It's impossible to step into the sickening whirlpool of that Pennsylvania grand-jury report, covering seven decades of Catholic priestly sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses, without feeling angry.
Right now, anger is the element of this story that I think will be the hardest for journalists to handle and to cover accurately and fairly.
First and foremost, there is the anger and grief of the victims and their families. That's a story.
Then, we also need to admit that journalists who have been on the beat for a decade or more face anger issues of their own. In many cases, reporters are facing a tough reality today -- they now know that they were often manipulated by bishops and diocesan staffs that were hiding hellish crimes.
Now they are seeing some bishops produce updated websites and public statements that -- let's face it -- look a lot like the PR campaigns of the past. Is this a story?
Also, what about the all-to-familiar flashes of anger and the sense of betrayal that many priests and bishops must be feeling today? Imagine what it feels like to be going to work right now while wearing a Roman collar.
Years ago, a friend of mine -- when he was ordained as an Episcopal priest -- said that he was shocked at how many people gave him looks of disgust when he walked the streets in black clerical clothing, thinking he was a Catholic priest. Having even one person spit at your feet is a shattering experience.
This is a story for many, many valid reasons, not the least of which is how these horrors will continue to shape efforts to handle the growing shortage of Catholic priests in parts of the world, including America.
With that in mind, read (hat tip to Rod "Benedict Option" Dreher) this remarkable set of tweets from a priest whose entire ministry has been surrounded by headlines about priests abusing children and teens:
In this age of Donald Trump, Tweeter in Chief, it is sobering to read item No. 4 in that list, the one that states the obvious: "Without The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, the Bishops would still be lying, obfuscating, and making asinine and entirely forgettable remarks about economics and immigration... "
Will that continue to be the case? Or will the U.S. bishops turn this scandal over to the FBI? Will the Vatican call for a truly independent investigation into these crimes -- which cross many state borders -- that is led by laity with proven skills at criminal investigations and the realities of psychosexual traumas? Will anyone be given the power to subpoena documents and put bishops under oath?
Will elite media, at some point, dare -- in "family" newspapers -- to print the X-rated details of many of these crimes? In this case, the Devil is truly in the details.
Yes, doing that would also mean wrestling with some of the difficult issues linked to the fact that, once again, the vast majority of these attacks were inflicted on boys and young men.
Late yesterday, I received the following from a Catholic priest I have known, via email, for many years. He read the top of the first New York Times report (see the screen shot at the top of this post) and then pounded out this candid note:
How interesting, that the NYT story on the PA Grand Jury Report should be capped by a photo showing exclusively female victims, that the existence of male victims should go unmentioned 'til the 4th graf, and that the 3rd graf should be the following:
"[The grand-jury report] catalogs horrific instances of abuse: a priest who raped a young girl in the hospital after she had her tonsils out; a victim tied up and whipped with leather straps by a priest; and another priest who was allowed to stay in ministry after impregnating a young girl and arranging for her to have an abortion."
Yes, this priest was angry. His point, of course: Right at the top of the story there is a summary with a female victim, a victim without gender and then another female victim.
Perhaps America's most powerful newspaper was sending a signal to editors who look to its sacred pages for editorial guidance? That crucial Times report never got around to printing this complex, but honest, paragraph from the report:
Most of the victims were boys; but there were girls too. Some were teens; many were prepubescent. Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants, or were groped by them. Some were raped orally, some vaginally, some anally. But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.
Obviously, I could go on and on. But here is a calm, reasoned summary from Crux that puts the emphasis on the cover-ups, as well as the crimes:
The report also contains details of the response of dioceses and the failure of certain bishops to act.
According to the report, most of the victims were boys and were pre-pubescent when their abuse took place, and some were manipulated with the use of alcohol or pornography. There was a wide range of the type of abuse victims endured, but in every case, “all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by Church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.”
Almost every instance of abuse the jury found is too old to be prosecuted “as a consequence of the cover-up,” they said, “but that is not to say there are no more predators.” ...
The grand jury’s report found that in each of the six dioceses investigated, “the main thing was not to help children, but to avoid ‘scandal,’” and to do this, complaints were kept in a “secret archive” that only the bishop had access to. According to analysis carried out by the FBI, bishops, they said, almost unanimously operated as if there had been “a playbook for concealing the truth.”
The grand-jury report -- nearly 900 pages long -- included a devastating summary of that "playbook" for preventing state officials and journalists from, decade after decade, being able to see the horrible truths that were out there.
Was there a document somewhere that stated these public-relations goals? If so, who created it? Perhaps this list is a combination of several secret documents in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
I know one thing: Honest reporters who read the following are going to be angry. Police officers, too. This summary is long, but essential, and taken straight out of the report:
First, make sure to use euphemisms rather than real words to describe the sexual assaults in diocese documents. Never say “rape”; say “inappropriate contact” or “boundary issues.”
Second, don’t conduct genuine investigations with properly trained personnel. Instead, assign fellow clergy members to ask inadequate questions and then make credibility
determinations about the colleagues with whom they live and work.
Third, for an appearance of integrity, send priests for “evaluation” at church -run psychiatric treatment centers. Allow these experts to “diagnose” whether the priest was a pedophile, based largely on the priest’s “self -reports,” and regardless of whether the priest had actually engaged in sexual contact with a child.
Fourth, when a priest does have to be removed, don’t say why. Tell his parishioners that he is on “sick leave,” or suffering from “nervous exhaustion.” Or say nothing at all.
Fifth, even if a priest is raping children, keep providing him housing and living expenses, although he may be using these resources to facilitate more sexual assaults.
Sixth, if a predator’s conduct becomes known to the community, don’t remove him from the priesthood to ensure that no more children will be victimized. Instead, transfer him to a new
location where no one will know he is a child abuser.
Finally and above all, don’t tell the police. Child sexual abuse, even short of actual penetration, is and has for all relevant times been a crime. But don’t treat it that way; handle it like a personnel matter, “in house.”
In conclusion, there is one other level of anger to explore.
When will we hear from angry bishops? Will we ever hear anger from the Throne of St. Peter? If and when we do, that will be a story.
If we don't hear those angry voices from on high, that will be a story as well.