If you follow mainstream news coverage of clergy sexual abuse cases in the Catholic church, you know that there are two common errors that journalists keep making when dealing with this hellish subject.
First, there is the timeline issue. Many editors seem convinced that the public first learned about this crisis through the epic Boston Globe “Spotlight” series that ran in 2002.
This may have been when Hollywood grasped the size of this story, but religion beat reporters and many other journalists had been following the scandal since the Louisiana accusations against the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, which made national headlines in 1984. Jason Berry’s trailblazing book “Lead Us Not Into Temptation” was published in 1992. Reporters covering the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops chased this story all through the 1980s.
Does this error matter? I guess it only matters if editors care about accuracy and they truly want readers to understand how long these horrors have poisoned life for many Catholics. After all, the cover-ups are as important as the crimes.
Thus, it’s disappointing to dig into the new USA Today feature on this topic — “The Priest Next Door” — and hit the following summary material:
During its nine-month investigation, the USA TODAY Network tracked down last known addresses for nearly 700 former priests who have been publicly accused of sexual abuse. Then, 38 reporters knocked on more than 100 doors across the country, from Portland, Oregon, to Long Island, New York, with stops in Philadelphia, Chicago, Indianapolis, Miami and more. They talked with accused priests, as well as neighbors, school officials, employers, church leaders and victims. They reviewed court records, social media accounts and church documents in piecing together a nationwide accounting of what happened after priests were accused of abuse, left their positions in the church and were essentially allowed to go free.
Since the scandal first exploded into public view in Boston almost 20 years ago, the church has financially settled with thousands of victims, claimed bankruptcy at parishes across the country and watched disaffected congregants flee its pews. The church has promised change, with parishes posting guidelines aimed at protecting children and dioceses releasing names of credibly accused priests — many of whom were defrocked, or laicized, meaning they no longer work with the church.
The second problem that keeps showing up in stories of this kind? That would be covering sexual-abuse scandals among Catholics without mentioning that similar issues exist in other religious flocks — as well as in public schools, sports programs, nonprofit agencies (think Scouting) and other secular settings.