What happens when Washington Post goes behind scenes of parish ensnared in sexual abuse scandal?

It’s a massive story — the ongoing tremors from the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandals. It’s an impossible subject — for most mere mortal reporters — to tackle in a single shot.

Which is why I was impressed with a recent feature by a Washington Post writer who traveled to Rapid City, S.D. Terrence McCoy, who covers social issues in rural and urban America, produced an exceptional piece of journalism by going small.

Not small as in the length of the piece. No, this was a long feature. But small in terms of focus? Exactly.

McCoy shines a tight spotlight (not to be confused with that other “Spotlight”) on a priest dealing with the fallout from a fellow clergyman’s arrest on a child sex abuse charge. The result: an in-depth news-feature that is full of revealing and relevant details.

The Post story sets the scene this way:

RAPID CITY, S.D. — Brian Christensen is on his way to jail again. Clerical collar around his thin neck, rosary dangling from the rearview mirror, the priest sets out on the same trip he has taken almost every day that week. First was Monday afternoon, when he followed the detectives down this road, then up to the third floor of the police department, where he waited outside the interrogation room. On Wednesday, he went to the preliminary hearing, where the felony charges were announced: two counts of sexual contact with a 13-year-old. On Thursday, and on Friday, he returned to arrange a visitation with the Rev. John Praveen, 38, whom he last saw being cuffed and led into a police car, and who is now being held on a $100,000 cash bond and facing 30 years in prison.

Now, Monday again, Christensen pulls out of the parking lot at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where as lead pastor he oversaw Praveen’s clerical duties. He makes the five-minute drive to the Pennington County jail, where he plans to speak with the incarcerated priest for the first time since his arrest.

“Aren’t you tired of all this?” his mother asked him on the phone that morning, and he could only sigh and say, yes, “I am tired of this.”

This: a string of child sex abuse scandals that — spanning decades, continents and thousands of victims — has fundamentally altered how the world views the Catholic Church and priests like him, in particular. With every crisis, Christensen had allowed himself to hope that now, perhaps, it would be over, only to see another year like this one, when every day seems to bring news of sex crimes and cover-ups in the church. A grand jury report in Pennsylvania accused more than 300 priests of abusing about 1,000 children, spurring federal authorities to investigate. Two U.S. cardinals have been disgraced. And approval ratings for Pope Francis, who once was the world’s most popular leader, have plummeted among Americans.

Besides the tight focus, the writer’s obvious understanding of the subject matter — including the subtle intricacies of Catholicism — make this a gripping piece to read.

What could be better? In a few cases, the story drifts into (seeming) editorialization, such as here:

To Christensen, the stakes were clear. No other major religion in the United States had lost more adherents than Catholicism over the past two decades. The combination of rapid social change, rigid church doctrine and a steady accumulation of clergy sex abuse scandals had plunged the church into turmoil. Millions of Americans raised Catholic — 41 percent of them, according to the Pew Research Center — no longer identified themselves that way

Rigid church doctrine? Note that the implication here is that Christensen believes that the “stakes are clear” because of the information that follows. Did this priest say that?

What doctrines is the Post talking about? Does everybody consider them “rigid” or just journalists at the Post? Some specificity would be helpful there. Or perhaps a less loaded adjective could be used.

Also, the piece falls into the trap of many stories in suggesting that “the first major scandal in the American church” occurred in 2002, when the Boston Globe did its much-heralded (and rightly so) investigation. But the actual timeline, as we’ve pointed out repeatedly, is more complicated than that, stretching back to 1985 or even earlier.

These factual questions aside, the Post story overall is interesting and informative and well worth your time. Consider, for example, this strong passage about Christensen and a scene from his daily life as a priest:

He knelt, hunched his shoulders over a pew and lowered his head into his hands.

He’d always wanted to say, “Not on my watch,” and that was how it had been at his parish. Even if the kids complained or the courses seemed repetitive, he’d demanded biannual abuse training for children so they could recognize what it meant to be touched inappropriately. In every church bathroom hung laminated signs encouraging victims of clergy abuse to “speak out.” But now, a scandal he’d once associated with faraway Boston or Milwaukee had arrived here, too. And it hadn’t just allegedly happened on his watch but inside the cathedral itself, down in the basement, on a late September day when hundreds of people, including him, were at the church. And none of them had any idea.

Check it out.

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