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.
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.