The Corner


Media Scripts about Catholic Bishops and Clergy Sex Abuse Are Bad Cartoons

Peter Steinfels at Commonweal has a long article that needed to be written. It’s 11,700 words (none are wasted) on the sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church — specifically, on the Pennsylvania grand-jury report released last summer. The heinousness of the sexual crimes and misconduct described therein has been amply noted by just about everyone who has commented on the report. It was noted by the authors of the report itself, and not just noted but drummed loudly, while they glossed over masses of detail that didn’t fit their story about Catholic bishops. The sum of the evidence in their 1,356-page document belies their broad-brush, monochromatic characterization of the problem, Steinfels contends:

I believe that the grand jury could have reached precise, accurate, informing, and hard-hitting findings about what different church leaders did and did not do, what was regularly done in some places and some decades and not in others. . . .

Instead the report chose a tack more suited to our hyperbolic, bumper-sticker, post-truth environment. . . . Imagine, at least for a moment, that a declamation like “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” came from one of our elected or televised demagogues. Would one really dismiss any fact-finding as uncalled for?

For Steinfels to have added his voice to the record of outrage at clerical depravity and left it at that would not have been much of a contribution. Instead he attempts what the grand jury didn’t: to articulate an intelligent, honest account of the information they compiled. He devotes the heart of his piece to a close reading of the cases from Erie, one of the six dioceses that the grand jury investigated. In Steinfels’s analysis,

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.”


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’s a convention of commentary on the scandals to dismiss as a charade the treatment centers to which bishops sent abusive priests. Some of the facilities, though, were well respected. Steinfels, a Commonweal and New York Times alumnus, whose professional instinct is to question authority, religious and otherwise, visited a treatment center favored by some Catholic bishops at the time, in 1992. He writes that he was “impressed with the staff’s professionalism, the rigor of their methods (at least as described to me), and their argument that it was better for endangered youth and the church to treat priests over whom the church retained considerable leverage than to ‘cut them loose’ on society by laicizing them.”

Steinfels finds that different bishops responded differently to allegations of clergy sex abuse. In some instances they acted in good faith, responsibly and appropriately by the standards of the day. On the whole, their ability to identify and take measures to halt abuse improved over time. “If distinctions can be made from diocese to diocese or from one bishop’s tenure to another’s, why not make them?” Steinfels asks. “Why the virtually identical sweeping and damning charges across the board?”

Steinfels describes “a script,” promulgated by media and echoed by victims’ advocates and Church officials alike, “about bishops, bishops who were fully aware of the dangers that predatory priests posed to children and adolescents but who nonetheless ‘shuttled’ or ‘shuffled’ them from parish to parish to shield the reputation of the church and the clergy.” The script is “so familiar as to defy any questioning.” To question it would be to risk misunderstanding. People would think you were making excuses for sexual abuse or its cover-up. Hence the temptation to “binary thinking,” the assumption that

to question the report’s conclusions is to affirm the very opposite. If it is not true that all victims were “brushed aside,” then it must be true that no victims were ever brushed aside. If it is not true that church leaders routinely acted to protect their priests and institutions, then it must be true that no church leader ever did that.

Some people active in the cause to expose what’s left to expose of the crisis in the Church last century, and to make the case that the Vatican and the bishops in 2019 are engaged in a concerted campaign to cover up the truth, may have ulterior motives. (You’d be naïve not to notice.) They may hope that Pope Francis will be embarrassed to the point that he resigns and the Return of the Spirit of Vatican II loses its spearhead. Others, of a very different mind, adduce the scandals to advance their argument that Rome should abandon its requirement of celibacy for Latin-rite priests and, more generally, that it should revise Church teachings on sexual morality so that they better reflect present-day Western mores (sometimes advocates for such reform try to shoehorn in an argument for women’s ordination as well), although how any of that would be helpful now is unclear, since the crisis they rightly decry is less ongoing than historical.

The door to the demons unleashed with special fury in the 1960s began to close in the 1980s. The Dallas charter (2002, 2005, 2011, 2018) has all but shut it. Some misconduct by priests in the United States in the past 15 years has been reported, but, even after we factor in that victims may be slow to come forward, the incidence is minuscule compared with the thousands of cases that are alleged to have occurred in the Church in the 1970s (and minuscule compared with the number of cases in “public schools, juvenile-detention centers, or other state agencies, where,” according to Steinfels, “far more abuse occurs”).

The avalanche of sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests in the second half of the 20th century has left the Church, the Body of Christ, with wounds of immeasurable, perduring severity, and then cartoon treatments of the horror add insult to the injury. Peter Steinfels has gone far toward redressing the insult. Give the man a Pulitzer.

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