NYT editorial on John Jay Report: tl;dr

In the middle of an editorial in yesterday's paper regarding the recent Vatican guidelines for response to sexual abuse ("The Vatican Comes Up Short"), the New York Times editorial board dismissed the just-released John Jay Report Causes and Context (pdf) in two sentences:

The directive came two days before a new study of the abuse problem that cites the sexual and social turmoil of the 1960s as a possible factor in priests' crimes. This is a rather bizarre stab at sociological rationalization and, in any case, beside the point that church officials went into denial and protected abusers.

The intention here is plainly to charge the U.S. bishops with attempting to dodge responsibility by blaming clergy sex-abuse on the '60s. Perhaps the editorial said that outright before the fact-checkers got their hands on it and adjusted it for accuracy. But with all those modifying terms in place, the assessment of the report as "a rather bizarre stab at sociological rationalization" doesn't stand up. The study wasn't produced by the bishops -- so is it the researchers who are being accused of attempting to rationalize the abuse? I don't see that in the report. What I do see is a laying out of data that shows a dramatic spike in abuse during the 1960s and '70s, followed by a sharp dropoff, and an attempt to investigate possible explanations for why and how that occurred. One can certainly quarrel with the researchers' methods and conclusions, but given all the circumstances, and the careful way the report frames its findings, I think it would be bizarre if they hadn't considered the social context as "a possible factor" in the increased incidence of reported abuse.

But, the Times goes on, "in any case" -- that is, even if it's not just bizarre rationalization -- this attempt to mine the causes and context of clergy sex abuse is "beside the point that church officials went into denial and protected abusers." Well, perhaps so, but you brought it up! It's not as though the Causes and Context report is a single paragraph that says "Priests were turned into abusers by the sexual revolution, the end." In fact, it has an entire chapter devoted to investigating "Organizational Response to Incidents and Reports of Sexual Abuse of Minors." Did the NYT editorial board find this part of the report unsatisfying? I suspect they didn't know it was there in the first place. What the Times really wants to do, I think, is repeat that the bishops' first priority should be confronting the fact that "church officials went into denial and protected abusers." And that's absolutely true. The U.S. bishops (and the Vatican, conflated in this editorial) deserve plenty of criticism for all the foot-dragging and self-protection they've been guilty of over the decades -- and you'll find some, mildly worded but backed up with lots of documentation, in the Causes and Context report. But the commissioning of this study in no way prevents them from doing what they need to do to clean house and make amends. Given that it's not just an empty blame-shifting exercise but rather a lengthy investigation into who abused and what we know about why it happened, its value, to the church and to society in general, seems fairly plain to me. "This study provides a framework for understanding not only the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, but sexual victimization of children in any institution," the researchers write. I doubt the NYT really wants to dismiss that project as "beside the point."

This reaction sounded to me like the sort of dismissive "why bother" you might find posted on a blog somewhere -- it seems to boil down to "too long; didn't read" (perhaps a new Webism for some of you; use it with care). It's especially disheartening given that just reading past the headline of Laurie Goodstein's report in the previous day's paper would have resulted in a more informed take. Of course, the automatic presumption of bad faith on the part of the bishops is widespread, and to an extent the bishops have themselves to blame. But what frustrates me is knowing that people who read this in the NYT will take for granted that the NYT's editorial writers gave the report at least a cursory glance before they summed it up with a roll of the eyes.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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