Once upon a time, there was a Catholic priest in Louisiana named Gilbert Gauthe. As Time magazine wrote:
Father Gilbert Gauthe, a Roman Catholic priest, delivered spellbinding funeral sermons, won local respect by rescuing a man who was trapped under an overturned tractor, and impressed many older women with his charm in Louisiana's Vermilion Parish. But most of all, he was a Pied Piper for the children. He would take them on wilderness trips, play games and invite favored boys to spend the weekend in the rectory.
And so it began.
Obviously, there were clergy abuse cases before that, but the Gauthe case took this subject into the national headlines for the first time. That Time report ran in 1985, which is a good point to start a timeline of mainstream media coverage on the scandal.
Note, if you will, that there is quite a gap of time between 1985 and 2002. Do the math.
Now, read the following passages in a gripping Associated Press report that is running in newspapers at the moment. It focuses on the spiritual damage that the abuse scandals -- that word is plural, which is crucial -- have caused among lawyers such as Eric MacLeish, many of whom are Catholics, who have handled these hellish cases.
The sex scandal that rocked the nation's Roman Catholic Church took a fearsome personal toll on some of the top lawyers who dared to challenge the institution. While many of them ultimately reaped large fees for their services, the all-consuming workload, the pressure of battling the church and the stress of listening to graphic accounts of children's suffering were debilitating. ...
The crisis exploded in Boston in 2002, after internal church documents released publicly showed that church leaders for decades had shuffled sexually abusive priests from parish to parish. The scandal spread across the country as thousands of lawsuits were filed by people who claimed they had been victimized.
For MacLeish, the clergy cases reawakened memories of being sexually abused as a child.
MacLeish and other lawyers won an $85 million settlement in Boston in 2003 for more than 500 victims. But in the months after the landmark settlement was announced, MacLeish began to unravel. He developed insomnia and nausea, lost 40 pounds and couldn't work.
Now, it should be noted that this story contains a few references to earlier stages of the scandal, such as a Dallas judgment in 1997. It also mentions that one lawyer has been working on these kinds of cases for 20 years. In many ways -- ironically -- this story is not all that bad.
However, the emphasis once again is on Boston and the media storm that began there in 2002. As in many other stories, it is easy to think that this is when the real scandal began. However, framing the issue in that manner is simply wrong and often skews coverage and, thus, the public's perception of these scandals that have been spread out over the past three decades.
This timeline issue is similar, in many ways, to the warped timeline that shapes many reports about the local, regional, national and international conflicts in the Anglican Communion. If you must, click here to refresh your memory.
GetReligion has written about this Catholic clergy-abuse timeline over and over and over. We will continue to do so, because it only takes a few extra words for editors and reporters to get the facts right. This is one cause in which the basic facts have even made it into Wikipedia.
Every newsroom that covers these cases needs to keep a few books in its libraries, books such as Jason Berry's "Lead Us Not Into Temptation" and, on the Catholic right, Leon Podles' massive tome "Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church," which contains enough footnotes to satisfy even the most picky copy-desk pro.
Yes, this is a very hard story to cover. However, it isn't hard to get a few basic facts right.