Tuesday, July 7, 2015

30 Years Ago National Catholic Reporter Broke the Story of Priest Sex Abuse

The June 7, 1985 issue of National Catholic Reporter

I have been reading National Catholic Reporter for over 30 years.  It is the publication which started the movement to end the disgrace of sexual abuse by priests.  Barbara Blaine - President and Founder of SNAP - traces her activism to that first issue, which she read while a member of a Catholic Worker community in Chicago.  The scandal is now worldwide and the Church's abysmal response, slowly rectified has done it great damage - and abetted the suffering of thousands.  NCR's Publisher - Tom Fox tells the story of how it all began.
Editor's note: This story is part of a weeklong series dedicated to looking back on 30 years of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church. Read all parts of the series.

We published our first major exposé on the abuse of minors by clergy in our June 7, 1985, issue, just days before the U.S. bishops were to gather at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., for their annual June meeting. Our coverage comprised a long piece out of Louisiana by Jason Berry about a young priest-pedophile in the Lafayette diocese; an equally long report on other predatory priests around the nation by Arthur Jones, our Washington bureau chief; and an editorial written by Jones that scored the bishops for their cover-ups. "Keeping the affair quiet has usually assumed greater importance than any possible effect on the victims themselves."

Berry and Jones have pursued careers in the best traditions of American journalism -- to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable -- for the common good of their communities, and often of the entire nation. They do solid journalism. I am proud to have been the editor that provided space and protection for this kind of reporting -- two parallel stories within the clergy abuse scandal: the obscene molestation by priests of pre-pubescent and pubescent children, and the enabling cover-ups by their bishops.

We saw these dual patterns from the start. It took years for us to fill out the picture -- and we had to do it pretty much on our own. Other Catholic publications wouldn't touch the story. Most were controlled by bishops who had little or no desire to say anything bad about the church. The secular dailies back then, including The New York Times, seemed unwilling to confront the Catholic church.

If the bishops had listened and reacted differently in June 1985 when they were becoming aware of the larger scope of the scandal and its many ramifications, the outcome could have been radically different. At the same time we published our reports, the bishops were receiving a 92-page study by psychiatrist Fr. Michael Peterson, canon lawyer Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle, and civil attorney Ray Mouton.

Check out A Readers' Guide to Laudato Si', a free resource from NCR.

The study outlined the seriousness of the clergy sex abuse issue and potential ramifications should the bishops not face it squarely. The document stated that while help can be provided for abusive priests, there was "no hope" for a certain cure and that a bishop "should suspend immediately" a priest accused of sexual abuse when "the allegation has any possible merit or truth."

After discussing it, the bishops tabled and then ignored the report. At the end of the Collegeville gathering, Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, then president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, called a news conference to tell the media -- without even mentioning the Doyle report -- that the bishops had set up a special "pedophilia committee," to be chaired by Bishop Michael Murphy of Erie, Pa.

As it turned out, there would be no pedophilia committee. It took the bishops seven more years to establish their first subcommittee on sex abuse. Even then, most bishops continued to deny there was a problem -- until the Boston debacle of 2002.

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