How to Write about Sex Abuse

An Exchange
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., and New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan lead the Good Friday Way of the Cross procession March 30 (CNS photo/Ed Wilkinson, The Tablet)

It’s good to have a response from Paul Baumann to my article in the New Yorker (titled “Acts of Penance” in the April 15 print issue, and “What Do the Church’s Victims Deserve?” online).

Paul is one of the hundred or so people I spoke with while reporting the article. Having served as editor of Commonweal across several recent decades, he is capable of engaging with the conviction about history that I brought to it: namely, that for American Catholics of our era, priestly sexual abuse (and the Church’s efforts to address it) is something other than a crisis—it is an everyday reality that has shaped the life of the church for a third of a century, affecting Catholics as a people and individually, touching on matters of truth that are the basis of the church’s existence. 

There’s a personal dimension, too. When Paul was the editor of Commonweal, I told him that I had been violated by a Jesuit priest while I was a student at Fordham. He was the first person I told who was in a public Catholic role. “A priest you probably know,” I told him. At the time, Paul lived during the week in one of the group of apartments on West 98th Street known as the West Side Jesuit Community. That is, he lived in the apartment building where I had been violated, under the auspices of a community whose members included Edward Zogby, SJ, the priest who violated me. That’s one reason I told him. As I recall, Paul’s response wasn’t to ask what had happened or who the priest in question was. He simply said, “Well, if you’re ever interested in writing about it, let me know.” 

Paul could have brought a great deal of shared history and common travail to his response. Instead, he took the position, well established at Commonweal, of aggrieved media scrutineer—finding disagreements where there are none, passing over careful distinctions and efforts of balance, and casting aspersions on the New Yorker and its supposedly “jeering readers.”

My article foregrounds a presentation of the reconciliation-and-compensation programs, based on interviews with the people who established them. Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s initiative, robust funding, and public commitment to the programs; Kenneth Feinberg and Camille Biros’s independence and probity; Biros’s personal attention to survivors and their claims; the utility of “lenient” standards of evidence as a means to achieve resolution and a sense of fairness; the operation’s swiftness and lack of controversy: all these strengths are set out at length. So are the programs’ ability to hold the Church to account, as in the case of Theodore McCarrick, and Cardinal Dolan’s readiness to accept the program’s claims regarding McCarrick and follow through on them. (That a cardinal archbishop is praised for following the rules of a program he established himself suggests how low expectations for men in such positions are.)

The programs are not ideal. Like Camille Biros, I see them as “limited but beneficial.” Their limitations, as I see them, are set out in the article. Arranged to organize compensation—an apt act of outsourcing—they have taken on the work of reconciliation properly performed by the church itself. They provide a short-term resolution of moral issues that weakens the church’s ability to address moral issues in the long term. They lead to the maintenance of secrecy and the destruction of documents which record the specifics of abuse. So they enable the church to evade direct and open consideration of the history of priestly sexual abuse and to shrink from the truth about its past. They are the end of the process of reckoning when they ought to be the beginning.

The church should discuss acts of priestly sexual abuse and the handling of them clearly, frankly, and forthrightly.

This is not just an academic or legal matter. It means that Catholics cannot find out what claims of sexual misconduct have been made against priests who have served in our communities over the years—although the claims have been judged credible by the IRCPs. And it means that church officials, now as ever, can act on claims made against priests through the IRCPs as they see fit, with muddled diocesan procedures, scant accountability, and little chance for survivors, attorneys, the press, and people generally to inquire about the procedures and the outcomes—as seen in instances involving the New York and Brooklyn IRCPs. 

In these ways the IRCPs, for all their benefits, perpetuate a problem that runs through the church’s dealings with priestly sexual abuse across the decades. The problem is that members of the clergy and the episcopate, when it comes to priestly sexual abuse, are unable or unwilling to speak clearly and frankly—whether it is Theodore McCarrick using self-exonerating language on Nightline in 2002, the Dallas Charter authors in 2004 referring to acts of priestly sexual abuse of minors only in a footnote about canonical “delicts,” the archbishop of New York and the chancellor of Brooklyn dissembling in interviews, or a Jesuit tasked to oversee a list of credibly accused Jesuit priests refusing to describe the allegation made against a Jesuit I knew and admired that led him to be “impeded” by the order in 2002.    

Even now, when it comes to priestly sexual abuse, bishops and church officials will not say what happened. They will not call rape, molestation, assault, and violation by their names. They will remove a priest without saying what he did. They will remove a priest and fail to tell, not only the people, but the pastor of the parish where the priest lived. As a result, they strike me—and other Catholics—as less than truthful; and, since they are less than truthful about priestly sex abuse, they are less than credible when they speak to the home truths of Catholicism. Under these circumstances, the news of the imminent canonization of John Henry Newman—who eloquently rejected the claim that Catholic priests cannot tell the truth—served to underscore the gap between Newman’s defense of priestly veracity and the approach of many clerics to priestly sexual abuse in our time.   

Paul is exercised over the imputation that Cardinal Dolan, in instituting the New York IRCP, might have had an eventual change in the statute of limitations in mind—but there’s no such imputation. In the article, I raise the question of motives and then explore it by presenting various points of view: the archdiocesan spokesman Joseph Zwilling’s statement that the New York IRCP was established to help victims “and for no other reason,” Camille Biros’s account of the consideration she and Kenneth Feinberg gave to statute reform as they designed the program, and the opinions of several attorneys who have dealt with the IRCPs –including two generally unstinting critics of the church, whose comments reflected both benefits and liabilities. My own view is that instituting the IRCP in a general way was a shrewd, responsible, aptly timed decision on Cardinal Dolan’s part, and that the program’s specific limitations could have been addressed (and still can be). But the chance to consider the question of motives in depth, as it demands, was foreclosed in part by Joseph Zwilling’s categorical insistence that Cardinal Dolan established the New York IRCP for a single motive only.

The history of Catholicism in the part of Brooklyn where I live goes back to 1843 and further. There are many allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests who served there in recent decades. It’s natural and appropriate to look into the recent history of the part of the world where one lives and to consider what has happened there over the years, as I did—as a Catholic, a father, and a Brooklyn resident, as well as a writer. Working with a New Yorker researcher, I cited several instances of abuse that are established fact or have been reported on a firm basis, drawn from the seventies, eighties, nineties, and early aughts. With changes in the church’s approach to priestly sexual abuse in mind (changes Peter Steinfels and others have written about), I treated those incidents in a single paragraph, while giving much greater attention to the ways the church in this century has dealt with priestly sexual abuse and its effects.

Concluding his response, Paul makes a point so exaggerated that it is silly. He writes: “Elie seems to settle on the idea that reconciling with victims and regaining the trust of lay Catholics will occur only after the Church divulges in explicit detail the acts of every sexual abuser.” Note the “seems to” there—a rhetorical wiggle that Paul uses elsewhere. No, old friend, I don’t “settle on” anything so extreme or impossible. I propose that church officials, having tried many crisis-management strategies without notable success in regaining people’s trust, might try an approach that involves saying what happened clearly, frankly, and forthrightly.

What should the church do? It should discuss acts of priestly sexual abuse and the handling of them clearly, frankly, and forthrightly; and it should arrange for the documents and records created by the IRCPs to be archived and made available to journalists, scholars, and interested members of the public, so that people can know and tell the story of the most significant episode in the recent history of the church in the United States.

Paul Baumann read the New Yorker article carelessly and wrote about it tendentiously. The subject of priestly sexual abuse deserves better. So do the readers Paul and I have in common.   


Paul Baumann Responds

Let me first address, as briefly as possible, the curious “personal dimension” of Paul Elie’s response. We have had a professional relationship, friendly, but not friends or social acquaintances outside of his writing for Commonweal. Yes, Paul did speak to me for his New Yorker article, but he stipulated that our conversation be off the record, which is why I did not mention it.

The earlier conversation Paul refers to happened probably twenty-five years ago. He doesn’t seem to remember many of the details and neither do I. I was not the editor of Commonweal at the time, as he claims, but an associate editor, a junior member of the editorial team. Paul, I believe, was beginning his career at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. As best I can recall, his description of having been “violated” when he was a twenty-year-old college student was quite vague. In his article he descripes being groped. I do remember wondering what exactly he was trying to say to me. It was obviously a very personal matter, and I didn’t want to pry. If I was the first person he told about this incident who was in “a public Catholic role,” he never mentioned that fact to me or indicated what he expected me to do, nor did he subsequently complain that I had failed him. Since I asked him if he would consider writing about it, I clearly was not ignoring his story. I was hoping he would tell it, but Paul never took me up on the offer.

I did not know Zogby, and probably never met him, even in passing. I did rent a room from the West Side Jesuit Community at 98th Street in the 1990s, and spent three nights a week there. Other than the four Jesuits who lived on my hall, I had almost no contact with the community, which was scattered in various apartments around the building. Yet Paul insists on putting me at the scene of the crime, a crime that took place nearly five years before I ever set foot in the building, and was not revealed to me until years after that. It is still not clear to me what Paul thinks I should have done with such vague and confidential information. In his article, he confesses that he himself did nothing about Zogby.

I’ll admit to being baffled by this part of Paul’s response. Is he implying not only that I failed him, but that somehow I am among those who were either willfully ignorant of sexual abuse, or actively denied it? This sort of innuendo and guilt by association is also a part of the history of the response to clergy sexual abuse, and I’m surprised to see it so cavalierly deployed here. It is precisely Paul’s inability to separate his personal experience from the larger story of the church’s failures that in my opinion distorted his essay, and now is repeated in his response.

The familiar story of abuse in the Catholic Church, which has been told over and over again for the past twenty years, is not a fair description.

Paul’s reporting on the operations of the IRCP is valuable. Unfortunately, when not personal, even idiosyncratic, much of the rest of the piece fails to give any real context regarding the history of clergy sexual abuse, or sexual abuse generally, over the past fifty years in the United States. In recounting the church’s history, he skips from 1985 to 2002 in one sentence. He fails to mention the precipitous decline in the number of abuse cases since the late 1980s. In compiling his roster of Brooklyn priest-abusers, many dead, he fails to warn readers why such a random sampling might not provide an accurate picture of a much larger story. If I dug into the history of my neighborhood and found no priest abusers, would I be justified in giving the whole church a clean bill of health?

As for the IRCP, Paul’s present gloss on his own article suggests a more approving take on it than in the article itself. Whatever the merits of the IRCP, his article puts it in the service of his two underlying presuppositions: first that the church continues to be “less than truthful” and “will not call rape, molestation, assault, and violation by their names”; and second that it acts only out of self-serving “crisis-management strategies.” 

But the truth is that many church officials have spoken openly about rape, molestation, assault, and violation, often using heightened adjectives like “abhorrent” and “diabolical.” I suspect Paul knows the reason why church officials are often unwilling to describe acts of abuse by specific priests in detail. “In a claim of priestly sexual abuse,” he himself writes, “it is often hard to determine exactly what happened. Typically, the person who applies for compensation reports that he was sexually abused decades ago, without witnesses, by a priest who is dead, and offers corroborating material that wouldn’t stand up in court.” In other words, the details cannot be determined in a way that protects the due process rights of the accused, which is a fundamental moral and legal obligation, an obligation that goes unexplored in Paul’s article.

As Paul explains, the decisions of the IRCP are based on “lenient standards” and are not judgments about the guilt or innocence of the accused. It is precisely by not claiming to make statements of incontrovertible fact that the IRCP’s mediation process can find resolutions serving those making allegations, thus sparing them from prolonged litigation, uncertain outcomes, and major legal fees. This reality is confusing to most people, who naturally assume that a priest “credibly” accused is guilty. I suspect this is why Cardinal Dolan, when interviewed by Paul, would not describe in detail what Bishop John Jenik was alleged to have done. Jenik has maintained his innocence; he has not been convicted of a crime. His victim is free to describe the details of the alleged abuse, but for the church to do so, absent a legal finding of guilt, is unfair to the accused and an invasion of what should be the prerogative of victims. Not all victims want the details of their injuries revealed in public. Isn’t their privacy a legitimate issue as well?   

I agree with Paul that Zwilling’s insistence that the IRCP was set up to help victims “and for no other reason” is implausible. But is the possibility of mixed motivations by Dolan, a convergence of benefit to victims and to the church, really a shocker? Why didn’t Paul press Dolan on that point when he interviewed him? How did Zwilling’s statement “foreclose” that avenue of inquiry?

Ultimately, Paul is unable to detect anything but bad motives in church actions. What he concedes to the church with one hand regarding its efforts to acknowledge and help victims, he inevitably takes back with the other. One might think that authorizing and funding an independent agency like the IRCP to fast-track settlements might be admirable, but, no, this proves to be a maneuver to avoid the church’s own responsibilities. One might think that offering settlements on the basis of “lenient standards” might be admirable, but, no, if this leads to not giving full access to documents held by the IRCP, it is one more effort to keep “the most significant episode in the recent history of the church from being told.” He calls this approach a way of making “careful distinctions” and “efforts at balance.” Someone else might call it damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

I believe that the familiar story of abuse in the Catholic Church, which has been told over and over again for the past twenty years, is not a fair description of either the history or, as best I can tell, the current actions of bishops—and nothing Paul says in his response changes, or even really addresses, that view. In fact, his New Yorker piece would have been improved immeasurably if he had examined the biases of the church’s critics as thoroughly as he questioned the actions and motivations of the church itself. Finally, we have Cardinal Newman and his supposed homosexuality and his critics’ charge that because he was a priest he was a liar. All that was featured in the penultimate paragraph of Paul’s article but is mentioned only obliquely here. What Newman has to do with any of this still eludes me, as I suspect it does most readers.

Paul Elie, a senior fellow in Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own and Reinventing Bach.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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