Paul Kengor: Abuses of the Pa. clergy abuse report
Back in August, I wrote a column on the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy abuse. I expressed outrage at the abusive priests, whose actions I described as twisted, perverse, psychologically warped, diabolical — right out of the pit of hell. I also, however, expressed displeasure at the very damaging, hyperbolic language used in that report — the broad brushing, the unwarranted, unsubstantiated accusations levied by the anonymous authors.
I objected most vigorously to the report’s explosive summary statement , which instantly became the most-quoted passage by the media : “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all.”
That line outraged me. It isn’t what I saw in the report; it’s categorically untrue. The very report itself contradicted that smoking charge. That was a smear that impugned the character and integrity of the numerous good priests and bishops who not only did something, and didn’t seek to hide anything, but blew the whistle and tried to stop abusers. That kind of hyperbole is outrageous.
That brings me to a remarkable article published in the current issue of Commonweal, a veteran (and left-leaning) Catholic publication. The article is by Peter Steinfels, former editor of Commonweal and longtime religion reporter for The New York Times. It’s a remarkable piece of thoughtful, thorough reporting that ought to be read in every course on journalism and media ethics — and by any Pennsylvanian with an opinion on clergy abuse.
Steinfels’ nearly 12,000-word piece, titled “Vehemently Misleading: The PA Grand-Jury Report: Not What It Seems — It’s Inaccurate, Unfair and Misleading,” documents my worst suspicions.
Steinfels begins by laying out the enormous influence of the Pennsylvania report, which made headlines nationwide and even worldwide, and which has prompted numerous additional states to follow suit with their own investigations. He then zeroes in on the most misleading passage of the report, the one with the greatest reverberations: the “men of God” who “did nothing” and “hid it all.”
Asking “Is that true?,” Steinfels proceeds to show, exhaustively, that it is patently false. In a particularly jaw-dropping analysis, Steinfels estimates that “perhaps 90 percent or more of offenders the report lists were identified not by the police but by those ‘deficient’ diocesan investigations.”
Whoa! What’s that?
Yes, 90 percent. That stands in rather marked contrast to the 0 percent that the report effectively claimed by asserting (contrary to the material laid out in the report itself) that “all” cases were hidden.
Shame on the authors — and the reviewers — of the report. It makes one wonder about the role and objective of Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Gov. Tom Wolf. Did they actually read the report? They have some explaining to do. The attorney general’s report on abuse contains some abuses itself.
Do I want to see predatory priests held accountable? Oh, you bet. I can’t even verbalize how badly. Surely a special circle in Dante’s inferno awaits these monsters.
But I also want to see Pennsylvania officials held accountable. They used a very broad brush that is causing significant damage in its own way, especially if (as Steinfels) suggests, this report opens the floodgate for a litigation bonanza that will bankrupt parishes that are completely innocent.
Shapiro and Wolf need to take steps to rectify abuses in this report.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His column appears twice a month.