An American Catholic tragedy

chicagoHave you read Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy? The book is a favorite of mine. Its greatness lies not only in the story, but also its accumulation of detail. In reading the book I felt as if I knew all about Clyde Griffiths– his shame at his poor Christian parents, his envy of the wealthy guests at the Kansas City hotel where he worked, his cold-blooded plan to murder his working-class pregnant girlfriend.

I had a roughly similar feeling while reading The Chicago Tribune‘s expose of the Chicago archdiocese’s mishandling and cover-up of its sex-abuse scandal.

Granted, reporters Margaret Ramirez and Manya A. Brachear were fortunate to hit the journalist’s equivalent of a jackpot: the release of Cardinal Francis George‘s deposition. Yet give the reporters credit for describing and quoting from the deposition’s testimony in detail. Consider the passage below about how the Rev. Edward Grace, the archdiocese’s vicar for priests, coached accused abuser Father Joseph Bennett:

In 2002, a male victim voluntarily underwent a lie-detector test that showed he was telling the truth. The cardinal says he never received that information. In 2003, a female victim tells archdiocese officials specific details about freckles on Bennett’s scrotum and a round birthmark on his back that led an archdiocese review board to conclude that sexual abuse “did happen.”

Grace advised Bennett on how to handle the victim’s knowledge of his private parts, according to a memo. According to the testimony, Grace told Bennett in November 2005 to get a note from a dermatologist questioning whether the scrotum marks might be “aging marks” and may not have been present at the time of the allegation.

The victims’ attorney, Anderson, asks the cardinal about the freckles matter, saying: “Grace is–looks like he’s trying to explain it away. Do you read it that way?”

George responds: “It could be read that way.”

Those details are essential. The passage exposes Chicago archdiocesan officials, including the Cardinal himself, as nothing more than dissemblers and enablers. It is hard to get out of one’s mind the image of the freckles on the priest’s scrotum and to forget that Grace sought to explain away those marks. The unstated theme from the passage is obvious: archdiocesan officials cared far more about protecting predator priests than victims.

Even without the benefit of the deposition, the two reporters used quotes and detail to devastating effect. Take this brief passage, which Rod “Friend of this blog” Dreher cited:

Therese Albrecht, one of Bennett’s accusers, said she felt ignored when she came forward in 2004.

“I feel indescribable anger and pain. What price can you put on an 8-year-old’s virginity?” she said. “He didn’t call me up. I never got an apology.”

That said, the story was not perfect.

I think that reporters Ramirez and Brachear should have attempted to portray Cardinal George’s subjective view of reality. Part of the greatness of An American Tragedy was that Dreiser took you inside the head of Clyde Griffith and others, making you feel the pressures and lusts and dreams that made him to want to murder his working-class girlfriend. Ramirez and Brachear did not do the same. In consequence, their story reads more like a detailed and novelistic indictment of the archdiocese than a detailed and novelistic story.

Of course, asking two reporters to imitate one of the 100 best novels in 20th-century literature is a great compliment.

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  • Chip

    Of course, asking two reporters to imitate one of the 100 best novels in 20th-century literature is a great compliment.


    Are you asking two reporters to write fiction? How, otherwise, would they get inside the head of the Cardinal?

  • Mark Stricherz

    Chip writes,

    Are you asking two reporters to write fiction? How, otherwise, would they get inside the head of the Cardinal?

    He makes a good point. My passage was incomplete. I think that the reporters should have presented reality (i.e. “get inside the head”) from the viewpoint of Cardinal George. Why did he think he could be so lackadaisical about these charges?

  • Chip


    I think that the reporters should have presented reality (i.e. “get inside the head”) from the viewpoint of Cardinal George. Why did he think he could be so lackadaisical about these charges?

    Don’t they do that more than once by quoting him

    At several points in the questioning about Bennett, Anderson asked the cardinal whether he is more concerned about the rights of accused priests and the legal process than he is about protecting children at risk.

    George answered: “No. The children at risk were, I thought, protected and they were in this case by the monitoring and the restrictions. I was interested in fairness, the same values that permeate any legal system.”

    and the damning final paragraphs:

    At the end of the deposition, a frustrated Anderson demands to know why all these files have not been made public.

    George replies: “It just seems to me not to be the thing to do. The victims themselves would not want to see their stories paraded in public, I think. They should make that public if they want to. I don’t think we have a right to make those stories public.”

    I appreciated the reporters understatement and allowing the Cardinal’s own words to convict him and his subordinates.

    A column or an op-ed piece might tease out the implication of his words and raise questions about motives, but that is not reporting, is it?

  • FW Ken

    I would like to have seen the reporters reference the bishop’s Charter for the Protection of Children and give specifics on how the archbishop violated it. Don’t get me wrong, the charter is garbage – a media showpiece – but since 2002, it is the working document detailing how these matters should be handled. As the president of the American Catholic bishop’s conference, Cardinal George should be held especially accountable by his fellows. If they won’t do it, expose the lot.

  • Mark Stricherz

    Chip makes a strong case for his argument.

  • Teresa

    I think the reporters do show Geroge’s words as damning, if you look at the paragraph above the ones that Chip quotes:

    William Martin now represents the only case still in litigation involving McCormack. He had filed a motion to obtain a copy of the deposition. He said that motion prompted the archdiocese’s decision to make it public.

    “No one realizes all the objections and fighting that are giving rise to the voluntary actions,” he said Tuesday.

    In other words, this wasn’t voluntary. And yet, only a critical thinker and not your average reader will see through George’s statement to see that he wasn’t protecting victims but used that as a convenient cover. My own diocese used a “for the victims” argument, when they allowed a notable community member to be buried with full Catholic rites, despite he was a murder-suicide, in order to spare the remaining family distress (Sueppel murders in Davenport Diocese).

    Maybe the reporters could have cast a little more doubt by showing the Church’s pattern of deceptive motives. As it is, most readers will undoubtedly give George what the reporters did, the final word.

  • tioedong

    I am a doctor who has examined many sexually abused kids.

    My question: When the abuse was reported, where were the social service workers and the police? Who did the examinations? When were the children allowed alone with the suspect? Were there other cases or witnesses?

    Why was the Cardinal involved at all?

    As for “Lie detector” tests in children: Children are easily coached to believe things. The lie detector only detects what a child believes is true, not what is true.Which is why the tests are not allowed in court. Indeed, one has to be very careful in interrogating abused children, so you don’t “contaminate” their story with suggestions. My questions had to be minimal, only learning enough to figure out where to examine.

  • FW Ken

    Well, I am trying to put in a link to another article on the same subject, but it makes everything up to the blockquote disappear, so here it is:

    I found it more clear in the presentation of the timeline. The two articles are, however, so similar at points that I looked for a cross-reference between them.

    There is one discrepancy. The Tribune article describes the plaintiff’s lawyer, Jeff Anderson, as “frustrated”. This from the CNS article:

    “The mediation process with the Archdiocese of Chicago was particularly effective because of the courage of the survivors and the personal involvement of Cardinal George,” said Anderson. “Cardinal George was actively involved in this process. He has demonstrated his commitment to healing these survivors. The release of his deposition today is a significant step toward openness and transparency and helps the survivors and the church community in healing and recovery.”

    Another interesting article from another perspective.

    Well, that link worked and didn’t mess anything up.

  • http://www.heaven/org William F. Buckley, Jr.

    Like Law, Mahony, McCarrick, Egan, Keeler, O’Malley, Maida, Rigali, DiNardo, Burke, Leveda, Re, Bertone, Sodano, Scola, Hummes, Rivera, Pell, Schonborn, and YES, Ratzinger, to name only a few John Paul II appointed, Francis George is an unconvicted, unrepentant, unpunished, pedophile and serial sexual assault enabler, aid, abetter, and racketeer, still endangering hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholic children, while he and the USCCB continue hoisting at least $3 Billion Dollars in bills, thus far, with no end in sight, and no real correction, on the laity.

    Roman Catholic and Former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating was 100% correct, the USCCB and Roman Curia actually make the Mafia look like an honest bunch of businessmen by comparison.

    The solution remains what St. Peter Damien suggested, almost 1,000 years ago: STOP DONATING LAITY, until these evil office holders are each removed.

    WFB, Jr.

  • Julia

    Archbishop Wilton Gregory, Cardinal George’s predecessor as the head of the US Catholic bishops when the Boston story broke, is being implicated in holding back information from an abuse review committee in the early 1990s while he was bishop of Belleville.

  • Jeff

    Andrew Greeley has been telling us what the structures in Chicago have been up to in his thinly veiled novels for decades now. You can criticize him for not making a complete break with the Archdiocese if you want, but if he had minimal actual evidence at his disposal and just a clear overview of what was sick and twisted up and down the priestly hierarchy (not just in the cathedral), you couldn’t do more to keep the pressure on the chancery than Father Greeley has done from “Cardinal Sins” and “Cardinal Virtues” right on down to the present.