On the Catholic Abuse Crisis — A Very Important Review of the Pennsylvania Report

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

Every previous post on this blog has been my analysis and reflection, at times including links to other news and commentary.  This time I am writing simply to call your attention to a very important and very careful — I’d say even brilliant — analysis and critique of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on the massive sexual abuse by priests and the massive cover-up by Bishops which rocked the Catholic community and the nation more generally this past summer.  It  followed on the heals of the revelations that Washington’s former Cardinal McCarrick had been involved over the years with sexual abuse of seminarians which had been covered-up by other US Bishops and (it seems) by Rome.

I know that these two events angered me more than previous revelations of abuse and cover up because of the magnitude of the Pennsylvania cases and because the McCarrick case involved church leadership at the highest level.

The report is written by Peter Steinfels — former editor of Commonweal, former religion writer for the New York Times, and accomplished historian with some very important books to his credit.  It comes this late after the initial furor this summer because, as the extensive article shows, it is the result of careful research in legal documents, news reports, personal interviews, and (most significantly) a very careful reading of the more than 1,000 page Grand Jury report.

For me, it’s crucial findings are:  1) yes the abuse was terrible and “cover-ups” frequent; 2) but the report is written with such a strong tone and broad brush that it ignores the complex history both of abuses and cover-ups and of changes over time and differences between dioceses and bishops — it treats that long history as if everything, over a long period of time and with many differences of response, as if all of it were one simple and massive case of abuse and cover up.  3) The report itself is filled with evidence contradicting this simple accusation, and above all it effectively ignores changes in response mandated the Bishops’ 2002 Dallas Charter  and by most accounts quite effective.  4) Finally Steinfels alleges that the Report, with its sweeping and damming opening pages (which were all most media chose to read at the time), was part of a political campaign by the Pennsylvania Attorney General to get support for a change in the state’s statute of limitations and allow suits against the Catholic Church for crimes committed way back.

For a shorter summary of Steinfel’s long article, see Jesuit Jim Reese’s story in the national Catholic Reporter.

Better still, read Steinfel’s article, or at least spend enough time with it to get a sense of its research and criticisms.

I urge friends to read and perhaps share as I am doing here.  We’ve had so much bad news, so much of it reserved, about the Churdh and abuse, that it is important more nuanced and critical thinking be noticed and spread — even as we continue to criticize the bishops and Rome (as I have done in a recent blog here) and demand more structures of accountability.



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