Peter Steinfels

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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An Easter gift: The perfect, easy solution to America’s gay marriage conflict

An Easter gift: The perfect, easy solution to America’s gay marriage conflict

While TV offered reverential bathrobe-and-sandals programs on Easter Sunday, the principalities and powers at The New York Times were helpfully offering America the perfect solution to its troublesome gay marriage conflict. Since religious conservatism underlies much of the resistance, the conservatives should simply become religious liberals. It's that easy.

That proposal from columnist Frank Bruni was reminiscent of the infamous 2009 Newsweek magazine cover article on “The Religious Case for Gay Marriage,” which never explained whether there were any reasons why some believers might dissent. With only one side to the question taking part in the debate, however, the problem magically vanishes.

In the Religion Guy’s dim past at Northwestern University, legendary journalism Prof. Curtis MacDougall  taught us that editorial,  op-ed and column writing is like formal debate. You need to study and acknowledge the strengths of the opposite side in order to effectively answer them and offer your competing viewpoint. That strategy is in decline in venues like cable news and the Times editorial pages. The business of journalism becomes not information and persuasion but group reinforcement of prior opinions.

Bruni’s reaction to religious freedom claims is important to consider because he was the newspaper’s first openly partnered gay columnist. Moreover, he’s a figure with some Godbeat credentials as the former Times Rome bureau chief and author of a 1993 book on the Catholic molestation scandals.

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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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