Vox Coverage of the Grand Jury Report

Vox is one of the leading examples of the new digital journalism. Its primary focus is politics, but unlike many digital (and traditional) newspapers Vox has specialists in many areas. But at least when it comes to religion, their reach exceeded their grasp. In covering the most recent episode in the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis, their reporter on religion, Tara Isabella Burton, has committed a series of egregious errors. This blog focuses on her article of August 24. Due to its length, I will address other articles of hers in the future.

About Ms. Burton’s Credentials

Her bio in Vox says she “holds a doctorate in Theology from the University of Oxford.” Similarly, her own web site says, “Tara recently completed a doctorate in theology as a Clarendon Scholar at Trinity College, Oxford.”   So far, so good.

Ms. Burton is also a recently published novelist. Her blurb on Amazon says, “she completed her doctorate in 19th century French literature and theology at the University of Oxford.” While it mentions theology, French Lit is primary. She may have a joint degree, though the combination of French Lit and theology is sufficiently odd to raise suspicions.

In 2017, she published an article in the WSJ in which mentioned her “doctorate in fin de siècle French literature.” Earlier, in 2013 she published two articles and further confused the picture. In one, she said, “Tara Isabella Burton is working on a doctorate in French decadent fiction at the University of Oxford.”  In the other, she said, “As a current doctoral student (studying the theology of fin de siecle French literature..”      

Fortunately, Oxford University has her thesis online. It’s title is “‘Narrative dandyism’: the theology of creation in the French decadent-dandyist novel 1845-1907.” She provides a long, rococo abstract, whose third paragraph reads:


In my thesis, I first explore the cultural and economic roots of this understanding of the autonomous dandyist-artist in the light of wider tensions in 19th century Paris. I then explore selected ‘decadent-dandyist’ texts through close reading, focusing on the theological implications of our authors’ treatment of narrative, character, setting, and language: showing how our writers cast doubt on both the possibility and morality ‘autonomous’ creation on theological grounds. Finally, I ask how constructive theologians might learn from our authors’ condemnation of ‘dandyist’ storytelling to create a new Christian aesthetics for the novel: proposing elements of an alternate, ‘kenotic’ novel, in which self-projection gives way to ‘self-giving’, a model based not on power and ego but rather on love.

This is a thesis on French Literature, not theology. Ms. Burton’s has as much right to claim a doctorate in theology as she does a doctorate in psychology, as she also discusses character motivation.

Ms. Burton appears to have misrepresented her credentials while applying for her position at Vox. I raise this issue because her casual approach to facts is also evident in her journalism.

Article of August 24

This article was written shortly after the release of Pennsylvania’s grand jury report on child abuse. The headline: “New Catholic sex abuse allegations show how long justice can take in a 16-year scandal.” Ms. Burton’s very headline focusses on disinformation. This falsehood is central to her arguments, and she repeats it: “This latest report comes 16 years after the initial wave of child sex abuse allegations rocked the Catholic Church in America.” She claims that the scandal began in Boston, as reported by the award-winning Spotlight investigation. She goes on to imply that it is old news, which the Church has already addressed.

A brief overview of the sex abuse scandal

The major source on sex abuse in the Catholic Church is the web site BishopAccountability.org. The movie Spotlight referred to it, and it is well known. Ms. Burton, the religion reporter for Vox, should have known it. While its home page is admittedly busy, it contains a prominent, centrally-positioned section labelled “Major Accounts of the Crisis.” This contains a list of articles sorted by date. The earliest is by Jason Berry from 1985, describing the scandal in Louisiana – the first major scandal in America. Several were dated before Ms. Burton’s purported start date for the crisis. In addition, several of the accounts dated after the Boston scandal discussed abuse that occurred prior to that scandal. In short, well-documented and publicized cases of child abuse had been going on more than twice as long as Ms. Burton alleges.

This is an overview of the modern sex abuse crisis in the Church. It is likely, however, that this atrocity has been going on much longer. For example, not long after Hitler’s concordat with the Church, he charged the Church with a variety of crimes and began holding “morality trials.” The Vatican denounced them as vicious propaganda, and they were widely condemned. While some charges did indeed seem implausible, others seem quite plausible, especially in retrospect. These include money laundering and related financial crimes, which the Church has been perpetrating almost continuously throughout the post-war era. Child abuse was another plausible charge. While it was dismissed at the time, it later became known that Pope Pius XI wrote letters to the bishops of Germany instructing them to destroy all evidence of such crimes. While the Vatican vehemently denied such crimes, it clearly knew of their existence.

This is Old News

After a very brief summary of the grand jury report, Burton reported that Pope Francis has apologized. Then, in a large, bold heading, she notes: “The abuse cases we’re seeing are almost all from decades ago.” She implies that the Dallas Charter created by the American bishops in 2002 has basically taken care of the problem, thus accounting for the scarcity of recent cases. Ms. Burton cites David Gibson of Fordham University (a Jesuit institution): “The grand jury report actually shows how the system has worked.”

Political In-fighting

She then implies that the uproar surround the report is largely due to a conservative cabal within the Catholic Church that is trying to undermine Pope Francis: “Gibson said discontent over Pope Francis’s leadership among conservative Catholics also has galvanized some to speak out more forcefully.” She cites Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University (a Catholic institution) as saying the conservatives not only want to destroy Pope Francis, they are using the abuse crisis to destroy Vatican II: “Some see the opportunity to reform the Church from abuses as a counter-revolution ... against the Church of Vatican II itself.” But then Ms. Burton seems to realize that this has nothing to do with the abuse of thousands of children and the subsequent cover-up of those crimes.

Church solved the abuse problem, but not its cover-up

Ms. Burton seems to believe that the Catholic Church, at least in America, has solved the abuse problem. She quotes James Martin, a Jesuit priest of unknown credentials (he just happens to be a PR consultant for Pope Francis): “The Dallas reforms are extremely stringent, and make it clear that any priest credibly accused of any sort of abuse is removed from ministry immediately. So there should be, at this point, no priest with any credible accusation against him in active ministry.” She admits the Dallas Charter did not include protocols governing bishops’ conduct concerning abuse crimes, and that work is needed there.

Church needs to tell its story better

She returns to David Gibson who believes that the Church needs to improve its PR: “In many ways, this whole scandal demonstrates the power of storytelling and the importance of storytelling and giving shape and weight to all these accusations.” If only our propaganda machine were more effective, there would be no crisis.

Tara Burton ignores most of the evidence

Not only did Ms. Burton ignore earlier crises in America, she ignored all the crises outside America. The Catholic Church has been guilty of sex abuse throughout the world, and the pattern is similar in every country. Ireland is a partial exception, since the Church there helped run the state, and leveraged its power to commit a much wider range of atrocities.

Ms. Burton’s suppression of the evidence allows her to claim that the Dallas Charter has solved most of the problem. However, examination of the data shows there is no basis for such a claim.

There is always a huge delay between priestly pederasty and its report

The entire basis for Ms. Burton’s claim for the effectiveness of the Dallas Charter is the fact that the vast majority of the crimes in the Pennsylvania grand jury report took pace before the Dallas Charter in 2002. But reports of priestly sex abuse are always old. They were old in Louisiana and Boston, before the Dallas Charter existed. In Australia, which had nothing comparable to the Dallas Charter, the average delay between the commission of the crime and its report was thirty years, even longer than in Pennsylvania.

Why such a long delay? Incredible atrocity!

Ms. Burton made no attempt to convey the immensity of the atrocity of priestly abuse. For a child (or youth) to be raped by a stranger is obviously highly traumatic. Getting raped by a priest is far worse, especially for a devout Catholic - as virtually all victims were. They are taught that priests are God’s agents or stand-ins. Priests have the power to transform a wafer into the physical body of Christ. Not only did they perform this miracle once upon a time, they do it all the time. They have the power to forgive sin, just like God or Jesus. And they are supposedly capable of many other miraculous acts. While priests are not gods, they have been granted divine powers and empowered to act on God’s behalf.

Being raped by a priest is like being raped by God. At a minimum, it is God’s will, as priests act on God’s behalf. If and when the child recognizes that something very wrong transpired, they think they are at fault. They rarely tell their parents of these crimes. More often, they tell another priest in confession. Shockingly, transcripts indicate that the confessing priest almost routinely confirms that it was their fault, instructs them to remain silent, and gives them a penance for their sin. While I have not gone through the enormous volume of anecdotal evidence, I have never encountered a case where the confessing priest contacted the authorities. Matters are always kept within the Church, and almost always kept secret. Even when the Church offers to settle with the victim, the settlement includes a non-disclosure agreement.

Historically in the U.S., Catholic children were working class Irish, Italians, Poles, or other ethnicities that subscribed to some version of machismo. Letting it be known that you were raped would virtually eliminate the possibility of leading a normal life. If a child told his parents a priest raped him, there was a good chance they wouldn’t believe him. Even if they did, they would not make public charges. And, as Spotlight has shown, the Church had a great deal of influence with both the police and the courts in Catholic neighborhoods.

In short, there are lots of reasons for a long delay between the commission of the crime and its report, if indeed it is ever reported. (We do not know the incidence rate of unreported abuse, though we know that repeated inquiries lead to increased reporting, suggesting that a great deal of abuse has gone unreported.) Contrary to Ms. Burton’s assertion, the fact that there were few recent cases of abuse does not mean that such abuse has been eliminated. There is no valid reason for rejecting the null hypothesis that the long interval between the commission of the crime and its report has not changed.

Summary of August 24 article

First, Ms. Burton got her facts wrong and suppressed a great deal of relevant data. This set the stage for her conclusion that the Church had basically fixed its abuse problem with the Dallas Charter in 2002. But the suppressed data shows her conclusion is unwarranted.

While the article is nominally about the Pennsylvania grand jury report, she says very little about it. She omits all material that might convey the incredible trauma inflicted on devout children by priestly abuse. Instead, she introduces opinions of two professors from Catholic universities and one Jesuit priest who claim that the problem is basically solved, and that media needs to do a better job of reporting the story. One also suggests that the hullabaloo about child abuse is really due to internal Church squabbles, especially from conservatives seeking to undermine the pope.

Ms. Burton makes no attempt at balanced coverage. In an article about the grand jury report, she interviews no one responsible for producing the report, and ignores nearly all its findings. While she has repeated interviews with Catholic apologists, she sought no input from any victims’ group. This is a disgraceful piece of journalism. The Vatican press office issued statements that were more fair and balanced.

PS - Shortly after publication of this article, Vox terminated its relation with Ms. Burton.


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