Nine months after Ted McCarrick sex-abuse crisis explodes, The New Yorker gives it some ink

It’s been more than nine months since the explosive news about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick hit and only now has The New Yorker done a definitive piece on it all.

We at GetReligion felt that McCarrick’s fall from grace was last year’s top religion story, along with the culpability of the Catholic Church’s highest officials in knowing about the cardinal’s sexual predilections for other men. They did nothing about it until finally it was revealed that he’d gone after boys as well.

While reporters all over the country were going into overdrive all summer reporting on l’affaire McCarrick and related stories, The New Yorker team did nothing. I still have an August 1 email to one of the editors there offering my services on that subject. Usually they’re atop the newest trend in seconds, but there was this strange silence –- and no response to my email -– on this story.

As time went on, there was a mention here and there, like this short news piece about Pope Francis that mentioned McCarrick in passing. It was written by James Carroll, a prolific author and a former Catholic seminarian.

Otherwise, radio silence on this blockbuster.

Which is beyond odd in that McCarrick was not only born in New York City, attended seminary in Yonkers and was ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal Francis Spellman, archbishop of New York, but he later became an auxiliary bishop in New York and his molestation of minors took place while at the archdiocese.

It’s curious that The New Yorker waited this long to jump on a story that was in their front yard. Was it because they were uncomfortable with the homosexual nature of McCarrick’s crimes and were looking for a different angle on which to base reportage?

So here’s their first major treatment of the Catholic sex abuse crisis that came out early this week. And the words ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ occur nowhere therein. Rather, it’s about payments to victims.

They don’t have their religion reporter Eliza Griswold doing it. Instead, the assignment went to Paul Elie, a senior fellow at a Georgetown Univ. think tank. It’s written in the first person and partly taken up with how Elie, as a Catholic, feels about all this.

Is the magazine’s policy is to leave Catholic coverage to Catholic writers? This magazine doesn’t take religion stories from experienced religion-beat reporters; they find their own writers, often out of academia.

This doesn’t always work. This Feb. 26, 2013, New Yorker piece, written by a Sikh professor at the Naval War College, prophesied that the “smart money” was on electing the first black (African) pope. Nothing of that sort happened and it was Pope Francis from Argentina who emerged on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square on March 13.

Now, back to the current crisis:

Some time before Brooklyn was incorporated into New York City, in 1898, it was dubbed the City of Churches. Houses of worship remain thick on the ground in the borough. In the part of Brooklyn where I live, churches outnumber grocery stores, pet shops, and nail salons together. …

A few blocks away is St. Lucy–St. Patrick Church, on Willoughby Avenue. Over six years, beginning in 2003, Angelo Serrano, a religious educator at the church, sexually abused four boys. He raped or molested them in the church’s offices and at his apartment, in a brick schoolhouse converted to low-cost housing by Catholic Charities. Eventually, one of the boys told his mother, who told the police. In 2011, Serrano was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The victims then sued the Diocese of Brooklyn; in a settlement reached last September, they were awarded $27.5 million.

The writer looks up BishopAccountability.org, only to find that a dozen churches within cycling distance have housed sexually abusive priests.

Like many Catholics, I wonder whether this story will ever be over and whether things will ever be set right. Often called a crisis, the problem is more enduring and more comprehensive than that. Social scientists report that the gravest period of priestly sexual abuse was the sixties and seventies, and the problem has been in public view for the past three and a half decades.

For most American Catholics, then, the fact of sexual abuse by priests and its coverup by bishops has long been an everyday reality. Priestly sexual abuse has directly harmed thousands of Catholics, spoiling their sense of sexuality, of intimacy, of trust, of faith. Indirectly, the pattern of abuse and coverup has made Catholics leery of priests and disdainful of the idea that the bishops are our “shepherds.” It has muddled questions about Church doctrine concerning sexual orientation, the nature of the priesthood, and the role of women; it has hastened the decline of Catholic schooling and the shuttering of churches.

Attorneys general in more than a dozen states are investigating the Church and its handling of sexual-abuse allegations. In February, New York State loosened its statute of limitations for sex crimes, long the Church’s bulwark against abuse claims. And that is just in the United States. Priestly sexual abuse has had grave effects around the world, including in Rome, where the three most recent Popes have been implicated in the institutional habits of concealment or inaction, and where Pope Francis has yet to find his voice on the problem.

The Catholic Church has paid out some $3 billion in insurance settlements, he says, yet it’s a dicey proposition to know how much to dole out.

What’s a person’s sanity and sexual health worth after being irreparably damaged by a priest?

The Vatican, meanwhile, now regards American bishops as masters at handling abuse allegations. At a meeting in Rome in February, Pope Francis and his deputies, addressing a “global crisis” of “the protection of minors,” suggested that the rest of the world could learn from the American Church. …

In all of this, a distinctly American solution to the problem has emerged—the commissioning of an independent, secular authority to arrange settlements between the Church and survivors of abuse. This strategy has been taken up by an unlikely advocate: Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, and a traditionalist who generally relishes defending the Church against its adversaries.

Which means hiring two mediators who’ve put together an Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP) that’s being copied by a number of dioceses as a way to turn reconciliation and forgiveness into cold hard cash.

The piece doesn’t get to McCarrick for awhile. But then:

Last year, a claimant told the New York I.R.C.P. that, in the early nineteen-seventies, he had been abused as an altar boy by Theodore McCarrick. The abuse took place in the sacristy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on two successive Christmases. …

Throughout McCarrick’s episcopal career, he was trailed by talk that he routinely made seminarians under his supervision sleep in the same bed with him. That history was kept semi-suppressed until the former altar boy came forward to the New York I.R.C.P. (Mediators Ken) Feinberg and (Camille) Biros notified the archdiocese’s chief counsel, who went to Cardinal Dolan and notified the Manhattan district attorney. Dolan notified the Vatican and then initiated an internal investigation. The archdiocese’s review board for sexual abuse produced a report, which Dolan sent to Rome. …

The article reveals that the mediators have seven claims against McCarrick, several of which haven’t been made public yet.

It later quotes McCarrick’s TV interviews during the time of the ‘Dallas charter’ in 2002 when U.S. bishops were putting together guidelines to flush out priestly perpetrators. But no one was dealing with episcopal perpetrators and McCarrick’s remarks, when seen in hindsight, were a masterful way of deflecting responsibility from himself.

Near the end of the piece, the article switches back to the first person as the reporter reflects on how eight priests he’s known or interviewed, including McCarrick, turned out to be sex abusers. And that every American Catholic has probably had casual contact with at least one such priest in their lives.

If you can last all the way through it –- and it is a lengthy piece -– near the end there’s an interview with Cardinal Dolan that shows the prelate still keeping secrets about certain abusive bishops even though he no longer needs to do so. Which makes clear (to me at least) that the secrecy surrounding it all will continue until this current generation of church leaders die out.

It is a fascinating read and there are interesting McCarrick nuggets (for those of you interested in them) throughout. At the end, though, the reporter concludes that his beloved church cannot be trusted to tell the truth about its sordid history and that it will be the state that brings justice.

Because this New Yorker story takes in much of the sweep of recent events, such as Pope Francis’ disappointing Meeting for the Protection of Minors in Rome in February, it’s offering fresh info that the daily newspapers that broke this story have ceased giving us. It’s clear the writer did a massive amount of work on it.

So I’m glad they moved the story forward just a bit. But would they have held off so long on any other explosive story? Here is a publication that can’t wait to vent on the newest outrage by President Trump but a crisis gripping a church over about 1 billion adherents had to wait nine months before getting adequate coverage.

We’re not back in the 20th century anymore, folks, so there’s no excuse for such long waits. I wonder if the delay merely reveals The New Yorker’s massive discomfort with religion (after losing the great feature writer Peter Boyer, years ago). Hence the cautious step of using Catholic writers to critique their own church. If you don’t know how to cover something, let the insiders go at it. That’s a short-term strategy.

As for something long-term, that presupposes a management that’s interested in religion. I’ve yet to see it at today’s New Yorker.

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