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Inside NCR

This week’s cover story is a jarring account of misused power and abuse that has remained largely hidden amid layers of cultural idiosyncrasies and church bureaucracy.

The first hints of the story began circulating several years ago. In early 1999 we began to dig for more details related to the content of two reports that came our way, one from several sources. We were also seeking an assessment of the dimensions of the problem and some indications of what was being done to address the issue.

Then other reports came to our attention. We became aware that the topic was being discussed in many gatherings of religious women.

It is deeply disturbing material.

The people who gathered the primary data for the reports on which the story is based, respected members of religious communities, professionals responsible for the church’s work in the wider world, did not intend to come to the press with it. Their intent, we believe, was to awaken religious communities to the abuse and to alert the Vatican, hoping that something would be done.

We could find little evidence that anything was being done through formal church channels.

In the reporting of this story, Managing Editor Pam Schaeffer and Rome Correspondent John L. Allen Jr. found that those who compiled the reports were reluctant to provide further details.

Their reluctance is understandable. No one who has given a life of service to the church wants to be perceived as betraying the institution or speaking ill of it in public. Some are convinced that sensitive and embarrassing matters are best handled in private, through church channels. It is, finally, axiomatic that this papacy, with its ban on discussion of ordaining women, optional celibacy and married priests, is not conducive to discussion of even more difficult issues.

I wrestled with this story for its implications beyond the church. We weren’t eager to spotlight one more agony for Africa, a continent already besieged with war, poverty and epidemics.

We’re keenly aware that the scourge of AIDS in Africa could be diminished if Western nations mustered the will to help (see NCR, Nov. 5, 1999). It is an international scandal that so many Africans continue to die of AIDS without treatment readily available in other countries.

Weighing injustices, one against the other, however, does no one justice.

The wounds caused by sexual abuse won’t heal if left alone, and indeed may never heal. They are, however, as much a part of the 21st century Catholic story as were all the golden moments of the Jubilee.

The Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray once wrote: “Through the rights of the people, the freedom of the press knows only one limitation, and that is the people’s need to know. And I think within the church as within civil society, the need of the people to know is in principle unlimited.”

In this case, the wider church community needs to know of this tragedy in order to begin dealing with it. Women who have been victims must know they are not abandoned or ignored to protect the institution. It is also our hope that airing the reports will provide some safety for women religious who may be in vulnerable circumstances and that it will prevent further abuse.

The Christian endeavor survived Peter’s denial of Jesus. We all live in the tradition of that denial as much as in the tradition of the Resurrection. The alleged abuse and rape of young nuns in Africa is a modern denial. Failing to fulfill our role as journalists would only amplify the echo, through the ages, of Peter’s line: “Woman, I do not know him.”

We do know him. Forgiveness and redemption are ours, but not before evil is named and confronted.

-- Tom Roberts

My email address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 2001