USA Today tries to explain why many Catholics are hitting the exits, but finds only one reason

What are you supposed to think when you pick up the newspaper in your driveway and see a headline that proclaims, “Catholic Church In Crisis”?

I don’t know about you, but this question immediately jumps into my mind: OK, so which Catholic crisis are we talking about?

Thus, when I started reading the massive USA Today feature (which ran on A1 in several Gannett newspapers in Tennessee, of course) on this subject, I assumed that the “crisis” in question was the ongoing clergy sexual abuse scandal. However, I wanted to see (a) if this feature would accurately note how long this scandal has lasted and (b) whether it would place the sexual-abuse crisis in the context of several other major problems in the American church (and the Western world in general). Also, if the USA Today team connected sexual abuse to any other issues, what would those issues be?

Right up front, readers learn that the “crisis” is people leaving the Catholicism or seriously thinking about doing so. That’s interesting and a valid way to approach the current state of things.

After a stack on anecdotes about people nearing the exits, there is this thesis statement:

The Catholic Church in the U.S. is at a crossroads. As millions of devout followers filled the pews this Easter season to celebrate the religion’s most important holiday, others hovered at the door, hungry for community and spiritual guidance but furious at the church’s handling of the decades-long sex abuse crisis that’s resulted in young children being raped and abused by priests who were often protected by their superiors.

Seven months after a damning grand jury report in Pennsylvania revealed that 1,000 children had been abused at the hands of more than 300 priests, and as state attorneys general across the nation investigate the church, a Gallup poll published in March found that 37% of U.S. Catholics are considering leaving the church because of the sex abuse crisis and the church’s handling of it. That’s up significantly from 2002, when just 22% of Catholics said they were contemplating leaving their religion after The Boston Globe published an explosive series that initially exposed the abuse and subsequent cover-up.

So, let it be known that the true crisis is clergy sexual abuse and that alone and that this scandal was “initially exposed” by the Globe in the massive “Spotlight” reports in 2002.

Let’s see — that’s wrong and wrong.

For starters, major scandals about the abuse of children (the vast majority male teens) began in the mid-1980s and received national coverage at that time. Also, from the start, this crisis was part of a larger picture that included the rapidly declining number of new diocesan priests, plummeting Mass attendance and controversies about homosexuality (and other questions linked to sexual morality).

Here’s more background on this USA Today feature:

On Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week, the USA TODAY Network sent 13 reporters out to parishes across the country to talk with dozens of Catholics about their faith and the scandal that has bankrupted churches after million dollar settlements, exposed thousands of accused priests and left unknown numbers of victims struggling to rebuild their childhoods, families and spiritual lives. Reporters visited white, black, Latino and Asian majority churches in cities and rural areas from California to New York, from Florida to Guam, as priests across the world spoke of repentance, forgiveness and, ultimately, new life.

The financial angle is totally valid, of course. However, that only raises another question: Is the red ink caused by the clergy sexual abuse scandals alone or are there other factors at play?

There is no need to dissect this long and, at times, very repetitious piece. I immediately started looking for signs that the USA Today team was going to settle for doing something obvious, as in producing yet another sexual-abuse crisis story, and that’s that.

Sure enough, there is another crisis that is causing decline in American Catholicism.

Maria Michonski, a 24-year-old student who said the clergy sex abuse crisis has contributed to questions she has about the Catholic Church as an institution, was not among the faithful. A student at Vanderbilt's Divinity School, Michonski been trying to figure out for several years how her faith — which she learned as a child — fits into her adult life.

Michonski grew up in the Nashville diocese, went through the city’s Catholic school system and studied theology as an undergraduate at Saint Louis University. She started to have a contentious relationship with the church five years ago when she came out as queer.

For a while, Michonski stopped practicing all together. Now she attends Mass sporadically, divided between her desire to help make the church better while wanting to distance herself from the sex abuse crisis. But she said she won't contribute financially.

So, on one level, the sexual-abuse crisis is still the main “crisis,” but in this case a Catholic attending at liberal Protestant divinity also has doctrinal problems within the Catholic faith.

Well, that is a reason to exit and join a doctrinally liberal form of Christianity, found in churches that — ironically — are losing members even faster than mainstream Catholicism.

What else is there to see here?

Nothing much, really. The USA Today team finds some Catholics who are more upset about the sexual-abuse crisis than others and a few who have hope that their church can move on.

But everything is about that one crisis, it would seem. There are no connections to other issues. No other problems worth discussing that are leading to red ink, shuttered churches, empty pulpits, seminary woes and thinning ranks of Catholic schoolchildren.

So what’s my point? Well, it isn’t that the sexual-abuse crisis isn’t important enough to draw detailed, sustained coverage by a national news organization.

Now, my point is that religion-beat professionals who have been on the beat for a decade or more know that this massive, hellish abuse scandal is not unfolding in a vacuum. There are other issues linked to it (click here for my own summary of three major themes in these sex scandals). There are even older issues that are contributing to current trends in American Catholicism.

This is a long story, with many voices and a few interesting facts. What’s missing? Well, the obvious links to other issues, other problems and even other scandals. There’s no way to cover today’s Catholic scandals — PLURAL — in a week or two.

Readers needed a bigger picture. I know that this would have required more reporters, more time and more money — maybe even the efforts of an experienced national religion-beat pro.

Sorry. There’s no easy way to do the real story.

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