Three months in, more newsrooms need to get serious about Catholic sex abuse coverage

vatican.jpg

As of today, we’re moving into the fourth month of Cardinal-gate or whatever one wants to call the flood of revelations, regrets, resignations and just plain revulsion over the re-awakened sex abuse crisis.

Reporting on the first phase of this crescendo of bad news started kind of slowly in June as news of then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s penchant for finding sex partners among his seminarians started leaking out. During that first month, only the New York Times and the Washington Post did much of anything on it and then mostly by their religion and-or Vatican reporters.

Fast forward to this recent Post piece, by an investigative team designated to look into the actions of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Yes, there should have been a team put on the case way before this, but better late than never. You can tell that news executives are taking a story seriously when they start throwing staff at it.

A dozen years before he became a top leader in the Catholic Church, Donald Wuerl was weighing a fateful decision. It was 1994, and Wuerl, then a bishop, had removed a priest accused of child sex abuse from a Pittsburgh-area parish. But the priest refused to get psychiatric treatment, and instead asked Wuerl for time off…

The case, one of hundreds mentioned in a groundbreaking Pennsylvania grand jury report released last month, sheds light on how Wuerl handled sex abuse claims in the Pittsburgh Diocese from 1988 to 2006 — a period that now threatens to rewrite his legacy and hasten the end of his career. Wuerl, 77, announced recently that he would go to the Vatican to discuss his possible resignation with Pope Francis, and although it is not clear when that meeting will take place, Wuerl is scheduled to be in Rome this weekend.

While Wuerl built a reputation as an early advocate for removing pedophile priests from parishes, a Post examination found that at times he allowed accused clerics to continue as priests in less visible roles without alerting authorities or other officials. The review focused on the 25 priests whose cases, according to the grand jury, Wuerl handled directly.

The grand jury report is what moved reporting from just the religion team on these two papers to a much broader newsroom effort with more resources. There’s good solid reporting in the Post piece. And how can one ignore news like what Vox.com said about eight states taking up investigations into hidden clerical abuse within their borders?

Pay attention to what writer Tara Isabella Burton says about New Jersey:

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced the creation of a task force, as well as a hotline for abuse survivors to report their experiences directly with the state. The task force will be led by Essex County Prosecutor Robert D. Laurino, and will be empowered to subpoena records from the state’s six dioceses.

The state is likely to be under a particular media microscope because the majority of the allegations against ex-Washington, DC, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, who is accused of decades of sex abuse against both young seminarians and minors, took place there during McCarrick’s tenure as bishop of Metuchen and, later, archbishop of Newark.

Whoa, no kidding. I think New Jersey is going to make the Pennsylvania report look lightweight.

This news cycle isn’t going to die down any time soon. As Crux’s John Allen observed this week from Rome:

When a news cycle goes supernova, generally developments come far too fast and furious for anyone really to absorb them in anything other than bite-size, superficial form. Over just the last 72 hours, there have been at least three new twists to the clerical sexual abuse scandals once again rocking the global Church.

All the twists he cited had to do with abuse allegations cropping up overseas. It’s getting so that the number of erring bishops and cardinals is growing so large, it’s almost not news that a West Virginia bishop just got bounced over sexual harassment charges.

As the New York Times said:

The blows seem to land nearly every day: Bishops are accused, investigations are ordered, resignations are demanded, damning documents are leaked. The sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church keeps spiraling through the church hierarchy, threatening the standing of Pope Francis.

On Thursday, an American bishop in West Virginia was brought down by allegations of sexual misconduct, even as a delegation of American church leaders met urgently with the pope behind closed doors over whether the Vatican had ignored past warnings of abuse by a prominent cardinal.

Speaking about these bishops and their meeting with the pope to request an apostolic visitor to investigate the McCarrick affair, there has been almost no reporting (other than in Whispers in the Loggia and by Crux) on the fact that Francis turned them down. I’m hoping someone can get ahold of the folks in this delegation (pictured atop this blog post) and get their honest responses.

Realizing they’re on their own now, the American bishops are doing what damage control they can by starting their own McCarrick investigation and weeding out the darker areas. This AP story is about New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan hiring a judge to investigate abuse allegations in his archdiocese:

Meanwhile, Crux has — naturally — put more resources on the story, coming up with some good insider material such as why Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s claim about McCarrick having been sanctioned could actually be right. Here is its story on “secret sanctions” Rome sometimes imposes on church officials.

ROME — Three weeks after a bombshell accusation of abuse cover-up against Pope Francis by an ex-papal ambassador, an element of that charge still remains an enigma: Were there, or were there not, secret restrictions on former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick imposed under Pope emeritus Benedict XVI?

It’s been a tough claim for some to swallow, given that there’s abundant evidence that McCarrick hardly behaved like a man under a cloud during the Benedict papacy - he was often seen with the pope, and even with Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, Francis’s accuser and, at the time, papal ambassador in the U.S.

Crux then discovered that were there indeed sanctions, it wasn’t the first time an official has ignored them. Many reporters fail to realize that McCarrick ignoring the sanctions is a crucial element of this story. Why? He knew he had protectors — other cardinals.

Crux has been able to identify at least three other situations in which a member of the hierarchy or a high-profile priest has been sanctioned, either in writing or verbally, and the Vatican has relied on “moral suasion” to enforce those decrees.

“If a man has a conscience, he abides by them, if he does not, he ignores them,” a source in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said.

Notice, however, that the media I’ve quoted in this piece are mostly the same players who’ve been reporting on it since June 21. I’m still waiting for other media (maybe even television networks) to realize they have a dog in this fight and these stories are worth following. I just don’t buy that only a few newspapers — that have Vatican correspondents — can follow this story.

So for newspapers in those eight states where investigations of abusive priests have already started, now is the time to staff up your religion desk.

The bottom line: This is a story that’s not going away and by the time your state attorney general holds a press conference on his or her findings, it will be too late.

Please respect our Commenting Policy