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"Statistics Cannot Be Ignored" - Journalist Peter Steinfels's Remarks on the Abuse Crisis

Updated: Oct 9, 2019

Welcome back everyone! I have been on a bit of a hiatus from blogging over the last month, as I’ve been focusing on my local work with Awake and dealing with a flare up of my chronic health problems. But there is so much I want to be writing about, so I’m going to try to get back to it in the coming weeks.


Today, I want to share some notes from an important conversation that took place at the University of Notre Dame a few weeks ago. Notre Dame is tackling the abuse crisis in their 2019-2020 forum entitled “Rebuild My Church: Crisis and Response.” The year-long initiative began in September with an expert panel focused on the topic “The Church Crisis: Where Are We Now?” The panel featured several key voices in this national and global conversation: Juan Carlos Cruz, a survivor and advocate from Chile, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, Kathleen McChesney, who helped created the USCCB’s “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” and Peter Steinfels, a long-time religion journalist with decades of experience reporting on the issue of abuse within the Catholic Church.


While I couldn’t attend this discussion in person, a video recording of the entire event is available online here. It’s about 90 minutes long, and certainly worth your time.


For those who don’t have the time or interest to view the entire conversation, I wanted to share notes from several aspects I found interesting, starting with a transcript of Peter Steinfels’ opening remarks at the beginning of the event.


For those of you who are not aware, Steinfels is a lifelong Catholic and a well-established journalist who has served as senior religion correspondent for The New York Times and as editor of Commonweal magazine. Over the past three decades, he has frequently reported on the travesty of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, including during times when the scandal was not so prominent in our public conversation. In other words - he is not new to this discussion. Also, it’s pertinent to know that Steinfels is considered a liberal-leaning commentator on Church affairs and certainly not one to reflexively defend the Catholic hierarchy.


This context made it even more notable when Steinfels wrote an in-depth analysis of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, an analysis that was quite critical of some of the grand jury’s methods and conclusions. This essay was published in the January 2019 issue of Commonweal magazine, and I would encourage you to read it here: The PA Grand-Jury Report: Not What It Seems.


I have to confess, the first time I encountered Steinfels’ essay, I was suspicious; I knew nothing about this author and wondered if he was just another apologist for the institutional Church, seeking to minimize the problem and pretend that everything is fine. However, after learning about his background, digging into his analysis, and reading more about the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, I have come to believe that Steinfels offers an important perspective, one that is grounded in truth-seeking in the face of careless polemics. (That said, I also invite you to read this short but thoughtful rejoinder for a contrasting perspective: What Peter Steinfels got wrong about the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report.)


If you have been reading In Spirit and Truth for a while, you know that I have no desire to minimize the problem of sexual abuse in our Church. But I am also interested in thoughtful analysis that goes beyond sound bites and headlines. So, I am sharing Steinfels’ opening comments from the Notre Dame panel, not as an endorsement of everything he said, but because I think his perspective is worth hearing and considering.


For an important counter-point to Steinfels' approach, please view my next post in this series, with remarks by survivor Juan Carlos Cruz: "I'll let the experts talk about statistics... I'm going to speak from the heart."


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“I have followed and written about the sex abuse story for about three decades. And the one thing that I am most certain about is that most of us, myself very much included, know much less about this painful, stomach-churning scandal than we think we know.

Probably you know what the John Jay College of Criminal Justice researchers found, that during the half century between 1950 to 2002, between four and five percent of the American Catholic clergy sexually abused well over 10,000 young people, You might well know that a huge percentage of this abuse occurred between 60 and 35 years ago. You know probably, I’m pretty sure, that in 2002, the bishops passed a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and that it mandated what was called “zero tolerance”: anyone credibly accused of abusing a minor at any time in the past must be removed from all priestly ministry and identification.


Fewer people know how precipitous the drop in incidents of clergy sexual abuse was in the late 1980s and 1990s. My fellow panelist Kathleen McChesney has been quoted as saying that the number of reported abuse cases has dropped from about 600 annually between 1965 and 1985 to about 20 [annually] since 2004 and in some years, by my own count, between 4 and 12.


Statistics like this can be very dangerous. They can blind us to the excruciating, life-derailing devastation caused by a single case of abuse. It is the most intimate kind of violation, whether perpetrated by a school teacher, coach, physician, or above all, a person in a special relationship of trust, like a parent or a cleric. As Kathleen immediately pointed out, one case is one too many.


But the statistics cannot be ignored either. Suppose that the current horrid rates of deaths by gun violence or by opioid overdose declined, like Catholic clergy sex abuse cases, by almost 97%. Would we pretend that nothing significant had happened? Anyone who obscures this dramatic drop in Catholic clergy abuse, as I think the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report did, is simply not telling the truth.


The abuse scandal will always remain one in a long list of betrayals of Jesus Christ. The Church burned heretics; the Church long approved of slavery; the Church planted the anti-Judaism that finally mutated into genocidal antisemitism. No Catholic beneficiary of a Notre Dame education can escape those terrible facts. We are called to ponder and pray and ask why those betrayals occurred and what will prevent them from ever reoccurring.


But if the danger to children and young people in American Catholic institutions has been drastically reduced, as I believe the evidence shows, why are we talking not just about a lasting scandal but about a pressing crisis? I suggest five reasons:


  1. The abuse scandal has gone global. Every year, more than 120 million children are sexually abused worldwide. It is woeful that even a small fraction of that exploitation has touched the Church. But today what happens or happened in Chile or Australia or Italy or Poland or Nigeria constitutes one big story about Catholicism.

  2. In the U.S., the McCarrick case has brought to a boil a long-simmering distrust of the American hierarchy by both liberal and conservative camps of active Catholics, each camp with its own agenda for reform.

  3. The scandal has consequently become part of a kind of Catholic civil war over the papacy of Pope Francis, symbolized by the demand a year ago for his resignation by Archbishop Viganò.

  4. In the U.S., a growing parade of state and federal investigations promises to produce a drip-drip-drip of sensational headlines, draining morale and resources and magnifying the ongoing hemorrhaging of the young from the faith.

  5. There is a legacy of profound suffering, pain, and desire for acknowledgement, contrition, justice, and vindication on the part of victim-survivors of priestly abuse, stemming primarily, but not entirely, from 30 to 60 years ago. These are like landmines left buried in the ground after a war.

A little over a year ago, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report sent shock waves through the Catholic world, from the Vatican to this campus. The report claimed: 1) that since 1945, 300 priests in 6 dioceses had abused young people, and 2) that all church officials had done nothing but “brush aside the victims and hide the abuse.”


The second claim I quickly realized demanded fact-checking. Drilling down into the report’s 884 pages, far beyond the incendiary 12-page introduction that was the basis of virtually every news story, I found that in from 65% to 80% of the cases, depending on the diocese, the material in the report itself did NOT support its sweeping and damning charges against church officials. To cite a shop-worn joke, an error rate of 65% to 80% is not even “good enough for government work.”


Aware that my conclusion challenged a wide-spread impression, I spent 12,000 words spelling my conclusions out for publication in the January 25 issue of Commonweal and online at commonwealmagazine.org.


More importantly, the shock and misinformation created by the Pennsylvania report brought home to me the need for a real history of the sex abuse scandal. The dominant narrative has been overwhelmingly shaped by lawsuits to obtain some recompense for survivor-victims from dioceses and their insurance companies.


We should not begrudge plaintiff’s lawyers for carrying out their responsibilities to their clients, but they are not historians. No historian would accept the 1792 trial of Louis XVI as a history of the French Revolution. No historian would accept the Nuremberg trials, as valuable as they were, as an adequate explanation of why Germany produced the genocidal Nazi Reich. Too many profoundly important factors are left out. A trial is not a history.


A genuine history will require the creation of archives, oral history interviews, and a study of the scandal’s religious, cultural, and economic context. So, I will close my remarks with a plea that Catholic institutions of higher education, like this one, take up this essential task.


It has been said that we walk backwards into the future, looking at our past. A genuine history is needed for our future.”


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Note from Sara: Remember that Peter Steinfels provided just one of several voices in this panel discussion, so I will bring you more transcripts and commentary in the coming days.


Next up is the poignant testimony of clergy abuse survivor Juan Carlos Cruz, who offered a heartfelt witness to the devastating pain of sexual abuse, as well as a reminder that there is still much work to be done in our Church.


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Lord God, help us to seek truth without fear and to become people of real compassion.

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©2020 by Sara Larson