopened a wound within the church regarding pedophilia and homosexuality among the clergy. It also sparked debate for reform regarding whether priests should be allowed to marry like clergy in other Christian denominations.  

The incidents came on the heels of sex-abuse scandals that rocked the church in Chile and Australia.

If that wasn’t enough, a whistleblower named Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano released an 11-page letter (full text here) on August 25 describing a series of events in which the Vatican — and specifically Pope Francis —  had been made aware of McCarrick’s immoral behavior years ago.

Vigano claimed Pope Benedict XVI had placed restrictions on McCarrick, including not allowing him to say Mass in public. Vigano alleges Pope Francis reversed those sanctions. In the letter, Vigano, a former papal ambassador to the United States, said Francis “knew from at least June 23, 2013 that McCarrick was a serial predator. He knew that he was a corrupt man, he covered for him to the bitter end.” 

Unlike in 2002 — when an investigation by The Boston Globe unearthed decades of abuse by prelates never reported to civil authorities — accusations of wrongdoing within the Catholic Church these days are mixed with sacred and secular politics.

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That Theodore McCarrick crisis: New York Times started this nasty poker game. Now what?

That Theodore McCarrick crisis: New York Times started this nasty poker game. Now what?

Step into the journalism Wayback Machine for a moment, please. 

So how did this wild game of Vatican news, commentary and rumors get started? While reporters continue to jump up and down on Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano (his infamous letter is here), U.S. papal nuncio from 2011-2016, it may help to look back at the first card that was played in this poker match.

Well, let's say that this was the first card played in public.

I am referring, of course, to the New York Times piece that ran on July 16 under this headline: "He Preyed on Men Who Wanted to Be Priests. Then He Became a Cardinal."

I realize that there were stories in June, when McCarrick -- one of the most powerful Catholic media figures for decades -- was hit with charges that he abused a male teen-ager. Our own Julia Duin began writing posts about McCarrick's shady reputation and how reporters had never been able to get the right sources, on the record, that would allow them to nail down reports about McCarrick that had circulated for many years.

But the Times report on "Uncle Ted" and his years of abuse and sexual harassment raised haunting questions: Who had protected McCarrick and promoted him throughout his career? How many men in red hats were loyal to him, because he helped them? How high did these connections go, in the Catholic hierarchy in America and in Rome?

This is the deeper background behind this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which focuses on what I believe is the core story linked to the Vigano letter. Yes, Vigano said that media superstar Pope Francis should resign -- a sure headline maker under any circumstances. But the real story here remains McCarrick and the network that surrounded him.

Was Francis part of that network, in recent years or in the past? If Vigano is telling the truth, then the odds are very good that all the details will be in church files in Washington, D.C., and Rome. Vigano is saying what a five-star source would say, as a story like this unfolds: Open the files. Prove me wrong. Make my day, pope.

Meanwhile, what about the news media? It the Times -- the ultimate game changer -- played a key card in this game, what will the media do next? 

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Documents, documents, documents: It's time to get back to the McCarrick scandal

Documents, documents, documents: It's time to get back to the McCarrick scandal

(Sound effect: A loud sigh.)

I wasn't going to write about the Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano letter again today. 

Honest. I hit the wall yesterday, trying to read another 24 hours worth of coverage of this story.

What's frustrating, of course, is that most of the coverage is about Vigano and the letter, as opposed to what the letter is about -- as in the strange story of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and who -- in the global Catholic hierarchy -- knew or did not know about his love of sleeping with seminarians.

But people keep asking me this question: What is this story really about?

Well, I think I have found two passages that kind of sum things up.

First, there is a story from Reuters: "Defenders rally around pope, fear conservatives escalating war." The true story, you see, is not McCarrick and his network of supporters. No, the REAL STORY is that McCarrick had truly evil enemies and, now, those enemies want the head of Pope Francis?

Why, precisely? The top of this story is very concise:

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) -- Supporters of Pope Francis have rushed to his defense after a former top Vatican official launched an unprecedented attack on him, a move they say dangerously escalates a campaign to weaken his papacy by conservatives who condemn him as too liberal.

Francis’ supporters say the accusations in Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano’s 11-page public statement aim to pave the way for a conservative pope to succeed him who would reverse his openings to divorced and homosexual Catholics.

Oh my, that's perfect.

The Reuters story is built on the views of the Catholic left, but it opens with several variations on exactly what I continue to hear from some -- repeat SOME -- conservative Catholics who are chanting, basically, "It's gay priests! It's gay bishops! It's gay cardinals!"

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The must-cover 'Big Ideas' at heart of the complex Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis

The must-cover 'Big Ideas' at heart of the complex Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis

First we had the tsunami of clergy sexual-abuse news linked to the life and times of former cardinal Theodore "Uncle Ted" McCarrick.

Now we have a second wave of digital ink following the devastating -- especially for those who had not followed this scandal for nearly four decades -- Pennsylvania grand-jury report (full .pdf here). 

After the report, there was an obvious story that had to be covered.

Priests from coast to coast had to face their people in Sunday Mass. What would they say? How would people react? This was one Sunday when it was clear that editors had to tell a reporter to go to church and take careful notes.

Ah, but which church? And, once again, journalists faced horrifying questions about which details to publish, drawn from this vision of clerical hell. After all, some of the crucial details were clearly X-rated. Others were sure to bring down the wrath of activists -- those inside and outside these newsrooms -- with axes to grind linked to this explosive topic (sex with children, teens and seminarians).

Thus, the world's most powerful newsroom, the one that editors nationwide look to for editorial guidance, did its own version of the "angry Catholics at Mass" story. We are talking about The New York Times, of course. Here is the overture. Please read carefully:

Some Catholic priests offered fiery homilies, telling parishioners their anger at the sex abuse detailed in last week’s grand jury report was justified, even necessary. Others asked the faithful to pray for the abusers. And some said nothing about the scandal on the first Sunday since the release of the report that detailed 70 years of child sex abuse by hundreds of priests in Pennsylvania.

Regular worshipers at Sacred Heart Church in Lyndhurst, N.J., and visitors from around the globe at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue packed the pews and listened intently to what church leaders had to say about the sex abuse revelations that continue to pain Catholics and haunt the church.

Church leaders found themselves in a difficult but sadly familiar position, as they faced their congregations. Except this time they grappled with the unique breadth and horrific details outlined in a grand jury report that ran for nearly 900 pages. The report accused 300 priests of abusing more than 1,000 victims and cataloged ghastly assaults, like that of a priest who raped a young girl in a hospital after she had her tonsils removed.

Now, flash back a few days to an earlier post: "A time for anger? Some Catholic bishops worked hard to limit exposure of their sins and crimes." This post focused on the very first Times article reacting to the grand-jury text.

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