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Issue Date:  January 14, 2005

From the Editor's Desk

Justice, friendship and mercy

I must start with a confession. Had anyone other than Sr. Jeannine Gramick come to me with the piece about Paul Shanley, I would have long ago dumped it in the circular file ( see story).

Shanley, a defrocked priest, has become notorious as an accused child molester, one of the better-known names in that pantheon of Catholic disgrace. To this date the file on him seems convincing -- if his activities weren’t criminal, at least some of them described in profiles and newspaper accounts quoting church documentation show at the least a betrayal of trust and of office and an abuse of power.

So why even go there?

Frankly, because Gramick pursued the issue. I would be hard-pressed to name someone else so thoroughly infused with integrity and goodwill. In all the years that I have known her and that I and reporters who have worked for me have written about her, I have never heard her speak ill of anyone. Not bishops or figures in the Vatican, not even during the long, painful process that would most charitably be described as a trial and, I think more accurately, as high-level harassment. She ultimately was prohibited by church officials from continuing her ministry with gays and lesbians in the church.

Perhaps it’s her background as a mathematician, but she is painstakingly precise and always insistent on separating what she believes are unjust policies from the people who devise and enforce them. “They are caught in systems that are unjust,” she will say. “I really believe they are not mean; they are only doing their jobs.”

At the same time, she is unflagging in her pursuit of principle and justice. And so she followed up her initial query with phone calls. She did a major rewrite. I held it for months -- in the end, nearly two years -- as I allowed the crush of other stories and concerns to push it toward the edges of my awareness. During that time, two of the cases against him have been dropped, and prosecutors are expected to drop a third of the four original cases. We asked two other journalists, David France ( see story) and Maureen Orth ( see story), who have written extensively about Shanley and sex abuse in the church, to weigh in. They have.

~ ~ ~

So what have we got?

All of us, I think, prefer straight-line stories and easy separation of good and evil. But life doesn’t fall neatly into such categories. Things are tough enough to sort out in the legal system. Within the Christian community, things get even more challenging.

The combination of pieces comes to no clear conclusion.

Perhaps the best we can ask -- or do -- is to provide the place for discussion and, not least, the questions.

Whatever one thinks of the Shanley case, the questions openly asked or implied in Gramick’s essay are the most valuable part. If Shanley represents, at least in some of the charges and the public’s perception, an extreme of the sex abuse crisis, I think his case also bares the complexity of the problem.

Gramick and the others will make you think long and hard, if you allow them, about justice and forgiveness, about friendship and loyalty, about what it means to hold people and institutions accountable in the context of unbounded mercy.

Short of some grand resolution, such question raising is about as good a use as the community can make of our pages.

~ ~ ~

We here at NCR had an inauspicious start to the New Year. We returned to our offices following the holiday weekend to find that we were without access to the outside world. No telephones. No Internet. Seems a fire at a nearby abandoned building had done in all sorts of overhead cables. Wally Reiter and Jo Ann Schierhoff, all-around troubleshooters here in addition to their regular jobs, kept us updated on the progress of negotiations with the phone and cable companies, even as the companies were negotiating with the owners of the building, who knocked the remaining mess down on the afternoon of the first day.

Our salute to phone line workers goes out after watching one work high above the ground under a yellow umbrella endlessly splicing, we were told, new lines to old.

In the meantime, Teresa Malcolm and Toni-Ann Ortiz and Matt Stoulil were busy making all manner of alternate plans for getting the paper out. Things began to return piece by piece, and by mid-Wednesday we were back in full operation.

Our apologies if you had trouble reaching us by phone or by e-mail.

Our hope is that we got the bad fortune out of the way early.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2005

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