Pope Francis speaks out on Catholic world's biggest story: No biggie, saith the press

The nearly 900-page Pennsylvania grand-jury report (.pdf here) about clergy sexual abuse cases contains all kinds of quotes that challenge notions about what journalists can or cannot include in news stories.

But journalists who have worked on this story for decades already knew that would be the case.

However, there is another passage in this secular document that bluntly addresses another side of this journalism puzzle. Thus, two questions: What words do we include in news reports? Do we speak clearly or do we allow parts of this subject to remain hidden in fog? We wrestled with these questions during this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Here is the crucial statement that I'm talking about, in the grand-jury report. It focuses on the methods that many Catholic leaders uses to hide these crimes:

The strategies were so common that they were susceptible to behavioral analysis by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For our benefit, the FBI agreed to assign members of its National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime to review a significant portion of the evidence received by the grand jury. Special agents testified before us that they had identified a series of practices that regularly appeared, in various configurations, in the diocesan files they had analyzed. It’s like a playbook for concealing the truth:
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.”

This leads us to an interesting story from this past week, as in the letter from Pope Francis that addressed the Pennsylvania report. This letter received way less coverage than I expected. Hold that thought.

One of the things that I like to do, when reading documents of this kind, is call up the full text and then run some computer searches to see what terms the text contains and what terms are missing. This sexual-abuse scandals (plural) require journalists to deal with several complex subjects at the same time (see this recent post for a discussion of three essentials).

Now, this papal letter does contain some blunt Francis language. Here are two of the crucial passages:

In recent days, a report was made public which detailed the experiences of at least a thousand survivors, victims of sexual abuse, the abuse of power and of conscience at the hands of priests over a period of approximately seventy years. Even though it can be said that most of these cases belong to the past, nonetheless as time goes on we have come to know the pain of many of the victims. We have realized that these wounds never disappear and that they require us forcefully to condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture of death; these wounds never go away. The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced. But their outcry was more powerful than all the measures meant to silence it, or sought even to resolve it by decisions that increased its gravity by falling into complicity. The Lord heard that cry and once again showed us on which side he stands.

Also, there is this strong material that the current pope took from the man now known as Pope Benedict XVI:

We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them. I make my own the words of the then Cardinal Ratzinger when, during the Way of the Cross composed for Good Friday 2005, he identified with the cry of pain of so many victims and exclaimed: “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]! How much pride, how much self-complacency! Christ’s betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his body and blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart.  We can only call to him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison -- Lord, save us! (cf. Mt 8:25)”. ... 

"Filth" is certainly a blunt term.

However, it's also interesting to note a few words that are not in this letter -- or perhaps the subjects are here, but hidden in euphemisms.

Missing words? How about "celibacy"? I also looked for "vows," "seminary," "boys" and "homosexuality." And here is a really important word that I searched for -- "bishops."

Now, these words point to some of the crucial subjects that journalists have tended to avoid in news reports on this drama.

That leads us to a Reuters report about the Pope Francis letter, which was one of the few stories I found on this important statement. The headline: "Pope vows no more cover ups on sexual abuse in letter to Catholics."

Want to guess that terms and subjects do not appear in this story?

There was this:

Advocates for victims of clergy sexual abuse expressed disappointment. “More actions, less words,” said Anne Barrett-Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a U.S.-based resource center that tracks cases of clerical abuse worldwide. 
“He needs an effective discipline process for bishops and religious superiors who are known to have enabled abuse,” she said. 

The bottom line? At this point, the actual abuse of children is a topic that Catholic leaders are used to discussing in public. They have worked out a code that works well with the press and, at the same time, allows them to avoid certain topics that are even more threatening -- such as the networks of clerics -- in seminaries, church bureaucracies around the world and, yes, the offices of many bishops -- that helped hide these crimes.

Look for the missing words.

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