Yet another clergy sexual abuse story, with vague AP language that may hide crucial facts

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You would think that this would be an easy question.

What is a “boy”?

Now, I am not talking about all those cute posters about what happens when you mix noise and dirt. I am actually talking about a term linked to some of the most important facts at the heart of the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis.

As it turns out, “boy” is an almost useless word, in the context of news coverage. If you look in one major online dictionary and this is what you will find:

boy

noun ...

1 a: a male child from birth to adulthood

OK, so we are dealing with a male somewhere between birth and, what, age 21?

With that question in mind, consider the top of the following Associated Press report — “Church covered up priest’s abuse of 50 boys” — about another horrible case that has jumped off the back burner and into the headlines:

FORT DODGE, Iowa (AP) — A Roman Catholic diocese acknowledged Wednesday that it concealed for decades a priest’s admission that he sexually abused dozens of Iowa boys — a silence that may have put other children in danger.

The Rev. Jerome Coyle, now 85, was stripped of his parish assignments in the 1980s but never defrocked. And it was not until this week, after The Associated Press inquired about him, that he was publicly identified by the church as an admitted pedophile, even though the Diocese of Sioux City had been aware of his conduct for 32 years.

The diocese recently helped Coyle move into a retirement home in Fort Dodge, Iowa, without informing administrators at the Catholic school across the street.

The key words there are, of course, “boys” and “pedophile.”

Yes, here we go again: What is the common definition of “pedophilia”? That would be, to quote that recent Commonweal article by former Newsweek scribe Kenneth L. Woodward, an “adult who is sexually attracted to prepubescent children.”

Is this what we are talking about with the victims in most of these Coyle cases, or does AP need to run a correction?

Let’s walk through a few references in this news feature, which is getting major play nationwide:

In 1986, Coyle reported his “history of sexual attraction to and contact with boys” to Sioux City’s bishop, revealing that he had victimized approximately 50 youngsters over a 20-year period while serving in several Iowa parishes, according to a private letter written in February by the diocese vicar general and obtained by the AP.

So we have “boys” and “youngsters.” This is not precise language, is it? “Youngsters” is used more than once. “Children” is used, later on.

Then there is this:

In 1986, the diocese was aware of one complaint against Coyle from a college student but did not have that man’s name, O’Brien said. That individual and another now-adult victim have come forward in recent weeks, and their allegations against Coyle will be reported to police, she said.

His total number of victims could be higher than 50 because the diocese remains “uncertain of an accurate number,” O’Brien said.

So this young man was a college student at the time of the abuse? Let’s read on:

Coyle … has not been publicly accused of molesting any minors in the past three decades, but lawyers and detectives are looking into what he has been up to since 1986. Fort Dodge police interviewed Coyle and searched his apartment last month after being tipped off that he was living near a school.

Now we have a new term, “minors.” That’s rather vague, as well.

Later on we get to some specifics:

The diocese privately revealed Coyle’s past in a letter to a Catholic couple who had been allowing Coyle to live at their Albuquerque home after he was injured in a 2017 car accident. The letter warned the couple, Reuben and Tania Ortiz, that the diocese “cannot condone the risk you take” in allowing Coyle to live with their three teenage children.

“The letter was very scary for us as parents,” said Reuben Ortiz, who had been friends with Coyle for years and was unaware of the extent of his abuse. He said that he confronted Coyle and that the priest could not guarantee that he would be able to refrain from fondling his son.

Now we are talking about male teens. By definition, we are not dealing with pedophilia in this scenario, but “ephebophilia” — the term used when an adult is sexually attracted to pubescent children.

As we have seen for years now, the vast majority of sexual abuse cases involving Catholic priests are cases of ephebophilia, which is — in clinical terms — quite different from pedophilia. Click here for some background, from a leading Catholic voice on the left.

The bottom line: The AP article contains no precise information to justify its use of the term “pedophilia” when discussing the 50 or so allegations linked to Coyle. Are we talking about the sexual abuse of young boys, teens, older teens or some combination of these crimes?

Toward the end of the article, we see the same vague patterns:

In the letter to Ortiz, and a similar one to Coyle, Vicar General Bradley Pelzel tried to discourage the priest from moving back to Iowa. He said the boys Coyle molested would now be men between the ages of 45 and 70, and they “could potentially encounter him and be retraumatized by the memories that would surface.”

Contrast this factual fog with the language near the top of a new report in The New York Times about allegations against a bishop:

An auxiliary Catholic bishop in New York, John Jenik, has been accused of sexual abuse and removed from his public ministry, Catholic officials said, the latest scandal to hit an institution already reeling from revelations of inappropriate behavior by its clergy around the globe.

“Although the alleged incidents occurred decades ago, the Lay Review Board has concluded that the evidence is sufficient to find the allegation credible and substantiated,” Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said in a statement on Wednesday.

The allegation involves an inappropriate relationship with a teenage boy in the 1980s, according to the accuser and his lawyer. Bishop Jenik, 74, denied the allegation, which will be investigated by the Vatican.

In this case, the adjective in front of the word “boy” is crucial.

What follows is a classic case of grooming — “seduction” is not the right word — that led to a relationship that lasted throughout the teen years, for this victim.

This passage is long, but essential. This is the narrative that reporters are seeing over and over again, in police reports and interviews with victims:

Bishop Jenik had met the young Mr. Meenan through confession, where he gained his trust. He then became close with his family, Mr. Meenan said. Within months, the priest was taking him out for dinner and movies and serving him alcohol.

According to Mr. Meenan, he also began taking the boy for overnight stays at a house he owned in Tivoli, N.Y. Often it was just the two of them, and there would be more drinking. Mr. Meenan said his parents consented to the arrangement because they implicitly trusted the priest.

“I was conditioned to do this,” Mr. Meenan said. “I was doing exactly what I was supposed to do.”

During those visits, he said, he and the priest would usually sleep in separate beds. But, he said, on one occasion when Mr. Meenan was 15, the two shared a bed. Mr. Meenan described the priest — who had been drinking — rubbing and patting the sides of his body over the blankets. Mr. Meenan said he was frozen with terror as it happened.

“The weirdest, creepiest part was how he was putting his mouth next to my mouth, as if he was taking my breath,” he said.

Mr. Meenan said the inappropriate relationship occurred from about 1980 to 1986. Then, Mr. Meenan recalled, the priest told him he no longer had time for him. He estimated that he stayed overnight at the Tivoli house about 70 times.

Yes, 70 times. The relationship began when the victim was 13 and ended when he was 19.

In this case, the Times editors did the right thing — avoiding the word “pedophilia.”

The editors at AP needed to take a similar approach to the basic facts.

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