NCR Editor Reminisces - Thirty Years of Sex Abuse Scandals

Tom Roberts is editor-at-large and former editor of NCR (National Catholic Reporter). He recently published an editorial that reviewed the Church’s sex abuse problem over the past three decades: “The clergy's task is unfinished in confronting sex abuse.” He covers a lot of ground, and I recommend it. But he also omits some key points.

Roberts starts with the recent resignation of Marie Collins. In 2014, when Pope Francis created a new commission to fix the sex abuse problem, she was one of two victims that he appointed. She resigned in March, saying "I have come to the point where I can no longer be sustained by hope. As a survivor, I have watched events unfold with dismay."

Mr. Roberts emphasizes the fault of the Vatican Curia, giving short shrift to Collins’ other complaints. He reports her conclusion: “I find it impossible to listen to public statements about the deep concern in the church for the care of those whose lives have been blighted by abuse, yet to watch privately as a congregation in the Vatican refuses to even acknowledge their letters! It is a reflection of how this whole abuse crisis in the church has been handled: with fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors.”

But Ms. Collins also complained of lack of access to a canon lawyer, and insufficient travel funds to hold meetings. It is inconceivable that Pope Francis did not realize that his commission needed the services of a canon lawyer before it could recommend changes. Issues of clerical sex abuse and its cover-up necessarily involve Canon Law, which was designed in part to protect bishops and priests.

The travel funds mentioned by Collins are a pittance. The commission was evidently grossly under-resourced from its inception. If Pope Francis took the commission seriously, he had to be aware of this long before three years passed. It is nearly six months since Ms. Collins resigned, and although Pope Francis has acknowledged the justice of some of her complaints (without specifying which ones), he has done nothing to correct them. Mr. Roberts simply grants Pope Francis a free pass, despite his “fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors.”  

The Boston Crisis

Mr. Roberts then turns to 2002. He was editor of NCR when the Boston Globe exposed widespread sexual abuse and a cover-up reaching at least as high as Cardinal Law (who received a Vatican job from Pope John Paul after he was forced to flee the United States). Mr. Roberts recalls chatting with Arthur Jones, a former editor of NCR, about this scandal.

Roberts was optimistic that the criminal trials and publicity would finally put an end to this plague on the Church. But Arthur Jones knew better, saying the bishops would do nothing: “they don't care about anyone but themselves. That's why we've got the scandal still today.” (Even the additional publicity from the Oscar-winning Spotlight made little difference.)

Mr. Roberts failed to mention that the crux of this scandal was known even before the Boston Globe reports. Victims had documented the problem and tried, unsuccessfully, to get the New York Times and the Washington Post to pursue it. The previous editor of the Boston Globe also failed to pursue it. Only a new editor from outside Boston was willing to take on the Church’s crimes. I’d be surprised if NCR was unaware of the problem at the time of the Globe’s reports, given their illustrious history covering a prior scandal in Louisiana. And while Mr. Roberts limited the responsibility to bishops, not only was Cardinal Law involved, there is reason to believe that Pope John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict) were, at a minimum, aware of the problem.

The First Scandal in Louisiana

Arthur Jones was editor of NCR in 1985 when Jason Berry reported on clerical pederasty and its cover-up in Louisiana. Roberts credits Jones with this prescient editorial that preceded the detailed disclosures:

“The tragedy, and scandal, as NCR sees it, is not only with the actions of the individual priests — these are serious enough — but with church structures in which bishops, chanceries and seminaries fail to respond to complaints, or even engage in cover-ups; sadly, keeping the affair quiet has usually assumed greater importance than any possible effect on the victims themselves.”

While Mr. Roberts mentioned that one member of NCR's board tried to fire Jones, he failed to mention that many of NCR’s advertisers threatened to pull their business (probably coordinated by pressure groups like the Knights of Columbus, possibly in conjunction with the Church). Furthermore, subscriptions to NCR plummeted after these stories. In short, faced with evidence of the Church’s sex abuse and criminal cover-up, the overwhelming impulse of many pious Catholics was to shoot the messenger.

The Upshot

NCR estimates that as of 2015, the Church “had spent just shy of $4 billion on sex abuse payouts. It had lost, by other calculations, as much as $2.3 billion a year during a 30-year period that saw such consequences of the sex abuse scandal as lost membership and diverted giving.” Not only was the Church immoral, it was stupid. In its effort to save money and reputation, it lost much more of both than if it had acted honestly and decently.

Unlike the Vatican and most of his colleagues, Mr. Roberts is not optimistic, at least in the near term:

“The community understands that very little happened in terms of addressing what occurred to victims in the United States and elsewhere until the public pressure, mostly by print media, became so overwhelming that the bishops were forced to act. Anyone who had the stomach for (or whose job required) reading through depositions and court testimony knows that not a small portion of the abuse amounted to sexual torture of children. Rest assured that we have not begun to hear the beginnings of what has gone on and likely continues to go on in those parts of the world where there is not a strong press and judicial system.”

The U.S. Bishops’ Solution

In 2002, after the huge scandal in Boston, the U.S. bishops developed a solution – their charter for the protection of children. This was highly touted, and called for annual audits to demonstrate its effectiveness. The Church funded special research studies to demonstrate its effectiveness.

Mr. Roberts failed to mention the fact that reports of clerical abuse are usually filed long after the crime has taken place. In Australia, on average 30 years passed before the crimes were reported. While the delay is shorter in the U.S., even if nothing had been done, the results would show the same “success” as the new procedures.  Without much better techniques of data collection, we can say virtually nothing about the current state of this epidemic.

What about the new data from the audits and other sources? While they have been much hyped, Mr. Roberts warns us of their value:

“And those studies and annual audits? Don't get too excited about them because they are based on information volunteered by the very people — bishops and archbishops — who are the principle subjects of the studies and audits. In simpler terms, those investigated are being trusted to tell on themselves. In instance after instance where legal action has allowed documents and correspondence to be subpoenaed, the extent of the abuse in both numbers and character has been worse — and sometimes far worse — than the information previously volunteered.”


To paraphrase, when faced with a great challenge, the Church relied on its greatest strength – disinformation – rather than confront the problem directly. Even after forty years, this world-wide epidemic of child rape and abuse is probably continuing largely unabated. Yet those responsible for this atrocity are widely viewed as paragons of righteousness. Pope John Paul was even made a saint. Both Catholics and the general public seem remarkably indifferent. They just don’t want to face this slice of Christian morality.


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