Commonweal

Religion-beat veteran draws blood while dissecting Penn grand-jury report on clerical abuse

Religion-beat veteran draws blood while dissecting Penn grand-jury report on clerical abuse

Last weekend was complicated for me, in large part because I needed to get from East Tennessee to New York City for the first half of my Journalism Foundations seminar at The King’s College. Throw in some interesting weather and Sunday was a long day.

So what’s the point? Well, the weekend think piece that I was planning was never posted. In this case, that really matters because this Commonweal piece was an important one, featuring a byline — a New York Times scribe from my era on the religion-beat — that offered instant credibility. And the journalism hook was strong, strong, strong — leading to a Religion News Service column from Father Thomas Reese about the massive Commonweal essay.

So let’s start with the RNS summary:

“Grossly misleading, irresponsible, inaccurate, and unjust” is how former New York Times religion reporter Peter Steinfels describes last August’s Pennsylvania grand jury report in its sweeping accusation that Catholic bishops refused to protect children from sexual abuse.

The report from a grand jury impaneled by the Pennsylvania attorney general to investigate child sexual abuse in the state’s Catholic dioceses has revived the furor over the abuse scandal, causing the resignation of the archbishop of Washington, D.C., and inspiring similar investigations in other states.

Steinfels argues that it is an oversimplification to assert, as does the report, that “all” victims “were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect abusers and their institutions above all.”

Writing in the Catholic journal Commonweal, Steinfels acknowledges the horror of clerical abuse and the terrible damage done to children, but he complains that no distinctions have been made in the grand jury report from diocese to diocese, or from one bishop’s tenure to another. All are tarred with the same brush.

Here’s a crucial theme: Steinfels noted that the report — which created a tsunami of ink in American media — failed to note the small number of abuse cases that were reported as having taken place AFTER the 2002 Dallas Charter, by clergy who are still in active ministries. The Dallas document radically changed how Catholic officials have dealt with abuse claims — at least those against priests.

The Commonweal piece is massive and it’s hard to know what sections to highlight. Journalists (assignment editors included, hopefully) are just going to have to dig in and read it all.

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Tea leaves in Rome: That timely Vatican press office shake-up is causing a lot of chatter

Tea leaves in Rome: That timely Vatican press office shake-up is causing a lot of chatter

I realize that it’s rare for me to run a think piece during the week. But let’s face it, the Paul Moses essay at Commonweal must be discussed — as journalists try to figure out what’s happening in, well, the Loggia.

We are talking about some very important tea leaves linked to the biggest religion-news story in the world, which is the Vatican’s ongoing efforts to handle interlinked scandals linked to clergy sexual abuse of some children, lots of teens and significant numbers of seminarians.

When watching the action unfold, I suggest that journalists keep asking this question: What would that great Catholic politico — Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick — do in this situation?

The Commonweal headline references one of those stories that religion-beat pros just know is important, but it’s hard to explain to editors WHY it’s so important.

‘Like Cleaning a Sphinx with a Toothbrush’

Greg Burke Resigns from the Holy See Press Office

Before we get to Moses and the tea leaves, here is a typical statement of the basic news, care of the National Catholic Reporter, on the left side of Catholic media.

ROME — The director and vice-director of the Vatican's press office have resigned together, in a move that appears to indicate sharp tensions at the top of the city-state's complicated communications structure.

The resignations of American Greg Burke and Spaniard Paloma García Ovejero seemed to catch their supervisor, Italian Paolo Ruffini, by surprise. In a statement, Ruffini said he had "learned" of the decision, and called it a "free and autonomous choice." …

Burke and García's resignations were announced with a short note in the Vatican's daily bulletin Dec. 31. Pope Francis appointed Alessandro Gisotti, an Italian who had been serving as the head of social media for the communications dicastery, as new interim director of the press office.

No reasons were given for the shake-up.

Click here for a similar story on the other side of the Catholic news world, care of the Catholic News Agency. This Burke quote jumped out at me:

“I joined the Vatican in 2012. The experience has been fascinating, to say the least,” he continued.

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Beach house sequel: Father Boniface Ramsey details his efforts to report 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick

Beach house sequel: Father Boniface Ramsey details his efforts to report 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick

The complex story of scandals linked to the life and sins of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick rolls on — with the most interesting material being reporting in various forms of Catholic media. In mainstream newsrooms, most of the coverage continues to focus on clergy abuse with children and teens.

As always, “seminaries” is the key search term to use, if you want to research news about the “system” looming over the scandal as a whole — which includes the sexual abuse of children (pedophilia), teens (ephebophilia) and adults (usually seminarians). The McCarrick story includes all three, but his sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians lasted for decades.

This past weekend, I used our regular “think piece” slot to point readers toward a Commonweal essay — “Double Lives” — by retired Newsweek religion pro Kenneth Woodward.

I normally don’t post “think piece” essays on weekdays, but this time I want to make an exception. The Commonweal team has followed that earlier Woodward essay with a first-person account by Father Boniface Ramsey of New York City, focusing on his efforts to convince church authorities to look into what McCarrick was doing, all those years.

The headline is pretty ho-hum, as in “The Case of Theodore McCarrick: A Failure of Fraternal Correction.” The contents? They’re stunning. It’s hard to know what to quote, since journalists working on this story really need to read it all.

The bottom line: Vatican authorities tend to use the word “rumors” to describe reports about McCarrick. Ramsey says that’s the wrong word. This passage is near the top of his piece:

What the seminarians would talk about among themselves and with some members of the faculty were experiences that they themselves had undergone, or that they had heard others had undergone. It may have been gossip, but it was gossip about real events.

Most people who have been following the case of Theodore McCarrick know by now that he had a beach house on the Jersey Shore at his disposal and that he would regularly request seminarians to visit it with him. This is how it went: he or his secretary would contact the seminary and ask for five specific seminarians, or would just contact the seminarians directly. Understandably, a request from one’s archbishop could not easily be refused.

When McCarrick and the five seminarians arrived at the beach house, there were six men and only five beds.

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Ken Woodward, former Newsweek scribe: The 'double lives' elephant in the Catholic sex crisis

Ken Woodward, former Newsweek scribe: The 'double lives' elephant in the Catholic sex crisis

If you are a religion-beat professional of a certain age, or a religion-news consumer with a solid memory, then you absolutely know this name — Kenneth L. Woodard.

Woodward’s byline at Newsweek — like that of our GetReligion colleague Richard Ostling, of Time — was a key part of the news environment when I broke into religion-beat work in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Religion-beat pros looked forward to seeing the cover stories by these two men, because — to be blunt — they helped us lobby our own editors for serious coverage of certain subjects.

At the same time, Woodward has a feisty style all his own. He was, and this is a compliment where I come from, “a piece of work.” His writing had attitude. And he has also written a memoir entitled “Getting Religion.” So there.

The bottom line: If you see a Kenneth L. Woodward byline on a Commonweal Magazine essay under this headline — “Double Lives” — it’s pretty easy to figure out that this veteran scribe has taken a deep dive into the recent flood of news about his home territory, which is life in American Catholicism.

This is a must-read weekend think piece, to say the least. Woodward starts with some thoughts on that hellish Pennsylvania grand-jury report. But then he makes a statement about an “elephant” in this Catholic “living room” that many editors need to take seriously:

Such reports remind us of something we cannot afford to forget about the U.S. church’s recent history, but they should no longer surprise us.

The unmasking of ex-Cardinal McCarrick as a sexual predator is a far more consequential event.  I say this for several reasons.

First, his outing was the result of a church investigation, instead of a journalistic exposé.

Second, the McCarrick case has prompted demands that cardinals and bishops who are sexually abusive, or who cover up for any other cleric guilty of such crimes, be subject to automatic procedures similar to those the American hierarchy has already imposed on abusive priests, including dismissal from the ministry. The creation of such procedures would necessarily involve decisive action by the pope and require changes in canon law. Any outcome short of this would be a huge betrayal of the people of God, not to mention an invitation to civil authorities everywhere to press for further investigations into possible cover-ups by bishops past and present.

Third, McCarrick’s history of sexual abuse raises in a very concrete way the issue of homosexuality within the Catholic priesthood — although not in the way that many conservative Catholic writers suggest.

As your GetReligionistas have been saying for years, one of the key facts about this issue is that very few crimes and sins reporting during this multi-decade Catholic scandal can accurately be described with the word “pedophilia.”

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Cheers for Peter Steinfels: A liberal defends both religious liberty and traditional journalism

Cheers for Peter Steinfels: A liberal defends both religious liberty and traditional journalism

If you know the history of mainstream religion-news coverage in the late 20th Century, then you know the byline of Peter Steinfels in The New York Times. As an old-school Catholic progressive, he is now known for his work at Commonweal.

The meltdown in Indiana inspired a piece from Steinfels the other day that GetReligion readers simply must read, from beginning to end. I have literally nothing to say to frame this essay except to say this: What. He. Said.

Here are two key passages. However, like I said, please read it all. The headline: "Any liberals for religious freedom?" It opens like this (with the journalism angle very obvious):

Are there still liberals willing to speak up for religious freedom? I don’t know whether the religious freedom bill passed and signed in Indiana last week -- and now reportedly up for revision -- is a good measure. I do know that, however one precisely balances out the pros and cons of the bill, it does involve religious freedom. 
That was not the perspective of the front-page story in Saturday’s New York Times, which framed the bill as one more tactic for discriminating against gay couples. Conservatives opposed to same-sex marriage were “invoking ‘religious freedom’ as their last line of defense.” ...

The Times news story devoted almost two thirds of its coverage to these critics, far more than to any supporters or to Indiana’s governor.

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Lost in translation: Mainstream media ignores significant error in English version of Vatican synod's final report

Lost in translation: Mainstream media ignores significant error in English version of Vatican synod's final report

Three days after the Vatican belatedly released the English-language version of the final report of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, Commonweal blogger Robert P. Imbelli wrote yesterday that he found a "particularly egregious" error in the translation:

Here is the English paragraph:
3. With these words in mind, we have gathered together the results of our reflections and our discussions in the following three parts:listening, looking at the situation of the family today in all its complexities, both lights and shadows; looking, our gaze is fixed on Christ to re-evaluate, with renewed freshness and enthusiasm, what revelation, transmitted in the Church’s faith, tells us about the beauty and dignity of the family; and facing the situation, with an eye on the Lord Jesus, to discern how the Church and society can renew their commitment to the family.
 And here is the Italian:
4. Alla luce dello stesso discorso abbiamo raccolto i risultati delle nostre riflessioni e dei nostri dialoghi nelle seguenti tre parti: l’ascolto, per guardare alla realtà della famiglia oggi, nella complessità delle sue luci e delle sue ombre; lo sguardo fisso sul Cristo per ripensare con rinnovata freschezza ed entusiasmo quanto la rivelazione, trasmessa nella fede della Chiesa, ci dice sulla bellezza, sul ruolo e sulla dignità della famiglia; il confronto alla luce del Signore Gesù per discernere le vie con cui rinnovare la Chiesa e la società nel loro impegno per la famiglia fondata sul matrimonio tra uomo e donna.
One notices at once the difference in paragraph numeration which can certainly cause confusion. But more serious is the omission from the last sentence of the English of the all-important: "the family founded upon the marriage between man and woman."

Now, this error would seem to be news, as it follows an earlier incident in which a confusing translation resulted in embarrassment for the Vatican. Here is how Catholic News Agency reported the controversy regarding the synod's midterm report

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The soul in Dave Brubeck's jazz

Jazz great Dave Brubeck died yesterday, a day before his 92nd birthday.  Along with much of the rest of the world, I was a fan. I have a sizeable record collection and found you could hardly go wrong with a Brubeck LP. I was curious how the obituaries would handle his sacred compositions and his religious life — including his reception into the Catholic Church.

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