What did they know?

Here's the New York Times' latest piece about sex abuse by Roman Catholic clergy in Europe. It's brief but unbelievably sad. Here's the lede:

BRUSSELS -- The Roman Catholic Church, battered by sexual abuse scandals from the United States to Belgium, is facing a new set of damaging allegations in the Netherlands. Figures released Thursday by an investigative commission showed that almost 2,000 people had made complaints of sexual or physical abuse against the church, in a country with only four million Catholics.

"The Roman Catholic Church has not faced a crisis like this since the French Revolution," Peter Nissen, a professor of the history of religion at Radboud University in the Netherlands, said of the growing abuse scandal.

With one legal case starting this week, and accusations against two former bishops, the reaction of the church appears to have fueled the crisis. Nearly all of the cases are decades old, with probably no more than 10 from the past 20 years.

I had to highlight these paragraphs. They're well written and tightly composed. The news is devastating and hints at something more interesting to come ("the reaction of the church"). But that last line is just good journalism.

I can't imagine what it's like for 2,000 people to come forward in a country with only four million Catholics or what it's like to have bishops so accused. But it's also important to know that the bulk of these cases -- the vast majority, in fact -- came from the 1980s or earlier. One of the things I've criticized stories for is failing to properly contextualize abuse claims in terms of time. This story does that well. And it doesn't take away from the drama or news. Indeed giving full information adds to it.

I thought this Netherlands update from September made for sad reading but I can't quite get these paragraphs out of my head:

Asked in March on television about the hundreds of complaints already surfacing, one of the church's most senior figures, Cardinal Adrianus Simonis, shocked the nation by replying not in Dutch but in German. "Wir haben es nicht gewusst" -- We knew nothing -- he said, using a phrase associated with Nazi excuses after World War II.

"A lot of people perceived it as an affirmation of the culture of covering up cases," said Professor Nissen, adding that it meant to many, "'We should have known' or 'We knew but we didn't want to know.'"

What makes that phrase so much more interesting is what comes after it. The lawyer seeking damages for 120 clients says that the church protected abusing priests. The vast majority of the claims involved victims at boarding schools and boys clubs. These were run by religious orders. The church says that diocesan bishops don't have responsibility for these groups.

So it seems the cardinal -- who will testify in a case involving a priest who was arrested on charges in a city where he was once bishop -- might be making a point that while he and other leaders weren't technically in charge, they should have done more. Maybe he's admitting that he and other leaders were too lazy to go around these lines of authority in order to do what's right.

But mostly what I'm impressed by is that this story includes so many of these details and provides context to help the reader understand. It would have been nice if a few more analysts other than Professor Nissen were included, but it seems this story packs a lot of important information and details into each paragraph.

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