Peter Steinfels’s long career in journalism included years of service as editor of Commonweal (from which perch he took me to the woodshed more than once), followed by a decade as senior religion correspondent of the New York Times. Steinfels has now done the Catholic Church in the United States — and American society as a whole — a tremendous service by telling some disturbing truths about the August 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse in six Keystone State dioceses.
His lengthy article, “The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report: Not What It Seems,” was first published on Commonweal’s website this past January 9; it is required reading for those determined to grapple with the linked problems of sexual abuse and episcopal failure in the Church.
Like anyone with a grain of moral sensibility or human feeling, Steinfels, long a leader of U.S. Catholicism’s liberal wing, was revolted by the graphic stories of sexual predation contained in the grand jury report, which Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro presented with great fanfare last August 14. Yet unlike other journalists who bought Mr. Shapiro’s lurid presentation hook, line, and sinker, Steinfels actually read the entire report — and then took the trouble to sift through its hundreds of pages to see if the data supported the charge 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.”
After what must have been weeks of painstaking research, Dr. Steinfels reached a harsh but, to my mind, persuasive conclusion: Attorney General Shapiro’s office had produced an “inaccurate, unfair, and fundamentally misleading report” whose “shortcomings should not be masked by its vehement style, its befuddling structure, or its sheer bulk.”
Steinfels rightly does not spare the church. The Pennsylvania report “documents decades of stomach-churning violations of the physical, psychological, and spiritual integrity of children and young people. It documents that many of these atrocities could have been prevented by promptly removing the credibly suspected perpetrators from all priestly roles and ministry. It documents that some, although far from all, of those failures were due to an overriding concern for protecting the reputation of the church …”
But then he calls Attorney General Shapiro to account: “What does the report not document? It does not document the sensational charges contained in its introduction (i.e., the only part most reporters and editorialists read) — namely, that over seven decades, Catholic authorities, in virtual lockstep, supposedly brushed aside all victims and did absolutely nothing in the face of terrible crimes against boys and girls — except to conceal them. 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.”
Might other states do better? Only, Steinfels suggests, if future grand jury or state-investigative reports “are written in a way that expresses necessary, justifiable repulsion toward crimes against children and young people without burying all efforts at analysis in a mudslide of outrage,” as the Pennsylvania grand jury report did.
The sexual abuse of the young is a plague throughout society. Since Abuse Crisis 1.0 in 2002, no institution in the United States has done more to acknowledge the plague, reach out to its victims, and devise means to prevent its further occurrence than the Catholic Church. There is deeper reform needed in the church, and there are more churchmen to be held accountable for gross irresponsibility. But in the course of confronting this evil within our church, U.S. Catholicism has learned some things that could benefit those willing to get to grips with the revolting reality of sexual abuse. If, however, other state attorneys general follow the path pioneered by Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro and reinforce the false impression that a culture of child rape and institutional cover-up is festering in the Catholic Church right now, no one is going to look to American Catholicism for models of how to address the plague.
That is not only bad for the church; it’s bad for all of American society. So let the church, while cooperating fully with state investigative agencies, create and support a panel of distinguished, retired judges (preferably non-Catholics) to review the reports that issue from those investigations — and then publish an analysis of each report’s probity, fairness, and reliability, absent any editing of the panel’s conclusions by Church authorities.
George Weigel is the distinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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George Weigel contends that ‘unlike other journalists who bought Mr. Shapiro’s lurid presentation hook, line, and sinker, Steinfels actually read the entire report — and then took the trouble to sift through its hundreds of pages to see if the data supported the charge 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.”’
Unless Weigel wants to go out on a limb and contend that Bill Donohue, CEO of The Catholic League, is not a journalist, he owes it to himself and Peter Steinfels to take a trip to the Catholic League website at the following address:
Here Weigel and Steinfels (as well as Dennis Sadowski and the editor of Catholic Philly) will find that what Weigel attributes to the pioneering work of Peter Steinfels was already published late last summer by Bill Donohue, who subsequently followed up with a lawsuit in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court against Josh Shapiro. You could look it up!
Thanks for the article on Steinfels research on the Pa Grand Jury Report. I was suspect of the “report” on the Sunday Shapiro presented the report in such grandiose style. It looked like a stage play used to condemn the church, its clergy and to plant hate within the minds of its audience.
I am not an apologist for the Catholic Church, I do not condone the abuse that transpired over the last half century or more. However, one cannot apply current psychiatric knowledge, social norms and reporting policies that did not exist at that time. Pedophilia, homosexuality and other “social ills” were thought to be treatable and “cured”. Society, as a whole, rarely spoke of “deviance”, it was hidden, “afflicted” individuals were sent away for treatment then, sent back once they completed treatment.
Shapiro has made a mockery of the church, using vile, inflammatory false statements to further his career, intimidate the church and to silence its voice. We are seeing the same behavior in other states as well (Illinois, NY, Massachusetts, Minnesota, etc.). It is a sobering reality that the majority of the harshest voices come from the Democratic Party, once the “Catholic” party that supported and protected Catholics against prejudice and hate.
So, what next?
I am hopeful that the Federal probe,initiated in Pennsylvania, will shed light on the validity of the report and support the findings of perjury and fraud linked to this Grand Jury Report.