Shameless plug for serious friend

millstones-4-8-08-26001If this weblog has a short list of very close friends, Rod “Crunchy Cons” Dreher would have to be near the top of the list. I feel no shame pointing people toward his work, every now and then.

Normally, you read Dreher at his own weblog or, in his day job, as a columnist and writer on the editorial pages of the Dallas Morning News. However, Rod opened a vein and wrote an unusually candid essay the other day as part of the continuing op-ed series that USA Today publishes on religion news and trends.

I point readers toward it because the topic is clearly relevant for journalists who cover religion and, even more so, for religious believers who work in journalism. The headline and read out tells you what is coming:

How much ‘truth’ is too much?

The details of the Catholic sex abuse scandal nearly destroyed my Christian faith. In a painful spiritual epiphany, I learned that the whole truth does not always deliver a greater good. Indeed, full transparency can harm society — and even, perhaps, our souls. But do we always have an alternative?

The column opens with a flashback into the long-standing debates — at times painful — between Dreher and the late Father Richard John Neuhaus about an important question about journalism, personal faith and the waves of clergy sexual abuse that have, for several years, rolled over the Roman Catholic Church.

Thus, the crunch passage:

The breadth and degree of the corruption within the Catholic hierarchy broke me spiritually. I lost the will to believe and became profoundly spiritually depressed. Leaving Catholicism for Eastern Orthodoxy was like an animal chewing off its own leg to get out of a trap. I don’t regret my reporting, nor do I regret my decision to leave Catholicism for Orthodoxy, where God gave me a second chance.

My mistake was to assume that I was strong enough emotionally to put analytical distance between myself and my subject. After I left Rome, I made a deliberate decision not to investigate scandal in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), my new communion. My family and I needed a church more than I needed to crusade against ecclesial iniquity.

I felt, and still do feel, deeply conflicted about this decision. Did Jesus not say, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”? But the truth that I helped tell about what some in the Catholic hierarchy had done to children did not set me free; in fact, it nearly destroyed my Christian faith. And yet, I could not in good conscience have remained silent. As an Orthodox Christian chastened by experience, am I behaving prudently, or am I being cowardly?

Personally, I think Dreher made a good decision — for a season. But I would hate to hear him say that his journalistic skills have no connection to his own faith and intellect, in the long run. I think that would be a loss for journalism and for the Church. I honestly believe that.

Neuhaus, however, went further, to a place that I have heard clergy in many different faith groups go. He said there are truths that the laity simply do not need to know — for good reasons. This is more than a statement that Christians are supposed to work in public relations and that’s that.

Neuhaus was raising a serious issue, which is what Dreher continues to ponder:

I do not believe Father Neuhaus was a cynic; he really did believe that there were certain things that ought to be concealed from the public for the greater good. And though it might be heresy for a journalist to say, as a matter of general principle, I agree with him.

Very few of us are purists when it comes to transparency. A society in which all secrets were known would be monstrous. The problem in the Catholic case is that bishops abused their discretion not to shield the innocent, but to protect the guilty. It was only when the details of these sordid cases came to broad public light that the Catholic bishops were shamed into serious action.

There’s more. We can also apply these questions, of course, to political reporters as they cover real-life politicians. But let’s open this up for discussion. Please focus on the journalistic issues, without turning this into a personal thread about Dreher and his relationship to Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Let’s aim wider than that, to questions that all journalists have to ask about their work.

Photo: Why is there a millstone with this post? Think about it.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Margaret

    The millstone is a great picture and thanks for the link through concerning why you used this picture — I knew this was the reason!

    The concerns that Dreher state needed to be stated and written about. I also agree to some extent that a society that knows all secrets are known would be monstrous. Especially if they were known all at once!

    Dreher points to an aspect of knowledge, of writing knowledge down, purusing it and contemplating it that allows humans to share facts or beliefs and also allows the human mind to eat itself alive with them. Is it truth to know that evil is happening and once your opinion, your knowledge of that evil is written down and shared is it truth to the person reading it? Does this make sense?

    Forgive my inability to express my thoughts! I quit full time stenography/court reporting because I got tired of listening to “truth” it was often mean and ugly and then not only did I listen in court and depositions, I typed it up and proofread it continually. Computers have helped this industry a lot, but before they became big it seemed I was spending a lot of time with ugly facts. I don’t think I am hiding in a hole just because I choose not to live with this knowledge.

    Granted, knowledge of Christ’s church on the earth is different, but living with the knowledge, writing it down, editing, proofreading, I mean, where is the truth? It is in Christ, where he said it would be.

    Another thing, we lived in Belgium a few years ago when the country was going through the crises of children being kidnapped and some were killed as a result of the sex trade and pedophilia. I had my own young child. I had no wish to avoid the news and no way of doing so, really. But I had to constantly pray that my mind and heart would rest from this information and the thoughts that constantly accompanied this news. Not all of these thoughts were truth. But the truth laid in the prayer and that was also the only way for me to help families going through it. For sure the press, journalists needed to proclaim this situation. I also prayed for them. So part of Rod Dreher’s questions must be answered from his own heart and distinctly spiritual life: How much involvement does God want him to have with these issues so that he, Rod, is involved with truth (God) and not just with the ugliness of man.

    Thanks for listening! God bless you!

  • Rod Dreher

    Thanks for the mention, Terry. Judging by my e-mail, some readers of my column are under the impression that I believe Neuhaus was right about investigating the Catholic scandal. I emphatically do not! I don’t regret having done what I did, but I can’t say it didn’t cost me. I believe that journalists — Christian journalists, even — must investigate these things. But they should go forward with more awareness than I had at the outset that they risk a lot in the pursuit of truth.

    Had I been writing about financial chicanery, or something like that, I would have handled it differently. Because this involved child abuse, I couldn’t deal with it and maintain my emotional distance. I thank God for journalists and others who can. I know my own limits now. I think of the Catholic priests I know who are as aware as I was and even more aware of the crimes that bishops aided and abetted through cover-up and more, but who find the strength to go on.

    As I said in the column, though, the larger point Fr. Neuhaus made — that there are some truths the concealment of which is justified by appeal to the common good — is a reasonable one. The question is, where to draw the line? And: why are you drawing that particular line? This is not a question that we’re used to thinking about in our tell-all society, but journalists face it from time to time. Not everything that can be known or is known should be known.

  • Bern

    Can’t hardly kow where to start with this: RIP RJH but who decides who needs to know what? With the RC pedophilia outrage it could be argued that the bishops decided that they knew best about who needed to know what–and fell into a nightmare quagmire of sin and shame, plus fallout thoughout the world church and collatoral damage like Mr. Dreher’s crisis of faith, and now I would say crisis of profession. If faced with another such revelation in the new church he calls home would he walk away?

    Better a millstone . . .

  • FW Ken

    I think there is a tendency among journalists to turn “private” into “secret” and drag what is not a legitimate public concern into the public realm. TO A DEGREE, that occurred in the Boston sex scandals of 2002. To a larger degree, the media, including Dreher, failed to establish the relevant contexts – social, historical, and theological – which left people able to pursue various ideological and/or personal agendas apart from the one proper to the subject, that being the protection of children.

    I have to ask, however: Dreher claims Fr. Neuhaus said certain truths ought to kept secret. I followed the links and could only get to a quote that

    There are things (Catholics) really don’t want to know about their church.

    These are not the same thing. In fact, I’ve read everything Fr. Neuhaus wrote on the subject, and recall that quote and it’s context. Unfortunately, I saw Dreher make that sort of shift several times in online discussions back when the sex scandal was an active issue. That’s not meant as a personal attack on Dreher, but an example of a serious journalistic issue. There was some excellent reporting of the Catholic scandal at the time, including by the Dallas Morning News. There were also other agendas at work, and journalists should look honestly at that fact.

  • Thomas Michael Barnes

    “…and the truth shall set you free”. I have learned the hard way in life, if you do not want to know then you do not want to lead. If you do not want to lead, then you are doomed to follow.

    Investigate everything. Believe next to nothing. Keep your mind open at all times. The people have a right to know and a duty to investigate. Always. No exceptions.

  • Jerry

    Should the media have reported Bill Clinton’s personal life? I ask that provocative question, because I don’t think any religious organization should be held to a lower standard than our politicians.

    Of course there should be some privacy when it comes to individual acts. How many people would like to have every detail of their life revealed. And if I got started on the shark-like behavior of the media, I could write a book on the topic.

    And honesty should be tempered by other virtues such as understanding and compassion. If there’s a sin in someone’s distant past, we should hold open the possibility that they have repented of that sin and are walking a different past. After all, how many Saints and religious leaders have things in their background that are not purely good?

    But there must be no shield when a crime has been committed. Unexposed crimes destroy the structures in which they hide.

    Rod’s comments reminded me of the importance of putting one’s faith in God not in a church. A church, being of the world, is corruptible as we’ve seen over and over.

    We’re brought, in the end, once again, to the arena of theodicy. Because evil can exist in a church as much as anywhere else. And we have to deal with it when we know that it’s there. May God grant that we make the right choice if and when our time comes to face that decision.

  • Rev. Michael Church

    The reference to Clinton may not be apt, since (if I recall correctly?) a lot of the investigation was actually done by Congress, not the press. A better instance might the deliberate agreement of the press to underreport the degree of FDR’s disability. There seems to have been a consensus that the common good — surviving the Depression and winning WWII — was well served by the illusion of president who could stand and walk without crutches, and that it would have been harmed by the truth that he could not.

    I’m not at all sure that this was the case. Nor, in any event, is this a clear parallel to clergy child abuse cases, since FDR’s disability hurt nobody. (His adultery is another matter).

    My own opinion is that the tendency of organizations — military and ecclesiastical organizations especially, along with governments — to deal with their problems internally, and hide them from public scrutiny, is understandable, but ultimately fails to serve the greater good. The organizations themselves can’t be counted upon to keep faith with their constituency, and so often hide the truth rather than deal with it.

    For religious organizations in particular, the self-deception of saying “we can deal with it ourselves” and, worse yet, “nobody has to know” is especially foolish. Christian church bodies, at least, are in the business of talking about sin, and its impact on the world. To minimize that impact, or to locate it only in others (“the mote in your neighbor’s eye”) is a betrayal of their mission.

  • James

    I realize it’s not the point of the column, but this is an issue of journalists “getting” religion:

    Dreher’s column speaks of Metropolitan Jonah of the OCA and his predecessors as “patriarchs.” They are not patriarchs, and Rod Dreher knows they are not patriarchs. Where did this bit of misinformation come from?

  • FrGregACCA

    James, Dreher is obviously using the term “patriarch” in the broad sense of “ruling father,” a connotation by which the word could be applied to any (male) bishop.

    I think raising the issue of Clinton is apt. If I recall correctly, it was the media (Newsweek, I think), not Congress, which first broke “Monicagate”. In doing so, the press took a decidedly different path with Clinton than it did with, say, JFK or LBJ.

    However that may be, it strikes me that what got Clinton -and the RC bishops – into the most trouble, was, as with Nixon and Watergate, the attempts at covering up what had transpired. Had each handled their situations differently from the onset, perhaps none would have become the stories they did.

    There are also, of course, examples of the media refraining from reporting matters in the interests of national security, generally at the behest of some government entity. However, here too, making the case for that is very different today than it was during World War II.

    These are just some things that came to mind in Tmatt’s piece above. Other considerations include the rights of individuals to privacy, even public individuals, especially the children of public figures, e.g., the young Chelsea Clinton, the Bush twins, and currently, the Obama children. But what if, as with one of the Bush daughters, there is a brush with the law?

    It seems that there are indeed times when reporters should not share everything they know, but apart from some general considerations, it does not seem possible to formulate any a priori rules, and the presumption, it seems to me, should be in favor of disclosure.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Four points: First:
    In the Old Testament God used the enemies of the Hebrew people to purify them. That seems to be the case here. If there had not been a whirlwind of negative publicity–at first from news outlets that have a reputation for being anti-Catholic–the harm done to children and the Church might have continued–like termites gradually weakening and destroying.
    Second: The historic context has been almost totally ignored. Even the NY Times in a front page story admitted that there was a similar problem–and even bigger–in the New York public schools because during the same time period silence was considered best for all concerned, especially the victims. But where has the follow-up disappeared to in the media and the courts involving other institutions in society??
    Third: There is still almost complete silence in the MSM over the role homosexuality played in the Catholic scandals–except to usually attack anyone who brings up the issue–in spite of the huge role it played according to the John Jay school of criminal justice.
    Fourth: Even Jesus picked a Judas to be in his group of apostles. And that served a purpose in many ways. Church and secular history show that evil can be found anywhere among any group. Didn’t St. Paul complain about some of the rotten antics of some of the earliest Christians. That is why the most popular prayers in Latin West and Orthodox East end with us all admitting we are sinners : The Hail Mary (West) “Holy Mary, Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” The Jesus Prayer (East) “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner” Consequently, it is not too much of a stretch to wonder if some people who are the most scandalized by sin–even to the point of irrationality and hatred– in any organization have a deep-rooted problem with self-righteousness.

  • James


    It’s true that the function of the OCA’s metropolitans are equivalent to that of patriarchs. Just as it’s true that the function of American speakers of the House are equivalent to that of prime ministers.

    Yet it remains true that the USA explicitly does not have prime ministers, and that the OCA explicitly does not have patriarchs. To say that Nancy Pelosi is the prime minister of the United States would be functionally correct, but would be explicitly inaccurate and terribly misleading. Likewise to call +Jonah a patriarch.

  • Sarah Webber

    Several years ago, our now former youth pastor had an affair with one of the girls in the group. The fallout was ugly, as you can imagine. But one of the things our head pastor did that I still appreciate is when he reported the crime to the congregation, he never said who she was. And for a long time I didn’t know who she was and would have been happier never to have known. The DA decided not to file charges since she was 16 at the time and it was consensual sex, so the church was never dragged into a legal quagmire, which is really God’s grace to us. I never wanted to know because I knew all the high school girls fairly well by this point since I’d been volunteering with the group for 3 years. I didn’t see how knowing the “whole truth” would have helped me to love them more. In the end, all parties involved left the church so I didn’t ever have to look her in the face, knowing what had happened. I just don’t see how it would have helped either of us, unless is was information that she brought to me directly.

  • FrGregACCA

    James, not to belabor the point, but Dreher is using “patriarch” in a way similar to how Ireneus uses “presbyter” to describe bishops. Both usages are non-technical, acanonical, and more connotative than denotative.

  • Julia

    I’m old enough to remember a time when medical patients and family members were frequently not told the truth of medical diagnoses – for their own good. My sister-in-law asked if I knew what her mother died of – this was 10 years after the poor woman died of cancer, suffering in silence to protect her family. I don’t know if she even knew what she died from. People were afraid of the word “cancer” and never talked about it. Betty Ford really made a difference when she spoke openly about her breast cancer – everybody now just remembers that she was open about her alcoholism.

    The super-open culture we have today is fairly recent. All you have to do is watch some old films on TCM – lots of secrets were heroically kept for the good of others. Or so people thought at the time.

    I was an attorney doing many custody and juvenile neglect and abuse cases. It made me feel dirty to know the filth that most people don’t suspect is all around them – you can’t tell the bad guys from looking at them. After a while, I couldn’t do it any more because I didn’t like the hardness that was developing in me. A wise fellow attorney said the law can’t provide perfect justice on earth; you only get that in heaven. Down here lawyers just try to do their best. If what a client has done is just too much to stomach, a lawyer can turn down the case; another thicker-skinned person will take it.

    If reporters could really get at the inner workings of the political system, people would also be horrified. Would they lose total confidence in their government? Judgment about what is really news changes over time. Things that are known but not reported today, may be commonplace stories in ten years.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    I wonder if Rod Dreher uncovered this story or something similar to it which caused him to write: “The breadth and degree of the corruption within the Catholic hierarchy broke me spiritually. I lost the will to believe and became profoundly spiritually depressed.”

    Here are excerpts: “Alaska Natives are accusing the Catholic Church of using their remote villages as a “dumping ground” for child-molesting priests—and blaming the president of Seattle University for letting it happen.

    F ather James Poole’s story is not an isolated case in Alaska. On the morning of January 14 in Seattle, Ken Roosa and a small group Alaska Natives stood on the sidewalk outside Seattle University to announce a new lawsuit against the Jesuits, claiming a widespread conspiracy to dump pedophile priests in isolated Native villages where they could abuse children off the radar.

    “They did it because there was no money there, no power, no police,” Roosa said to the assembled cameras and microphones. “It was a pedophile’s paradise.” He described a chain of poor Native villages where priests—many of them serial sex offenders—reigned supreme. “We are going to shine some light on a dark and dirty corner of the Jesuit order.”

    So Wall packed up, moved into the boys dormitory, quickly intuited who else on the floor had been abused (5 out of the 90 residents), and coaxed them into talking about what had happened. Those cases never became public and were settled out of court. “If you’re good,” Wall says, “the assignments build.” Wall was so good, he was ordained a year early and kept busy, working as many as 13 cases per month.

    The job was harrowing and frustrating. “If you’re the cleaner, you rarely find out the resolution to these things,” Wall says. “Because survivors had to sign confidentiality agreements.” The ultimate objective, for a cleaner, was to keep things quiet so the details never became public or went to trial. Wall slowly came to believe that his superiors were more concerned with protecting their public image than caring for survivors. It was, he says, a dark time, not least because he was struggling with his own vows of celibacy. In 1998, he asked to be laicized. By 2001, he was married to a ballet dancer and had a newborn daughter. By 2002, he was hired as a full-time researcher for the law firm Manly and Stewart investigating clerical sex-abuse cases.

    Since then, he and Roosa—who often collaborate on cases with attorney John Manly—have worked over 250 cases together, all of them settled without going to trial. “I would like to see any of these cases go to trial to expose the corruption of the system,” Wall says. But the church would rather pay the money than subject itself to public scrutiny, and survivors generally prefer to avoid the increased emotional turmoil of a trial.

    T he history of child molestation in the Catholic Church goes back centuries. The first official decree on the subject was written at the Council of Elvira, held around A.D. 305 near Granada, Spain. The precise history is complicated, but the council is traditionally believed to have set down 81 rules for behavior, the 71st of which is: “Those who sexually abuse boys may not commune even when death approaches.” It was the harshest one-strike policy: If you’re caught abusing a child, you are not only laicized, but permanently excommunicated—damned for all time.

    The other major condemnation of clerical sex abuse was The Book of Gomorrah, completed by radical church reformer Father Peter Damian (a Benedictine monk, as it happens, who became a cardinal) in 1051. He appealed directly to the pope about the abuse of children, as well as consensual sex among clergy—in howling language: “O unheard of crime! O outrage to be mourned with a whole fountain of tears!… What fruitfulness can still be found in the flocks when the shepherd is so deeply sunk in the belly of the devil!”

    In the 1930s, a priest-psychiatrist—and also a Benedictine—named Reverend Thomas Verner Moore researched the higher-than-usual rates of insanity and alcoholism among Catholic clergy. He suggested the church build an asylum for priests. The U.S. Catholic Bishops turned down his request in 1936. Father Moore became a Carthusian hermit.

    In 1947, Father Gerald Fitzgerald founded the Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez, New Mexico—the same institution Father Poole was to visit almost 50 years later.

    In a 1957 letter to the Bishop of Manchester, Father Fitzgerald wrote that predatory priests (who he euphemistically refers to as “schizophrenic”) cannot be effectively treated and should not be allowed to continue in the ministry:

    “Their repentance and amendment is superficial and, if not formally at least subconsciously, is motivated by a desire to be again in a position where they can continue their wonted activity. A new diocese means only green pastures… We are amazed to find how often a man who would be behind bars if he were not a priest is entrusted with the cura animarum [the cure, or care, of souls].

    By the early 1960s, Father Fitzgerald had seen enough chronic pedophiles that he did not want to treat them and have them rereleased into the ministry, but, as he proposed in a letter to Archbishop Davis, to build an “island retreat… but even an island is too good for these vipers.”

  • James


    To belabor the point, this connotative usage is placed in a context that one could reasonably assume to be denotative. The term “patriarch,” when speaking about Orthodoxy, is too strongly associated with a specific office to be justifiably used in a non-technical sense without some explanation. Were Ireneus writing a 21st-century newspaper column, his use of the word “presbyter” as a label for bishops would be similarly misleading.

  • Ira Rifkin

    Most of the above posts center on the impact of truth on the soul, collective and individual.

    From a strictly journalistic perspective, shading or ignoring facts once they are established undermines public confidence in the institution we call journalism – because eventually everything becomes public knowledge.

    Because journalists are, like Rod, simply human, there is great mistrust today of the so-called MSM (a much abused term in my view), which a naive and misunderstanding public expected to be less a human institution than, oh, let’s say an organized religion run by human functionaries.

    The essence of American-style journalism is that the story is what ever the reporting reveals. Anything else is opinion, no matter what it is called. Rod’s triumph is that he is willing to reveal his bias.

    Which is so much more refreshing than the cynical we-report-you-decide-the spin-stops-here crap that too many news consumers fall prey to (and yes, I know Fox is not the only fraud; the left his its enablers as well).

  • John Brown

    There is and can be no excuse for sexual abuse versus certain things that ought to be concealed from the public for the greater good.

    There is no greater good if sexual abuse can continue to exist – that is the greater good in this issue.

    If it can be determined that certain things that ought to be concealed from the public for the greater good are not things pertaining to the minimization, cover-up of sexual abuse then that should be —- wait a minute – wasn’t that the problem that started all this.

  • Sabrina

    Accuracy is fairness in journalism, and you can’t be accurate if you are knowingly omitting aspects of the story (for whatever reason you are omitting them).

    I grew up in Guatemala during that country’s oppressive undeclared war (which eventually slid into genocide). During the worst years (from 1960-1996) the two newspapers of record were known to be in the vise of the government and paramilitary. They were to report the “official” story or not report the story at all. Reporters and editors that defied those controls ended up dead or in exile. As a consequence, it wasn’t until 1998 that the full story about the extent and responsibility for the atrocities were really reported — in a four-volume report written by the Office of Human Rights of the Archbishop of Guatemala’s Recuperation of Historical Memory (REMHI) titled “Guatemala: Never Again.” Several days after the report was released to the public, the Guatemalan cardinal who led the effort was bludgeoned to death. Such is the power of reportage; such is the danger.

    Censorship of the news — even self-censorship — is an invitation to despotism, in my opinion.

    He really did believe that there were certain things that ought to be concealed from the public for the greater good. And though it might be heresy for a journalist to say, as a matter of general principle, I agree with him.

    I feel for Dreher even as I vehemently disagree with him and the late Father Neuhaus.

    I was working at the Catholic newspaper when the District Attorney released the clergy abuse report for our Archdiocese. I found it painful, in the months after the report was released, to work at the Archdiocese. But it was also edifying. I was there to see the many changes in outreach to survivors of clergy abuse.

    In reading Fr. Neuhaus’ opinion that the laity should have been shielded from this process of memory and reconciliation, I am drawn back to 2006. To the days immediately after of the publication of my commentary, and the first articles we ran with the stories of archdiocesan victims. Other Catholic newspapers picked up the column and articles through Catholic News Service, and I got a surprising number of letters and e-mails — not only from Catholics in our Archdiocese but from dioceses scattered across the nation. They were, in large measure, heartened to read the stories in their diocesan paper; to see the shield between laity and ordained dropped so that, as one, Catholics could begin to deal with the consequences of the crisis.

    Achieving transparency has been grueling work for the institutional Church. I can’t help but believe that the Church is better off for it.

  • FW Ken

    Sabrina -

    I agree with you in principle, first that accuracy is fairness. To that I would add that context is an essential aspect of accuracy. Moreover, I agree that the Church is better off for the scandal; God often brings good out of bad, despite our efforts to block Him.

    However, I ask, again, what Fr. Neuhaus actually said: was it that the Catholic people should be shielded, or that we really don’t want to know. If he said the first, I would also disagree with him. The only quote I could find (or remember) confirms the second reading.