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A priest in Boston recently commented to writer Chuck Colbert, “We are as sick as our secrets.”

How true. And the sooner we expose the secrets and start finding new ways to govern this church, the faster we’ll be able to heal from this awful illness.

But I don’t think matters are about to be dealt with in any quick way.

It is difficult to put boundaries around the story of sexual abuse in the church. That difficulty does not stem, as some Latin Americans in the curia have recently posited, from a nasty, anti-Catholic media upset with the church because it opposes abortion and has advocated for Palestinian rights. One wonders how such fanciful musings find their way into serious publications.

I know lots of U.S. journalists and I have great respect for the work of many. I’ve also talked to quite a diverse sampling of journalists over the course of recent months about the scandal. Some might be easily dismissed. They know little about the church, make caricatures of the actors and the circumstances and are looking nervously down the road for the next story.

Others are serious writers and reporters who are as desperate as anyone to understand the story and have spent hours interviewing, reading and begging background sessions in an effort to get their heads around this crazy episode. Some are long-time religion reporters who have been chronicling religious life in the United States for many years. They know good bishops, they know good priests, they respect the life and work of the church and they want the scandal to be over. But that won’t keep them from reporting.

They also know cover-ups, evasive testimony and the dangers of abuse of power among elite groups that feel no accountability to the larger community.

Most of the best reporters I know, beneath career ambition and bluster, are motivated by simple convictions -- that people should not get hurt by institutions, church, state or otherwise, and that at times maybe some of their reporting and writing can keep more people from getting hurt.

Sounds simple, but it is what keeps me and lot of others going.

Part of that conviction would hold that it is always far better to bare the awful secrets than to try to keep them concealed.

My mentor, John Strohmeyer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer, would put it another way when he would get almost evangelical in his presentation at monthly staff meetings at a small paper in Pennsylvania back in the 1970s. “You have a sacred trust,” he would tell the group of young reporters. “You stand in the stead of people who cannot ask the question.”

Those lines, obviously, made a lasting impression.

People shouldn’t get mowed over by those in power, even if the powerful wear bishops’ robes. And reporters should be eager to ask the questions and challenge authority in the name of those who can’t.

There’s another thing that keeps me going in late summer of this year of scandal. Each week when I’m at Mass, I understand more deeply than before the sense of communion that occurs among Catholics, even those who disagree over a range of issues. As I approach the table, I have felt in recent weeks a deeper sense of the breadth of this church and the deep hurt and betrayal so many of us share. Few of our leaders have responded with anything approaching the honesty and accountability the problem requires.

At the same time, I realize more powerfully than ever the reality behind the words “people of God.” For it is the lay teachers, the lay ministers, the lay volunteers and the priests who honor the lives of lay faithful -- the people of God -- who keep the church going through this time of trial.

So let’s keep each other in mind, keep carrying each other along, praying for this church and its bishops, while insisting that it is our right, our duty, in fact, to keep asking the questions and demanding accountability.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2002