The obvious gap in that NYTimes report on sexual abuse

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Almost a year ago, The New York Times launched a series of web-only video-and-text features called the Retro Report. The goal of these short documentaries is, apparently, to help readers by filling in the gaps on complex, ongoing stories.

While these short features have been identified as “columns,” the content — at least to me — seems to be rather ordinary news analysis work. The key is that the goal is to give readers a summary of background facts and history. At the very least, then, we can expect these pieces to be factual and somewhat thorough.

This brings me to the recent piece that ran under this headline: “The Fight to Reveal Abuses by Catholic Priests.” That’s a very important topic, of course, an let me stress, again, what I have stated in the past: Journalists have been totally justified in focusing on the cover-ups as well as the crimes.

These scandals have been drawing waves of coverage since the 1980s, although there are reporters out there who seem to think that this hellish pot of sin, sacrilege and clericism didn’t boil over until the revelations in Boston about a decade ago.

Let me stress, as your GetReligionistas have noted on numerous occasions, that this has been a scandal that has touched both the Catholic left and the right. To be perfectly blunt, quite a few Catholics on both sides of the theological spectrum have been hiding skeletons in their closets. If you have the stomach for it, the most intense, searing take on the scandal can be found in the book “Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church” by the conservative scholar Leon J. Podles.

It is hard to miss the Watergate-esque grammatical construct in a crucial quote at the top of the story posted with this Retro Report video:

Cardinal Edward M. Egan, the former Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, is in no way the principal face of the sexual abuse scandals that have buffeted the church and its priesthood almost without pause for three decades. But he embodies a certain mind-set among some in the highest clerical ranks. It is an attitude that has led critics, who of late include the authors of a scathing United Nations committee report, to wonder about the depth of the church’s commitment to atone for past predations and to ensure that those sins of the fathers are visited on no one else.

In 2002, with the scandal in crescendo and the American Catholic Church knocked back on its heels, Cardinal Egan reacted with obvious ambivalence to accounts of priestly abuses that occurred in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., which he had led before moving to New York. “If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry,” he said in a letter to parishioners.

Yes, mistakes were made. And crimes were committed. And sins — if confessed — remained hidden.

So what caught my attention in this piece, looking at it from a GetReligion point of view? As you would expect, many of the key facts are here and I do not dispute them. Anyone who has followed this hellish history knows many or most of the key facts.

Well, I wondered how this piece from the Times empire would deal with the arrival of Pope Francis. At the very end, readers are told:

In early February, the report by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child sternly took the Vatican to task for, in the panel’s view, not having acknowledged the extent of past criminality and not doing enough to protect today’s children. The relatively new pope, Francis, recognizes the problem. He has spoken about the horrors of pedophilia. This month, he named four women and four men to a special commission that is supposed to advise him on how to proceed in cleansing this enduring stain. Among the appointees was an Irish activist on this issue, Marie Collins, who as a girl in the 1960s was abused by a priest.

Yet as popular as Pope Francis is, he has left some skeptics wondering where his heart lies. He did not endear himself with support groups for abuse victims when, in an interview with two newspapers in early March, he said of the scandal: “The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility. No one else has done more. Yet the church is the only one to have been attacked.”

To some ears, those remarks sounded almost Egan-like in defensiveness.

Now, it is true that many Catholics — even the active members of the church, such as Podles, who have spoken most bluntly about the sins and crimes of the hierarchy — wonder why the media has focused so much attention on the Catholic church, to the near exclusion of other groups, secular and religious, who have struggled with the same issue. They have, for example, wondered why some legislatures have tried to extend the statute of limitations to allow victims of abuse in Catholic settings more time to report the crimes, while failing to take the same legal steps on behalf of victims of sexual abuse in other settings. Click here for a typical Times report on that topic.

In particular, they wonder about the small amounts of ink used to cover one type of story in particular.

You may ask, “What story?” Read the following material from this Retro Report and see if you can spot the omission:

For sure, sexual maltreatment of children and cover-up are not Catholic monopolies. Charges have been brought against predatory rabbis in New York and elsewhere. In the Hasidic world, a code of silence governs much of life in this regard. Those who break it, by taking allegations to the civil authorities, find themselves ostracized. The existence of a website like StopBaptistPredators.org points to problems in other denominations. As for secular institutions, who could be unaware of abuses within the Boy Scouts of America and at Penn State?

So what is missing from this summary paragraph, what other arena in the fight against the sexual abuse of children?

Yes, the pope was wrong in saying that the church is the only “public institution” to “have been attacked.” It may be more accurate to say that it has been attacked more than any other institution, in part (Who can argue otherwise?) because of the moral expectations attached to the priesthood. Again, note the title of that Podles’s book — “Sacrilege.”

But where, in this Times summary, is a reference to the sexual-abuse crisis in public schools? Why not at least mention this arena in the fight against the sexual abuse of young children and teen-agers, as well as mentioning Catholics, Baptists, Boy Scout leaders and others linked to organizations with moral authority?

This is the factual gap in these stories that most offends Catholic leaders, even those — on the left and right — who have done the most to attack the cover-ups and to bring justice and healing to the victims.

Again:

For sure, sexual maltreatment of children and cover-up are not Catholic monopolies.

Right. Now make an attempt to fill in all of the gaps, when reporting on this crucial story.

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.

  • boinkie

    also missing:

    One: That in the 1970′s and 1980′s there was a trend to normalize sexual activity by young teens (several UK politicians are in hot water right now for assisting groups that wanted to lower the age of consent:
    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/02/26/pedophile-advocacy-comes-back-to-bite-a-british-politician.html

    Two: Survey after survey by the CDC and other public health studies show that “intercourse” below age 12 occurs in 5 to ten percent of children, the finding often masked by placing this information non judgementally along with other “behaviors”. link .

    Third, the trend in psychiatry in the 1970′s and 1980′s was that “Sexual predators” should be treated in an outpatient setting by psychiatrists, even when the predator was the father or step father, since most of these predators don’t do well in a jail. One still reads reports of this happening. link

    I was the only woman physician in our town in those days, and I saw a lot of abuse of young girls (usually pre teens), including several cases of incest. Few cases went to court, because the cross examination of the victim was more traumatic than the actual abuse (an idea confirmed by my secretary, who had been abused in a foster home). The “best case scenerio was if you could get the perpetrator to plea bargain, and often the lack of evidence meant the perpetrator got away without any charges, since it was a “he said she said” case…”

  • Julia B

    I’m retired now, but as an attorney I saw lots and lots of child abuse cases as a guardian ad litem, appointed to check out how kids were doing. People don’t realize that this stuff sometimes happens in upper class families and you can’t tell pedophiles by looking at them. I saw numerous cases where family members saw nothing wrong with using their children sexually – either personally or putting them on-line to make money. Even custody cases would unearth awful stuff.

    One juvenile court case involved a grandfather, father and young male children all “doing each other”. I did a home visit and witnessed the 3 yr old attempting to do his 6 month old brother. This family, who owned a very profitable local business, saw nothing abnormal about any of this. They thought society was too “uptight”.
    I have no problem with the press reporting on the Catholic church’s difficulties in this regard, but why avoid reporting what is rife in our society? Talk to social workers and court advocates for children. Do reporters think people just do not want to know about its prevalence?

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Every time I read a story about sexual abuse in schools, I write to the author(s) and ask, “OK, now that you’ve published that, when is your paper going to do an investigation into how much of this is going on in public schools?” I cite the work done by Charol Shakeshaft when she was at Hofstra (http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/research/pubs/misconductreview/report.pdf) for the U.S. Department of Education showing that nearly 10 percent of public school kids are sexually abused by school personnel in one way or another. Not once has anyone responded to me, even though I keep telling them that a Pulitzer is bound to happen with such a story, just like the Globe got one for the 2002 series.

    The Minneapolis StarTribune had a story recently (http://www.startribune.com/local/east/251448141.html) about a St. Paul school janitor who had just been fired for doing bad things to kids, but the school district knew of it back in 2003. Somehow or other, the Strib just never got around to asking the questions of the district that they had asked of Archbishop John Nienstedt and his subordinates as the Strib, Minnesota Public Radio and the St. Paul Pioneer Press all ganged up on the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. And attorney Jeff Anderson, who’s making a killing off of suing the Church, and his cronies in the media don’t seem to be looking for legislation that would allow the suspension of the statute of limitations for a year or three for abused school kids to sue the school districts for abuse that happened back in say, oh, 1948, as has been done for the Catholic Church and other non-profit entities.

    Many of the commenters at the Strib talked about the union’s influence and how they kept him on the job despite his record. But what’s really interesting is I wrote a comment asking when they were going to investigate the school district the way they did the Archdiocese, and I cited Charol Shakeshaft’s work. The comboxes at the Strib site are moderated. Mine never made it.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    Also missing is what the Church has actually DONE to address the issue. Appointing task forces and committees and articulating policies – sure, these have been done – but they sound empty in the context given. Has nothing actually been accomplished? Has the rate of abuse continued or fallen? Has trust been restored to priests in general? After all, many priests remain in active ministry quite possibly because they are not abusers to begin with. Has not the increase in seminarians noted in the story followed upon greater care in selecting seminarians in light of the kind of men the seminaries favored in the 1980s, 90s, and 00s? Do not these higher numbers mean higher numbers of more virtuous future priests? It sure seems that “the Church STILL has a problem” is the main point of the story.

    I think Pope Francis is right when he says that the Catholic Church is the only one that is “attacked” on this issue. There may be reports here and there on about a public school teacher or other religious leader or physician or other person in a position of trust and authority – but rarely is the school or the entire school system “attacked,” rarely is the Protestant denomination or the American Medical Association or state medical board or whatever “attacked.” Someone gets fired, end of story, no investigation into cover-ups or systematic accommodation of abuse. A school teacher in, say, Vermont is unlikely to make the news in, say, Oregon unless the crimes are particularly salacious, but the media go out of their way to find a reason to talk about the Catholic Church even when NO ONE is getting into trouble. Maybe I’m just sensitive to the issue, but that’s the way it seems to me.


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