Hey NYTimes: Please study the timeline of abuse in Chicago

Hey NYTimes: Please study the timeline of abuse in Chicago January 24, 2014

Back in my graduate-school days, I attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, after spending a few years working at the local daily, The News-Gazette. I read the Chicago dailes, of course, during some glorious years of newspaper warfare in that great and wild city.

Thus, I remember ripping my way way through the headlines and thousands of words of copy kicked off by the famous Chicago Sun-Times blockbusters about the life and times of one Cardinal John Patrick Cody. Here’s a slice of a Nieman Reports flashback:

On Thursday, September 10, 1981, the Chicago Sun-Times splashed across its front page a three-tiered headline that jolted the city: “Federal grand jury probes Cardinal Cody use of church funds.” A subhead read: “Investigation centers on gifts to a friend.” The first in an extended, multifaceted series of investigative stories did not appear until a team of three Sun-Times reporters had completed an 18-month search for sources, documents and other substantiating evidence. And this investigation took place at a time when reporters still shared information with federal authorities, including the Internal Revenue Service. …

Fully aware that they were dealing with an explosive issue in a metropolitan area where the Catholic Church was a powerful institution with members at the top levels of the city’s political, judicial, business and labor establishment, the tabloid’s publisher and editors were not in a rush to get into print. When the reporting team was first assembled, Publisher James Hoge told the investigative unit: “We’re going to have to do as careful and as in-depth reporting as anyone’s ever done, because this is dynamite.”

That’s an understatement, if there ever was one. Yes, the friend was female.

Why bring this up right now?

Well, any attempt to understand the current news coverage of the Chicago angle of the decades of Catholic clergy sexual-abuse scandals must include a timeline of who is who and who led the Archdiocese of Chicago at what time. Here goes:

* Cardinal John Patrick Cody was appointed on June 14, 1965 and died on April 25, 1982. He was the living, breathing archetype of a powerful Chicago leader, steeped in clericalism and feared by a wide range of Catholics for a wide range of reasons.

* Cardinal Joseph Louis Bernardin was appointed on July 8, 1982 and died on Nov. 14, 1996. Simply stated, he was a hero of American Catholic progressives and their many allies in the mainstream press. If the Catholic left has an American saint with a red hat, this is the man.

* Cardinal Francis Eugene George — the first native Chicagoan to serve as Archbishop of Chicago — was appointed on April 7, 1997, and is highly respected by doctrinal conservatives in the era of the Blessed Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis.

So remember those years as you read the New York Times story on the opening of the files on clergy sexual abuse in this oh-so-powerful archdiocese. Here’s a crucial block of information right up top:

Thousands of documents gleaned from the personnel files of the Archdiocese of Chicago were released to the public on Tuesday, unspooling a lurid history of abuse by priests and halting responses from bishops in the country’s third-largest archdiocese. In each case, the priests ultimately died or were ousted from ministry, and in most cases, the allegations were never proved in a criminal court. But the documents suggest that church officials were at times quite solicitous toward priests accused of abuse.

In one remarkable instance in 1997, Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin was persuaded to allow the body of an abusive priest’s mother to be brought to the prison where the priest, the Rev. Norbert J. Maday, was incarcerated so he could pay his respects. Cardinal Francis E. George, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Chicago, described the accommodation in a thank-you note as “an exceptional act of charity.”

Cardinal George’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin, opted not to defrock the same priest, writing a letter to him in prison declaring that “you have suffered enough by your present deprivation of ministry and your incarceration.”

Cardinal George is, of course, currently in power and he receives quite a bit of attention in this story, as is proper. However, what is the main question that a reader needs answered in this scandal story? I would say that the crucial question can be stated this way: What happened and when? When did most of the abuse take place and when did the church leaders in Chicago do most of their cover-up work?

The story does say this, without mentioning specific dates:

Most of the abuse described in the documents was alleged to have taken place years ago; about half of the accused priests are dead, and many of the victims have already been given financial settlements from the archdiocese. Some of the documents have previously been available online, and have received attention in local news reports, as a result of criminal prosecutions and civil suits.

And later, there is this reference:

An archdiocesan lawyer told reporters last week that 95 percent of the allegations in the files concerned conduct before 1988, and none after 1996; 14 of the 30 accused priests are dead, and none are still serving in ministry. Cardinal George, who has been the archbishop of Chicago since 1997, has said he never met many of the priests. …

Although the abuse described in the documents took place before Cardinal George became archbishop, many of the victims first came forward after his arrival; some of the files concern cases in which Cardinal George’s response has been questioned. …

Like I said, it is important to focus on Cardinal George to some degree as the current leader in Chicago. But what prominent names are missing, if you plug this story’s few specific dates into that earlier timeline?

Believe it or not, readers have to go to the final paragraph in the story to read the following:

The documents also shed new light on the handling of abusers by Cardinal Bernardin, a highly regarded figure in American Catholic history, and one of the first prominent church figures to act strongly against clergy sexual abuse by naming a board in 1992 to investigate future accusations.

If most of the abuse accusations and case documented in these took place before 1988, why is so little attention given to that era? After all, clericalism — the clergy-first attitude that Pope Francis is questioning so strongly — is not a matter of left and right. Clericalism is at the heart of the clergy-abuse era and its defenders (and opponents) can be found in all corners of Catholic life.

Why does the Times give so little attention to, well, the sins that took place in the decades of leadership by Cardinal Cody and Cardinal Bernardin?

Did the Chicago Tribune story handle this matter differently?

Read it all. But well into the long piece, far from the focus in the lede, there is this:

The collection of files provides fresh context to the tenure of George’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Even Bernardin, long regarded as a leader in tackling child sex abuse in the church, gave abusive priests breaks.

For instance, he appointed the Rev. Joseph Fitzharris to a new parish assignment in 1988, just months after a judge sentenced Fitzharris to one-year court supervision for sexually abusing a 15-year-old, according to records. As part of his sentence, Fitzharris was to have no unsupervised contact with children.

In 1991, Bernardin reviewed all the abuse cases in the archdiocese, removed Fitzharris and dozens of other priests from ministry, and instituted reforms that became a model for dioceses across the nation. But the files reveal he still struggled to balance his faith in a priest with trying to protect children.

Bernardin agreed with his review board in 1994 that the Rev. John Curran should never be allowed to return to active ministry in the aftermath of four separate allegations of sexual misconduct with minors. But the cardinal cautioned his review board to use a less punitive tone in dealing with the accused priest.

The cardinal in July 1995 urged him not to resign from the priesthood after the depressed Curran said he’d rather do so than follow through with the church’s wishes to go to a St. Louis psychiatric facility.

“You have been an outstanding priest of this archdiocese for 38 years,” Bernardin said. “I cannot even imagine you as anything but a priest.”

Like I said, study the timeline and do the math.

Do journalists truly realize that these hellish scandals were rooted in clericalism and that clericalism can exist under the leadership of Catholic shepherds that reporters admire, as well as those they view with distrust?

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8 responses to “Hey NYTimes: Please study the timeline of abuse in Chicago”

  1. You have identified the very distinctive technique the media uses in its coverage of the abuse crisis. For the media, the challenge is to lay responsibility for the crisis at the feet of the current crop of Bishops. That is because the current crop of bishops is more conservative, and they are the “enemy” of the progressive wing of the Catholic church. Therefore, timelines that would lay the feet of the earlier bishops – more progressive bishops – who were truly responsible are almost never included. The media want you to get the impression that the current crop are the bad guys.
    Remember when the Times attempted to nail Pope Benedict as an abetter of child abuse? They used Archbishop Weakland as a source in their stories. Essentially, Weakland was quoted as saying “I asked the Vatican to do something about the guy and they just dragged their feet” It was never mentioned that Weakland had used church funds to pay off his gay lover. It was never mentioned that he shredded reports of child abuse by priests and moved priests around. Weakland is included in their list of progressive heroes, along with Bernardin, and so is never scrutinized.
    It is a consistent pattern. Lord knows the current crop should be held to account for anything they did wrong. But the impression given by the stories always is that the current crop is doing all the bad things.

  2. “Do journalists truly realize that these hellish scandals were rooted in clericalism ”

    My guess is that most don’t know the difference between Catholicism and clericalism.

    Clericalism is more the issue of the laity. That is not questioning interactions between priests and children that sent off alarm bells. He is a priest. It must be fine.

    For the bishops it was more the idea that celibacy is to hard. We can’t expect priest to keep their vows. We just need to accept many priests will have their dirty little secrets. That is not really clericalism.

    • Tmatt, thank you for this. I’ll be forwarding it to some of my less informed acquaintances.
      Randy, a good example of clericalism is Card Bernardin’s tendency towards leniency towards priests he liked, even though he knew they were guilty and parishioners needed to be protected from him. It did not have a thing to do with celebacy being hard. More like an inside the Church preference for those you like. Political and sinful.
      Also, your comment about most bishops and priests is wrong and probably tainted by this kind of skewed journalism. I know several priests who were turning in other priests to Church and civil authorities because of illicit behavior, including abuse.

      • Is leniency towards those you like clericalism? That could happen just as much if they were not priests. It is a lack of outrage at the breaking of vows. So yes, I do think it was related to the secular idea that celibacy is unrealistic and we should not be naive enough to think these priest really don’t sneak something somewhere.

        I don’t see the relevance of the several priests you know. The fact is way too many did not report abuse. That includes priests, bishops, and laymen.

        • Randy, Clericalism is setting a cleric, or clergy or religious apart and above the laity, especially as regards faith, morals and standards of behavior.
          I gave anecdotal evidence of what I have seen moral of behavior of priests and used that as support for my argument. With the wave of your hand you dismiss my statement with no evidence at all, unless you are confessing your own proclivities. Either that or your own prejudices. I assure you I am not naive, nor am I a fan of clericalism. I know generous, moral, faithful people who try to live holy lives in the married and celibate states. Your statement easily extends to, well, faithfulness in marriage is hard, so everybody is unfaithful. That is not true, either. Please try to be a little more honest and logical.

          • I am starting from the assumption that abuse occurred. That it was happening way to often and the church’s reaction was way too little and way too late. I thought there was enough evidence out there that nobody was debating that anymore. Are you debating that? If not, then the existence of good priests is really beside the point. The question being addressed is why the bad priests were getting away with it.

  3. I would like to see a compare and contrast study of how principals and school boards dealt with accusations of abuse during the same time periods. Are they similar or very different? Is it a problem that a bishop and his priests are encouraged to think of their relationship as father and son? Is that clericalism? Or is clericalism a conscious choice to treat priests differently than lay people? Are principal and teacher more employer and employee? Principals might be closer to teachers personally than school boards. Does that make a difference? I’d really like to know and have not seen this aspect analyzed anywhere.

  4. Terry: Have you read through the whole six thousand pages? If so, why don’t you provide a timeline of abuse–when did it occur, and when were archbishops informed of it, and how did they respond? I’ve been working through the files myself, and have not yet found instances that make Bernardin look worse than George. In fact, from what I’ve seen so far, under Bernardin Chicago followed policies George should have implemented in the tragic case of Daniel McCormack. Bernardin made serious mistakes, but you can’t understand the scandal without getting your head around how the church–and the wider culture–came to understand the crime of sexual abuse. Basically, the later the allegation, the more inexcusable a bishop’s failure to respond swiftly and strictly. Chicago had accused priests signing elaborate monitoring agreements–the kind that might have kept McCormack from molesting all those children.

    If you’re not interested or not willing to do the work you say the Times hasn’t done, maybe you shouldn’t go around accusing them of bias.