Pope Francis and abuse victims: Washington Post pro shows how to report

To harp on a favorite theme of mine, you need experienced specialists to cover religion news. Today's case in point is a positive one: the Washington Post's in-depth piece on Catholics who want Pope Francis to address clerical sex abuse during his upcoming U.S. visit.

Rather than relying cheap shots from pressure groups, the Post's Godbeat veteran Michelle Boorstein draws her sources from Catholic authorities or those who have had direct experience with the abuse problem -- some as victims. Their viewpoints range from support to opposition, and the usually neglected points in between.

In the 1,800-word article, victims of priests confess their hopes of pressing a single point to Francis during his September visit to Philadelphia: Do more to root out sex abuse and bring justice to the abused. But the piece adopts an attitude that is not skeptical but adversarial.

The Post gives about half the story to John Salveson, an abuse survivor who has been pressing church authorities for answers off and on since the early 1980s. It reports Salveson's initial letters to his bishop, which got non-answers; then his part in a class-action lawsuit against his diocese, which failed because of a statute of limitations; then his creation of a pressure group, "which advocates for longer criminal statutes of limitations and expanded civil windows for victims to sue."

The article also quotes others, in varying tones of rage and hope.

For rage, we have the father of a deceased victim, who derides the pope: "All he does is talk. . . . You think this guy ever worked a day in his life? How could he have empathy for people like us?”  

For hope, there is the voice of another victim: “I think he’s a rock star. He really seems to be someone who genuinely seems to want to get to the bottom of this and stop it.”

And the Post logs more than viewpoints -- it also reports what Pope Francis has said and done, and what he hasn't. It reminds us how he embraced six survivors during a Mass in 2013, asking forgiveness "for the sins of omission on the part of church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse."

The story adds how Francis formed a commission for making suggestions on dealing with abuse. He then took one of its suggestions in June, creating a Vatican tribunal with the power to "try and penalize bishops who cover up abuse."

But as the newspaper goes on to say, things haven't turned around yet:

But five days after announcing the tribunal, the Vatican allowed two Minnesota bishops caught up in a criminal sex abuse case to resign without comment. It is unclear whether the two will face the future tribunal. Prosecutors had charged the archdiocese — not the bishops — with mishandling abuse cases.
Members of the papal commission — which includes two survivors and prominent Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley — have been outspoken in their criticism of the church in various cases.
“Pope Francis has brought a little more hope that the church is changing. But on the other hand, there’s an enormous amount of things that are not changing and that survivors see,” said Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor who sits on the commission.

See what I mean by experience? That quote spells out the good and bad in a single sentence. And it came not from some outside critic (although that's necessary now and then), but from a member of the Vatican commission.

Also first-rate is including Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, who has decades of experience in treating abusive priests. These days, Rossetti also "advises dioceses worldwide on child protection," WaPo says.

This otherwise fine piece does have a few soft spots. One is the occasional broad assumption. The story says the sex abuse scandals have "led many American Catholics to fall away from their faith." It also says that most abuse survivors have left the Catholic Church. In neither case does the Post support the assertion beyond the stock phrase "experts say."

I had a problem also with the sentence, "The visit is reason for celebration among those who consider Francis the first pope to begin restoring the Catholic Church’s moral authority after sex abuse scandals." The story should have acknowledged the strong actions of Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Just in 2010 and 2011, Benedict defrocked 400 priests, says The Guardian. He had made such direct action possible years earlier, when as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he ordered credible abuse cases to be forwarded to the Vatican.

Finally, it would have been worth the Post checking in with the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), at 25+ years old a major organization in abuse issues. I wouldn't be surprised if SNAP was planning a presence in Philadelphia. And I would be surprised if its top people -- Barbara Blaine, Barbara Dorris and David Clohessy -- didn't have something to say about Francis' upcoming U.S. visit.

OK, this all must sound like a lot of fault-finding when I began with praise. Well, I think it could have used a bit of improvement. But the story itself is a vast improvement over the biased, clichéd and shallow religion reporting of so many mainstream media outlets these days.

For its balance, thoroughness, multisourcing and moderate tone, this story leaves me with two main reactions: "Excellent" and "More."

Photo: Pope Francis celebrates Mass June 21 in Turin, Italy. Image via Shutterstock.com.

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