“Grossly misleading, irresponsible, inaccurate, and unjust” is how former New York Times religion reporter Peter Steinfels describes last August’s Pennsylvania grand jury report in its sweeping accusation that Catholic bishops refused to protect children from sexual abuse.
The report from a grand jury impaneled by the Pennsylvania attorney general to investigate child sexual abuse in the state’s Catholic dioceses has revived the furor over the abuse scandal, causing the resignation of the archbishop of Washington, D.C., and inspiring similar investigations in other states.
Steinfels argues that it is an oversimplification to assert, as does the report, that “all” victims “were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect abusers and their institutions above all.”
Writing in the Catholic journal Commonweal, Steinfels acknowledges the horror of clerical abuse and the terrible damage done to children, but he complains that no distinctions have been made in the grand jury report from diocese to diocese, or from one bishop’s tenure to another. All are tarred with the same brush.
Steinfels’ article will be published in the magazine’s Jan. 25 issue and is currently available on its website.
A major fault with the report, according to Steinfels, is its failure to acknowledge the impact of the 2002 Dallas Charter, which changed dramatically how the church responded to abuse. The charter required reporting credible accusations to police, the establishment of lay review boards and the removal of any priest guilty of abuse.
He also notes that “a good portion of these crimes, perhaps a third or more, only came to the knowledge of church authorities in 2002 or after, when the Dallas Charter mandated automatic removal from ministry.” How can bishops be blamed for covering up crimes they did not know about?
“The report’s conclusions about abuse and coverup are stated in timeless fashion,” he writes. It leaves the impression that there has been no change in how bishops deal with abuse and that they are still leaving children at risk.
“There is not the slightest indication, not the slightest, that the grand jury even sought to give serious attention to the kind of extensive, detailed testimony that the dioceses submitted regarding their current policies and programs,” he states.
Almost all the media stories on the report, notes Steinfels, were based on the 12-page introduction and the dozen or so sickening examples in the introduction. The report was 884 or 1,356 pages long, depending on whether the dioceses’ responses were included. These responses were buried in the back of the report and are not included in the version on the attorney general’s website.
To show how diocesan policies got stricter over time, Steinfels examines the Erie Diocese in detail.
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Source: Religion News Service