Greeley aims at the wrong target
Fr. Andrew M. Greeley has enlivened and enriched the U.S. Catholic experience with cutting edge sociology and a spate of novels. His novels, though hardly high literature, can provide an unblinking look at the often hidden warts of the institutional church; his sociology has frequently cut to the quick.
His recent blast at reporting being done about the priest sex abuse scandal, however, came off as just one more shrill call to shoot the messenger. This in the face of mounting evidence that the Catholic church in the United States has suffered a system-wide failure of its pastors to care for some of its most vulnerable members. Greeleys attack on the media came in an essay in the Feb. 10 issue of America magazine, a Jesuit publication.
Greeleys specific target was Laurie Goodsteins Jan. 12 report in The New York Times that attempted to nail down numbers regarding the priest sex abuse crisis and the implications of those numbers.
No one has come close to anything resembling a full accounting from the nations bishops on the dimensions of the crisis.
Though NCR urged such an accounting for years -- on the number of priests, the number of victims and the cost in legal fees and settlements -- none has been forthcoming.
The bishops are not just unwilling to cooperate; theyre trying to inter the issue.
It remains to be seen whether the National Lay Review Board, appointed by the bishops to look into the problem, will be able to compile accurate and complete numbers.
For the moment, however, it is left to major journalism outlets such as the Times to pursue the best accounting, short of gaining cooperation from bishops, that is possible.
In the end, Goodsteins story amounted to a very conservative assessment.
The implications she drew from interviews and old reports were hardly anything new. Greeleys rather exaggerated characterization of the lack of scientific sophistication in the details of those implications, as well as his assignation of motive, have the defensive tone of a member of the wounded fraternity.
Goodstein, he charges, wants to keep the media feeding frenzy alive. The charges are unfair -- and untrue. The story isnt over and wont be over until the details are public in every diocese. Parents, parishioners and victims have a right to know.
It is no surprise that Greeley approvingly mentioned Peter Steinfels, the former editor of Commonweal magazine. Steinfels wrote a longer piece in Commonweal some months ago that had a similar tone, castigating the press for taking off after this story as if it were anything new. He is convinced that the story has been tightly confined to a specific time frame and that the numbers he has mark the extent of the scandal.
Steinfels analysis has been referred to in the intervening months as a reasonable, moderate take on the crisis. Undoubtedly, he, and now Greeley, will provide a balm for the beleaguered priesthood.
The problem, however, is that the assertions of both writers are fundamentally flawed. Both begin their critiques with the numbers of priests involved in abusing children and the number of children abused. The simple fact is those numbers are not known.
Dioceses have not revealed all. Prosecutors are still seeking to unseal documents all over the country. Even victim support groups, who have more elaborate lists than any journalism outlet, dont have the full story.
What Greeley never mentioned, and what certainly should have caught his statistical eye, is that in the case of the Boston archdiocese, where full disclosure was forced, and the Baltimore archdiocese and the Manchester, N.H., diocese where full disclosure was voluntary, the numbers of priest abusers was several times higher than elsewhere.
Either there is a phenomenon peculiar to those three locations, or we can expect the numbers to increase significantly should other dioceses also make full disclosure.
Greeleys lobbing of the anti-Catholic bomb is irresponsible and his claims are without foundation in fact. The real question is why the Times and other major media outlets did not aggressively pursue the story years earlier.
Greeley argues that while he is not a media basher, the sex abuse crisis has become an occasion for Catholic bashing and celibate priest bashing, an old custom dating to the 19th century that is as American as cherry pie -- with the addition these days that a few self-serving resigned priests join in the game. The sex abuse crisis has become an excercise in Catholic bashing at a minor level for those who like to flay Catholics. But those activities, while irritating, are an insignificant footnote to the reality.
Most priests are healthy, and no responsible news outlet has suggested otherwise. But it has hardly been just a few self-serving retired priests who have raised questions about celibacy and about the ill effects on the church when its leadership is an all-male, closed and secretive culture accountable to no other individual or group in the wider community.
Greeley should hold his press-bashing ammo until more of the story plays out. This week, for instance, we have to consider the grand jury report out of Long Island, N.Y., a scathing report of a church that went to elaborate lengths to protect clerics while intimidating or ignoring victims (see story, Page 9). The report may sound like Catholic bashing, but it is just one more piece of the puzzle showing the depth and awfulness of this scandal. It wont end there. The churchs elaborate attempts at hiding the truth from victims, the faithful and law enforcement are coming to light in dioceses across the country where prosecutors and victims groups keep digging for details.
Goodstein long ago earned a reputation as one of the more distinguished religion writers in the country.
Taking cheap shots at someone trying to understand and report on the systemic ills of an institution that positions itself as a major moral arbiter in the wider culture is neither going to make the scandal go away nor restore trust in the priesthood.
More than that, the cheap shots deflect our attention away from what should be the primary focus: hundreds, thousands -- who can yet say -- of children and young people who have been sexually abused in this country over the past five decades by Catholic priests. It pains us to say that, but it is the fact.
Suicides and wrecked lives have resulted. And the Catholic hierarchy did everything it could to cover it up. Despite the recent glare of the public spotlight, much of the truth still remains hidden.
National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003