Reporting on Vatican reports

vaticanThe Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education completed its report on the health of U.S. seminaries and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops posted the report this week. The in-depth look at seminaries was prompted by the sexual abuse crisis that received so much attention a few years ago. The report was generally positive and said that the situation at seminaries had improved in certain areas. The Catholic News Service sums it up this way:

The trouble spots highlighted by the report include: an "incomplete grasp" of the difference between the ordained priesthood and the priesthood of the laity; faculty who subvert the Church's teachings; the need to screen seminary candidates for irregularities and impediments at the beginning of formation; a lack of supervision of seminarians by the rector and the bishop and a discouragement of traditional forms of piety.

One area sure to receive attention from media coverage is the area of seminarian's moral behavior.

And that's precisely where reporters will focus their stories on the report. Associated Press religion reporter Rachel Zoll quickly whipped up a story on that angle:

A Vatican evaluation of U.S. Roman Catholic seminaries in response to the clergy sex abuse scandal concluded that administrators have largely been effective in rooting out "homosexual behavior" in the schools, although the agency said it persists.

The Congregation for Catholic Education sought a broad review of how the schools screen and educate prospective priests, but gave special attention to teachings on chastity and celibacy. The Vatican also directed evaluators to look for "evidence of homosexuality" in the schools.

The AP pulls out all of the relevant information from the report. (More can be found here.) Evaluators cited better administration as a factor in ensuring improvement. The report said institutes run by religious orders weren't doing as well and the story notes that one-third of U.S. priests belong to religious orders.

Here the story explains how the seminary investigation relates to the sexual abuse crisis:

Past studies commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have found that the majority of known victims of abuse by priests in the last 50 years were adolescent boys. In response, some Catholics blamed gay clergy for the scandal; experts on sex offenders argued that gays are no more likely than heterosexuals to molest children. . . .

The agency said teaching on celibacy and chastity appeared to be "adequate" in all of the more than 220 U.S. seminaries. Still, the evaluators recommended stronger oversight of students during their free time, including monitoring their use of the Internet.

The report expressed approval of the screening criteria for seminarians, but said some schools still feel pressured by the priest shortage to hurry students toward ordination before they are fully prepared.

I'm not sure how fair it is to ascribe competing views to "some Catholics" versus "experts" but it's a quick report. The AP story gets quotes from an abuse survivor group that says the seminary investigation missed the mark. Instead, they wished the church hierarchy would change how it responds to allegations of abuse. Other critical views are included.

I thought this was pretty fascinating, although I'd like to know a bit more about the research review:

The scandal added fuel to long-simmering debates within the U.S. church about whether seminary faculty truly adhered to Catholic teaching and whether the priesthood was becoming a predominantly gay vocation. There is no exact figure of the number of gay clergy. Estimates vary from 25 percent to 50 percent, according to a review of research on the issue by the Rev. Donald Cozzens, author of "The Changing Face of the Priesthood."

One of the things that was missing from the story was any sort of explanation of what criteria -- if any -- the Vatican was using in making the determination that the situation at seminaries was better. There's no discussion of metrics. Did the report attempt to substantiate the claim? I'm not sure.

Another interesting story on the larger matter of sex abuse and its subsequent fallout was one that slipped right through the cracks and into my "guilt file" about a month ago. National Public Radio reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty had a terrific and very well balanced report on two lawsuits against the Vatican that are making it further than any other suits have. Which is to say that they are still a very long shot.

She begins the piece by looking at Michael Turner, an abuse victim who won a settlement for abuse he endured at the hands of a priest in the 1960s. And then:

Now Turner is in court again -- suing the Vatican. [PDF] Until recently, no federal court has allowed a case to proceed against the Vatican -- and few really believed the Holy See would ever be open to lawyers or its treasury subject to money damages. It is considered a foreign state with sovereign immunity.

But there are exceptions to the immunity, including one called the "tortious act" exception. If Turner can show that U.S. bishops are officials of the Vatican, and that they harmed children by failing to report sex abuse, then he has a chance of getting to trial.

The story covers all the details about the cases and how many think they might be futile but how the litigants are hopeful that they can establish a pattern of abuse is more than coincidence. In fact, they are particularly hopeful about a document called "Crimen Sollicitationis" and signed by Pope John XXIII that instructs bishops how to handle, among other things, child sex-abuse cases. It was written in 1962 but wasn't publicly revealed until a few years ago:

The document states that abuse cases must be "pursued in a most secretive way," and that all involved be "restrained by a perpetual silence." That includes the bishop, the priest prosecutor and the judge, the accuser and the accused, even the notary.

"Every single person involved in the case is absolutely obligated to the grave to remain silent," [former Benedictine priest Patrick] Wall says. "Otherwise they will be excommunicated and damned to hell."

What's nice about the NPR piece is that it doesn't just leave that salacious quote hanging there. Hagerty develops the piece and includes commentary from a law professor who says that the document dealt solely with internal matters and never addressed reporting of abuse to outside authorities. And the story repeatedly notes what a long shot these cases are even while she explains their significance.

All reporters try to build their articles and stories around real people but she does a particularly nice job of fleshing out the intricacies and conflicts in a situation without forcing her subjects one way or another.

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