The must-cover 'Big Ideas' at heart of the complex Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis

First we had the tsunami of clergy sexual-abuse news linked to the life and times of former cardinal Theodore "Uncle Ted" McCarrick.

Now we have a second wave of digital ink following the devastating -- especially for those who had not followed this scandal for nearly four decades -- Pennsylvania grand-jury report (full .pdf here). 

After the report, there was an obvious story that had to be covered.

Priests from coast to coast had to face their people in Sunday Mass. What would they say? How would people react? This was one Sunday when it was clear that editors had to tell a reporter to go to church and take careful notes.

Ah, but which church? And, once again, journalists faced horrifying questions about which details to publish, drawn from this vision of clerical hell. After all, some of the crucial details were clearly X-rated. Others were sure to bring down the wrath of activists -- those inside and outside these newsrooms -- with axes to grind linked to this explosive topic (sex with children, teens and seminarians).

Thus, the world's most powerful newsroom, the one that editors nationwide look to for editorial guidance, did its own version of the "angry Catholics at Mass" story. We are talking about The New York Times, of course. Here is the overture. Please read carefully:

Some Catholic priests offered fiery homilies, telling parishioners their anger at the sex abuse detailed in last week’s grand jury report was justified, even necessary. Others asked the faithful to pray for the abusers. And some said nothing about the scandal on the first Sunday since the release of the report that detailed 70 years of child sex abuse by hundreds of priests in Pennsylvania.

Regular worshipers at Sacred Heart Church in Lyndhurst, N.J., and visitors from around the globe at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue packed the pews and listened intently to what church leaders had to say about the sex abuse revelations that continue to pain Catholics and haunt the church.

Church leaders found themselves in a difficult but sadly familiar position, as they faced their congregations. Except this time they grappled with the unique breadth and horrific details outlined in a grand jury report that ran for nearly 900 pages. The report accused 300 priests of abusing more than 1,000 victims and cataloged ghastly assaults, like that of a priest who raped a young girl in a hospital after she had her tonsils removed.

Now, flash back a few days to an earlier post: "A time for anger? Some Catholic bishops worked hard to limit exposure of their sins and crimes." This post focused on the very first Times article reacting to the grand-jury text.

It also included a chunk of a detailed email from a Catholic priest I have known for several decades who said, of that first Times report: 

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."

The basic facts: That story's summary materials featured a female victim, a victim without gender and then another female victim.

Now we see the same pattern in the great Gray Lady's report reacting to the voices of angry Catholics in New York area pews. The example, to illustrate the hellish abuse, is of a female victim.

After that, the victims pretty much vanish. Even as Catholics plead for frank, honest discussions of the crisis, the reporting in this story continues to refer to gender-free victims, as in "child" abuse and the abuse of "children."

Meanwhile, the actual grand-jury report offered this blunt language about a complex set of crimes:

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.

So what are editors at the Times doing, in stories about this report?

We are not talking about a "conspiracy" here. We are probably talking about a set of professionals who have very strong views about this subject and, I will guess, strong reactions against Catholics who have for decades been insisting that this tragedy is about gay priests -- period.

The Times team is avoiding the essential facts, for whatever reasons. The armies of laypeople screaming "gay priests" -- period -- are being simplistic.

After some strong emails, including from a religion-beat pro or two, let me spell out what I see as the Big Ideas in this story, the journalism guidelines I am trying to defend here.

Right up front: My views have been shaped by interviews and written input with two strong voices on the Catholic left, the late Richard Sipe and the Catholic academic Father Donald Cozzens, and one on the Catholic right, investigator and academic Leon Podles.



When candid liberals and conservatives agree on core facts, I pay close attention.

I will emphasize elements of the scandal on which these men agree, ranking these Big Ideas according to their importance (as I perceive them, after nearly four decades of reading).

I: The key to the scandal is secrecy, violated celibacy vows and potential blackmail. Lots of Catholic leaders -- left and right, gay and straight -- have sexual skeletons in their closets, often involving sex with consenting adults. These weaknesses, past and/or present, create a climate of secrecy in which it is hard to crack down on crimes linked to child abuse.

II. Classic pedophiles tend to strike children of both genders. However, in terms of raw statistics, most child-abuse cases linked to Catholic clergy are not true cases of pedophilia, but are examples of ephebophilia -- intense sexual interest in post-pubescent teens or those on the doorstep of the teen years. The overwhelming majority of these clergy cases are adult males with young males.

III. One of the biggest secrets hiding in the bitter fog from all of these facts is the existence of powerful networks of sexually active gay priests, with many powerful predators -- McCarrick is a classic example -- based at seminaries and ecclesiastical offices. Thus, these men have extraordinary power in shaping the lives of future priests.

So, are these realities reflected in the news coverage that you are seeing in the news, at the local and elite national levels? 

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