When the Pennsylvania grand jury issued its report last August chronicling the sexual abuse cases in six Pennsylvania dioceses, everybody thought they knew the whole story. After all, this was a grand jury, and the attorney general of Pennsylvania was presenting its 1,356-page report to the world as evidence of a grand conspiracy by the leaders of the Catholic Church in his state to cover up abuse allegations and ignore victims.
Everybody knew that the church hadn’t changed its spots. And the crushing weight of all those pages and 301 priests and church workers and 1,000 victims was enough to throw Catholics into despair and light fires under other ambitious attorneys general who wanted to do similar investigations.
Most people, even journalists, never read the full report. The truth is that short-staffed, working on deadline and having to do social media as well as writing traditional stories, journalists rarely have the time to delve deeply into a document like this. And after all, “everybody knew” this was the real story anyway.
One journalist did take the time to look, however. Peter Steinfels, a former editor at Commonweal, a Catholic magazine, and a former religion writer for The New York Times, said his original impulse was simply to learn more about the report, the conclusions of which he found as appalling as everybody else.
In his desire to learn more, he started closely examining the report’s allegations. What he found disturbed him enough to publish a 12,000-word analysis in Commonweal that was sharply critical of the report’s assertion that “priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all.”
“This ugly, indiscriminate and inflammatory charge, unsubstantiated by the report’s own evidence, to say nothing of the evidence the report ignores, is truly unworthy of a judicial body responsible for impartial justice,” Steinfels wrote.
For Steinfels, as for the church itself, the goal is not to “acquit the Catholic hierarchy of all sins, past or present.” His goal, he wrote, “is to restore some fact-based reality to the instant mythology that the Pennsylvania report has created.”
I call attention to Steinfels’ report not because it exonerates the church. He takes a nuanced and critical view of both abusers and those who had authority over them, and his heart is first and foremost with the victims of these crimes.
I call attention to it because Steinfels’ investigation of the investigation is a model of what good journalism can do and what good Catholic journalism can do. A well-educated, well-trained Catholic journalist writing for a Catholic magazine exposed the serious flaws in a report that “everybody knew” to be true.
Some people want Catholic journalism to simply be propaganda for the defense. Some people don’t see any value in Catholic journalism. They want church communication efforts to be inspirational or provide social media sound bites. But there is still a need, a crying need, for professional journalism that allows the voices of the church to be heard, that models both a love for the church and a dedication to truth.
Only journalism of honesty and substance will be trusted in these dark times. And in an age when trust — of institutions and of authorities of any sort — is in short supply, Catholic journalism can play an indispensable role in recovering this trust.
This month is Catholic Press Month. Subscribe. Read. Share.
Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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