Reflections on the Vatican 2010 sex abuse crisis

Here at GetReligion, we respond to the news of the day. Sometimes that means we don’t get a chance to reflect on broader themes. We spent a lot of time discussing how the mainstream media handled the Vatican sex abuse crisis earlier this year. The Ethics and Public Policy Center hosted a gathering of journalists from mainstream secular outlets to reflect on what went right and what went wrong with that coverage.

It sounds like it was a fascinating discussion. Veteran Vatican reporter John Allen, who we’ve been mentioning a bit this week, was one of the facilitators of the discussion and he wrote up a report for the National Catholic Reporter.

The conversation ranged from the Vatican’s poor state of crisis communications to whether the news media got the story right. Among the reporters present was Laurie Goodstein, whose New York Times work on the matter fueled much of the controversy.

George Weigel was the other facilitator for the conversation. He laid out seven “flawed assumptions” that permeated this year’s coverage. These were: a notion that the papacy wields total control over Catholic life, that the Roman Curia is highly competent, that there is a will to deceive at the highest levels of the Vatican, that the church has institutionalized hypocrisy, that Catholic priests have a higher-than-average sex abuse rate, a lack of skill in reading church documents, and confusion over who is and is not a reliable source.

Weigel also noted that the church has two chronic problems — communications and the lack of a mechanism for dealing with incompetence — or worse — from bishops.

Allen talked about the paradox of Benedict — regarded by insiders as the great reformer on the sex abuse issue and yet painted as the global symbol of the problem:

Measured not against the sweeping programs for reform that some critics of the church have advanced, but against what was realistically possible, Ratzinger moved the ball farther and faster than most people anticipated, often against strong internal opposition.

If that’s so, then why did a handful of cases from decades ago, which came to light earlier this year, cause such an earthquake in public perceptions?

He suggests two additional factors that impeded the Vatican from making a better case: The first case that came to light was the worst; when it broke, the Vatican’s instinct was to protect Benedict rather than empathize with the victims and restate what reforms had taken place. The other issue is that the Vatican may have been hampered in pointing out Benedict’s record because it would indict other senior Vatican officials or have the effect of tainting the memory of Pope John Paul II.

Okay, so let’s get to the juicy part. Goodstein said that when she began reporting, she accepted the “Ratzinger the Reformer” idea:

Yet, she said, the 2010 stories upended that narrative, which placed the responsibility entirely on bishops for the failure to report and remove abusers. This year we learned of one case after another, she said, in which bishops were pleading urgently with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Ratzinger to laicize a known molester, and the CDF rejected those requests. And, she added, we were always told that the CDF had nothing to do with these cases until 2001, but that turned out to be false also. In fact, they were handling them all along.

As a footnote, Goodstein said that much of the reporting was based on documents — though she didn’t add this herself, usually documents obtained from victims’ lawyers. Those documents, she said, are the most revelatory evidence we have. The documents come from attorneys, she said, because the church sure is not handing them over.

Allen said that the additional 2010 reporting didn’t fundamentally alter his views on how the Vatican reformed. He explains some of the specific reasons why and adds:

One can certainly argue that his awakening came late, and that not enough has yet been done — perhaps especially in terms of matching the new accountability for priests with similar accountability for bishops. The fact remains, however, that the Vatican is today more committed to a “zero tolerance” policy because of Ratzinger’s impact, both before and after his election.

If that point sometimes got lost earlier this year, it’s probably one part a media failure to keep the whole picture in focus, and one part the Vatican’s inability to project a different narrative.

There’s a lot more, if this type of conversation interests you. Weigel gets into some nitty gritty about the end of John Paul II’s time in office. The group also discussed why there never seem to be consequences when someone in Rome screws up.

These reporter insights that Allen mentions are also interesting:

One [journalist] said that while such insider scoop is interesting, it’s of limited journalistic value. Editors won’t tolerate sticking in four paragraphs of “Vatican context” into stories to explain every statement or decision that comes down the pike, this reporter said, because it smacks too much of apologetics — i.e., trying to get the Vatican off the hook.

Another reporter made the point that when it comes to the crisis, media outlets have a limited appetite for nuance, because of the stark moral nature of the underlying issue — the sexual exploitation of vulnerable children. In that regard, this reporter said, the media can be as “unchanging and relentless as the church.”

Allen says the take-away is that unless the Vatican wants a perpetual war with the press, it needs to become better at explaining its culture to the outside world.

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  • Bob Smietana

    One other factor. Churches and other religious organizations–unlike government agencies or other nonprofits–rarely turnover internal documents unless there’s a lawsuit or a criminal investigation.
    They are not used to being transparent and usually don’t believe that their internal affairs are anyone’s business–and especially not the media.

  • Jerry

    Starting perhaps with President Nixon and the plumbers, we’ve seen case after case where someone claimed ignorance but was found to have been holding the bag. So the coverage review would have been better if it had also addressed how the American experience of cover-up and revelation predisposed many to assume the same thing was going on in the Vatican.

    Hanlon’s razor also applies as the story noted – never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence. (the new system does not appear to include HTML) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanlon%27s_razor

  • Julia

    For one thing: the church isn’t a democracy.

    • Jerry

      Julia is right. Most churches are not democratic. Rather people “vote with their feet” if they don’t like the direction the church is taking. It’s true that some are more open to bottom-up pressure, but full openness is pretty rare. For that matter, corporations aren’t democratic either. There is a sham democracy in an appointed Board of Directors, but that is not a true democracy.

      And both seek to influence the laws of society for good and ill. If a church advocates something I believe in, then they are advocating for the correct and just position and are on the “side of the angels”. If they don’t, then of course they are evil and must be opposed. Religion and the Civil War is an illustrative example far enough in the past to not push people’s buttons.

  • Julia

    Little quibble with Allen: “apologetics” is the art of explaining the doctrines of the church, not apologizing for it. The sex abuse crisis has more to do with the governance and structure of the church.

  • Julia

    Lori Goodstein: “This year we learned of one case after another, she said, in which bishops were pleading urgently with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Ratzinger to laicize a known molester, and the CDF rejected those requests.”

    1) laicizing a molester will do nothing to stop what his molesting and the church loses any levarege it might have over him. the bishops were being pushed by people who thought laicization was the cure-all.

    2) it’s more important to take a molester out of ministry and, if possible, sequester him somewhere. A bishop in England was hounded until he kicked an offender out of monitored housing. Who knows what he’s up to now.

    3) Before 2001, the bishops were always able to conduct trials in their dioceses, but didn’t want to do that. The authority the CDF wielded in these matters was very murky and John Paul didn’t like de-frocking priests. It was a confusing situation until Ratzinger insisted on clear authority to do something quickly, when the facts warranted.

    Not excuses – this situation was unnecessarily messy and made matters worse.

    4) These years of news reports about the sex abuse crisis and how the church works and what documents mean reminds me of why Supreme Court reporters should always be lawyers. I’ve seen so many articles about local, state and Federal court cases that totally miss the point of the case, what is happening in court, the relevance of evidence and the importance of decisions, especially in appellate cases. This situation is no different. It’s very dicey to get all your info from the plaintiff’s attorneys. There are lots of church experts that can and should have been asked for explanations – especially canon lawyers.

    5) Good civil court reporters can’t really interview the judge and the defense attorneys usually don’t want to talk to the press. In criminal cases, you can’t interview the judge and the prosecuting attorney is prevented from saying much. Somehow the good reporters learn what’s going on.

    A big part of the problem is that the Catholic church’s internal rules operate more like the European system, and uses different terminology than we do in the US. And many reporters don’t recognize that. Why is nobody taking cognizance of that fact?

    - Just saying. Horrible, horrible things have come to light and I’m just as appalled as anybody else.

  • SteveP

    Allen said: “The take-away seemed to be that unless the Vatican wants a perpetual war with the press, it needs to become more adept at translating its internal culture for the outside world.” The news this week – the focus whether or not an object is a moral agent – seems to show that much is lost in translation. Further, I’d suggest that Allen is asking the Vatican to make his job easier.

    Also reported from the conference: “Several people, for instance, asked why there never seem to be consequences when somebody in Rome obviously screws up.” Personally I find this rather amusing as it grossly displays the tension between the “internal culture” (focus on the salvation of souls) versus the “outside world” (focus on legalism).

    Thank you, Mollie, for bringing this to my attention.

  • Jack B

    Back to Mollie’s post, a telling reflection of the Allen, Weigel, and others’ points is the global frenzy since Saturday, with two attempted Vatican clarifications so far, over the Pope’s words on condom use. The words are hardly an off-the-cuff accident, having lain in the publishing pipeline for many months. Apparently no thought was given to the possibility they would be received someday by a curious audience. On a subject well known to be of high interest, they were vague, ambiguous, and equally consistent (or not) with a multitude of interpretations. Seldom have so many guesses, assumptions, and presumptions been triggered by so few words meant to inform the public. Before the media get criticized too much, it’s worth recalling a principle from another field: Garbage in, garbage out.

  • Passing By

    Except, of course, there was no 2010 sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. There was a media event manufactured by Goodstein and her tribe, but the cases were decades old, as were the actions taken in regard to them. Moreover, the actions were by and large appropriate: offenders were removed from ministry, which is the relevant point. Heck, even the execrable Rembert Weakland comes off pretty good in the Milwaukee case. Yet, Goodstein seems incapable of understanding that “de-frocking” a priest is functionally meaningless and leaves them freer to roam, as Julia notes.

    Another aspect of the sex abuse that was mentioned, but not explored was the role of law enforcement. I remember specifically that the Oakland priest was alleged to have tied up some little boys and molested them, then ended up with a misdemeanor conviction for some petty matter. In San Antonio, law enforcement informed the bishop they were investigating “custodial interference” when the priest had held the boy at gunpoint and molested him. The myth is that bishops circumvented law enforement; the truth is more complicated and I have yet to see a decent study of that aspect of the problem. I can dig out links for all this if needed, but this new software seems to lack that easy linking function so it will be clunky.

    Allen’s article seems fair enough, although he seems to give George Weigel extra weight. This works for me, since Weigel makes credible points, but I would have liked to read more about any responses Goodstein had when confronted with actual facts.

  • Passing By

    Meant to add that my usual note that I find it comforting that someone in this world isn’t caught up in the 24/7 news cycle and really good PR. If the Vatican – the pope and the curia – don’t have a good relationship with the press, maybe it’s the press needs to change. Keeping reporters happy certainly makes reporters happy, I guess, but maybe that’s not all there is.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “Allen says the take-away is that unless the Vatican wants a perpetual war with the press, it needs to become better at explaining its culture to the outside world.”

    It might benefit the outside world if it understood and accepted as a presupposition that the Church is Infallible in Its moral doctrines and teachings.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Transparency is a virtue in many cases for many organizations—and it appeaers the Church could be well served by exercising more transparency.
    But it struck me as I was reading the comments here that the news media– which is screaming for more Church transparency– is fighting tooth and nail to become LESS transparent in the areas of its responsibility. As in the demands for reporter’s shield laws that will protect sources mostly only on their say-so (depending on which version of a shield law being debated). Whether their arguments for less transparency and being able to hide valuable witnesses, information, or sources from law enforcement through shield law privilieges have any merit is not the point. Every organization that is less than transparent in some or many areas of its responsibility usually claims there is good reason for their policies. But only the news media gets to advocate massively for getting new privileges along these lines while making every other organization that doesn’t meet the media’s standard of transparency for others appear far more self-serving than the virtuous media. It is interesting that this aspect of the “transparency” debate almost never pops up when the media is preaching about the need for more transparency by others.

  • Passing By

    I keep wondering what some of these comments have to do with journalism. Does the new software not allow spiking comments? Or maybe the bloggers are enjoying a Thanksgiving respite. I hope the latter and wish you all a belated but heartfelt Happy Thanksgiving. Thanks for all you do.

    • Anonymous

      Passing By,

      I’m having some trouble with our new commenting software. It says I’ve deleted them but then they still appear. Hopefully we’ll get the bugs worked out soon!