The media is being attacked by the defenders of Pope Benedict who feel that its coverage of the sex abuse crisis is unfair. Do some reporters do a sloppy job reporting? Sure. Are some commentators over the top in their rhetoric? Sure. When the argument is between the New York Times and the Catholic Church, it may simply be one infallible institution taking on another.
But let's be honest. The church has rarely been helpful in covering the sex abuse story, and without the media coverage, the church would not have cleaned up its act. The church owes a debt of gratitude to the media, especially the National Catholic Reporter, which was on this story from the mid-1980's, long before the Boston Globe.
In addition, attacking the media is a stupid PR strategy that does not work; in fact it is counterproductive. It makes the church look defensive and makes it look like the church is trying to play down the problem of abuse. Calling the news coverage petty gossip or comparable to anti-Semitism is disastrous; it is pouring gasoline on the fire.
More and more individual cases are making headlines as lawyers leak information to the media or documents are released by the courts. In these news stories, it is extremely important for the reporters and their audiences to pay attention to the timelines in the cases. Here are some questions that need to be asked and answered when looking at concrete cases.
1. When did the abuse take place?
Most cases of abuse in the United States being reported by the media today occurred decades ago. We know from the 2004 study by the John Jay School of Criminology that the number of alleged abuses increased in the 1960's, peaked in the 70's, declined in the 80's and by the 90's had returned to the levels of the 1950's. If the date of the abuse is buried at the end of the story, the superficial reader may think it is a recent case.
2. When was the abuse reported to the diocese?
One of the tragedies of the sexual abuse crisis is that victims because of their age and vulnerability do not come forward right away. Some never come forward because they do not want their families, friends or acquaintances to know. As a result, not even the church knew the extent of the abuse. According to the John Jay report, one-third of the accusations were made in the years 2002-3. Two-thirds have been reported since 1993. "Thus, prior to 1993, only one-third of cases were known to church officials," says the report. The church should be blamed for what it knew but can it be blamed for what it did not know?
3. Did the priest abuse again after he was first reported to the diocese?
Most priests (56 percent) according to the John Jay report had only one accusation against them. On the other hand, the 149 serial abusers (those who abused 10 or more children) were responsible for 27 percent of the abuse. That these serial abusers were not dealt with more quickly is unconscionable.
4. How long was it from the time the abuse was reported to the diocese to the time that the priest was suspended from ministry?
In order to protect children, it is essential that abusive priests be quickly removed from ministry (not allowed to wear clerics, celebrate mass or the sacraments in public, present himself as a priest or work with children). The 2002 Dallas norms require that an accused priest be suspended while an investigation is conducted.
Prior to 1985, most bishops handled these cases poorly. They got bad advice from lawyers and psychologists; they believed the priest when he said he would never do it again; they were focused on protecting the church instead of protecting children. Some bishops learned faster than others that this was an inappropriate response. After the bishops issued their guidelines in 1992, most bishops did better but some like Cardinal Law ignored the guidelines. Although only Law resigned, most of the bishops who did a bad job prior to 1992 are no longer in charge of dioceses because bishops retire at 75 years of age.
5. How long was it from the time the abuse was reported to the diocese to the time that the priest was reported to the police?
According to the 2002 Dallas norms, the diocese "will comply with all applicable civil laws with respect to the reporting of allegations of sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities and will cooperate in their investigation." Most dioceses have gone further and report allegations even if it is not required by law. The diocese also "will advise and support a person's right to make a report to public authorities." Often the police will not investigate the crime because it is past the statute of limitations.
6. How long was it from the time the abuse was reported to the diocese to the time that the diocese reported it to the Vatican?
In 2001, the John Paul II mandated that if there is sufficient evidence that sexual abuse of a minor has occurred, the case should be reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In some cases, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) is being taken to task when he was not notified of the cases for years and sometimes decades after the diocese knew.
7. How long did the canonical process take to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused? If it is not finished, at what stage is it?
The canon law of the church, like the American criminal justice system, has procedures for due process. Due process can take time under both systems. Cases where the evidence is overwhelming or the priest confesses can be dealt with expeditiously. Cases where it is one person's word against another are difficult. Despite all it resources of money and expertise, the American criminal justice system too frequently convicts the innocent and frees the guilty. It has difficulty dealing with cases of rape and sexual harassment where it is one person's word against another. It should not be surprising that the church is not perfect with such cases either.
The Vatican website has a description, in layman's terms, of the process for handling accusations of sexual abuse. For ongoing cases, the church needs to be transparent in describing at what point in the process the case is.
8. What punishment was applied to the guilty and when?
The 2002 norms approved by the Vatican state that the offending priest "will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state, if the case so warrants." They state that the penalty of dismissal might not be applied "for reasons of advanced age or infirmity."
In theory, dismissal from the priesthood (defrocking, forced laicization) can be distinguished from suspension from ministry. As long as the priest observes the conditions of his suspension, children should be safe. Children may in fact be safer when a priest is suspended and confined to a monastery under supervision than they would be if he is dismissed and thrown out on the streets with the church washing its hands of him.
But dismissal may be necessary to show victims and others that the diocese believes the accusation and has responded appropriately. It may also help in the healing process for victims. It also protects the diocese from any liability for future abuse. Because in the past many bishops did not police their priests well, no one trusts the bishops to do so now.