Have 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.