PHILADELPHIA — The clergy sex abuse crisis that engulfed the U.S. church — and has since spread globally — requires understanding it as context for what is happening in the church and society, according to journalist Peter Steinfels.
The global nature of the crisis means each new instance of abuse in any country becomes part of a single narrative for the Catholic Church everywhere — unlike any other institution, said Steinfels in an April 25 talk at Villanova University’s law school.
In the United States, the case of the disgraced former cardinal and now-defrocked Theodore McCarrick has intensified long-simmering divisions of conservative and liberal factions in the church, each offering their own agendas for reform, said Steinfels, a former New York Times reporter, retired editor of Commonweal magazine and a retired professor at Fordham University in New York.
The crisis has also become part of “a civil war over the papacy of Pope Francis,” Steinfels said.
The numerous state and federal investigations that have arisen in recent months are promising to “produce a drip, drip, drip of sensational headlines for years to come, potentially draining morale and resources and magnifying the ongoing hemorrhaging of the young from the faith,” he said.
Steinfels noted an “unmet backlog exists” of deep suffering and desire for contrition, justice and vindication on the part of victims, “primarily but not entirely from the sins and crimes of 30 to 60 years ago.”
He said he held out hope for positive internal developments, including greater accountability in the form of new national guidelines for the global church such as the U.S. church’s “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” and financial settlements for victims though independent compensation boards, which he said are signs of responsibility that “should have been undertaken long ago.”
He also hoped for greater transparency and called for a commission of expert laypeople in relevant fields who could bridge “the conservative-liberal or pro- or con-Francis divisions in the church, possibly including non-Catholics as well.”
Such a commission “would stand watch over all aspects of the ongoing crisis, over church and episcopal actions and also over media reporting and judicial inquiries,” he said.
Steinfels said responding to “the evil of sex abuse” requires conversion of heart, not merely programs, and not only by church leaders but by everyone.
“For too long, the American bishops were trapped in denial, defensiveness and inaction. But what about ourselves?” Steinfels asked. “Are we in denial or benumbed about what is coming next? Can we keep our hearts from being too angry, too divided or too weary to respond adequately? I hope and pray that we can.”
He cited a recent report on the crisis by former FBI investigator Kathleen McChesney, who served 2002-05 as the first executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, which said the number of reported abuse cases in the United States dropped from about 600 a year between 1965 and 1985 to about 20 since 2004, a drop of 97 percent.
Steinfels suggested that if a 97 percent decrease was reported in the number of murders in Chicago or the incidence of opioid drug abuse, no one would pretend nothing significant had occurred.
“It would be welcomed as nearly miraculous,” he said. “Anyone who fudges or minimizes such changes over time, or time frames in general, as the Pennsylvania grand jury report did, is simply not telling the truth.”
Steinfels scorned the grand jury report in a 12,000-word article published by Commonweal in January, saying it was “grossly misleading, irresponsible, inaccurate and unjust,” and that the report’s summary was at odds with its own data.
The Pennsylvania report’s introduction said the bishops not only did nothing over a 70-year period, they actively sought to hide abuse and “brush aside” victims. Steinfels found that charge dubious, which set him on his course of examining the report in detail.
The report’s data, he said, suggested that even before 2002, disregard for victims and protection of abusers happened in only 10 percent of all cases.
Steinfels laid blame for the media’s narrative on journalists reporting on tight deadlines without devoting the time to delve fully into the 884-page report’s details. But he also credited journalists with helping to reveal the scandal of child sexual abuse beginning in 2002.
In the wake of the report last August, Steinfels said he was surprised to learn how little people knew about the history of the crisis and their lack of understanding about secretive investigating grand juries like Pennsylvania’s.
“I confess to puzzlement when people demanding transparency and accountability in the church do not sound a peep in the face of a procedure as one-sided, unaccountable and cloaked in secrecy as the Pennsylvania report,” Steinfels said.
Gambino is managing editor of catholicphilly.com, website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.