Peter Steinfels on the Media and the Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal: Conference on The Church in a Pluralist Society

loyola tcdThis week the Loyola Institute in Trinity College Dublin is hosting an international interdisciplinary conference on ‘The Role of Church in a Pluralist Society: Good Riddance or Good Influence?’

The speakers include Terry Eagleton, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Hans Joas, William Cavanaugh, and Siobhán Garrigan, among others.

Yesterday Peter Steinfels delivered a keynote address on ‘The Media as a Source for the History of the Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal in the United States.’

Steinfels is an American journalist best known for his work on religious topics, including coverage of the sexual abuse scandals in the US. He has also been a professor at Fordham University and co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture. His books include The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America’s Politics and A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

While Steinfels was clear that he was speaking entirely from his experience in the American context, there were obvious parallels with the Irish context.

Steinfels opened by saying that events of the magnitude of the Catholic sex abuse scandal ‘sooner or later deserve a history – but I expect it will be later rather than sooner.’ This is because ‘right now, people want a trial, not a history.’

He acknowledged that most people know of the scandal through the media, and that this has shaped their perceptions in certain ways. He said that a ‘dominant narrative of the scandal’ emerged in the first 100 days of 2002, when a series of stories broke, primarily in the Boston Globe but also in other news outlets.

This narrative was that the Catholic bishops routinely shuffled priests to other parishes after they had abused, enabling them to abuse new victims. It was recognized that the abusers themselves were responsible and probably sick, but the true villains were the bishops.

Steinfels said there was ‘much I consider true’ in this narrative but most historians would find it ‘far from complete.’

Rather, when it comes to historians writing history, they will need to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the media as a source of information. He identified four areas where historians will need particular skills:

Chronology, Dates, Time Lags, and Stages

In the early 2000s, when most was written about the abuse, the coverage was of historic cases. Most cases of abuse in the US took place in the 1960s and 70s, and there was usually a time lag in reporting abuse.

Steinfels also said that 1/3 of all reports of cases of (historic) abuse took place in 2002 – implying a link between media coverage and people coming forward to report historic abuse.

Consumers of the media could be forgiven for thinking the abuse was contemporary, such was the onslaught of stories.

Overload and Paradigms

Steinfels said that in 2001, there were 98 stories about the abuse in the 22 major print outlets in the US. In 2002, that number jumped to 4158.

He said that the effect of the sheer volume of the stories is that many people reduced the scandal to the example of a few serial abusers or notorious bishops. This creates a paradigm with clear ‘bad guys’ and leaves little room for a more complex picture to emerge.


Timothy Lytton’s book, Holding Bishops Accountable: How Lawsuits Helped the Catholic Church Confront Clergy Sexual Abuse, recounts how legal proceedings brought the scandals to light and influenced reform of church policies.

The lawsuits provided ready-made events for the media to cover, and highlighted the role of those who held the institutional purse strings: bishops. Lawsuits focused on the institution of the church, not just individuals, and the institution became equated with the bishops. Accordingly, coverage of lawsuits reinforced the dominant narrative of the scandals: blame the bishops.

The John Jay Study

The John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, a secular institution, was commissioned by the US Catholic Bishops to investigate the extent of clerical abuse. It produced two reports:

‘The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States, 1950-2002’ (2004)

‘The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010’ (2011)

Steinfels said that the John Jay Reports found that about 4% of clergy had abused since the 1950s. Instances of abuse rose in the 1960s, peaked in the late 1970s, then declined markedly from the mid-1980s.

It also found that abusers had no uniform psychological profile, and there was no evidence that celibacy or homosexuality caused abuse.

The Reports argued that there was no single cause for abuse, thus challenging the dominant ‘blame the bishops’ framing of the lawsuits and media.

In a New York Times story about the 2011 Report, Laurie Goodstein noted that this seemingly could be reduced to the ‘blame Woodstock’ defense:

Instead, the report says, the abuse occurred because priests who were poorly prepared and monitored, and were under stress, landed amid the social and sexual turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s.

Known occurrences of sexual abuse of minors by priests rose sharply during those decades, the report found, and the problem grew worse when the church’s hierarchy responded by showing more care for the perpetrators than the victims.

The “blame Woodstock” explanation has been floated by bishops since the church was engulfed by scandal in the United States in 2002 and by Pope Benedict XVI after it erupted in Europe in 2010.

Steinfels said with regret that the ‘blame Woodstock’ explanation ‘went viral’. This meant that the report was not taken as seriously as it could have been. The media did not engage adequately with the report’s other findings, and most American Catholics seem to be barely aware of them.

Steinfels concluded by noting that the John Jay reports ‘fell outside the dominant paradigm’ for explaining the abuse, setting the authors up for criticism and neglect.

So even with this body of evidence from the John Jay Study demonstrating the multiple causes of abuse and the ensuing scandal, it has been almost impossible to convince people of the multi-dimensional nature of the problem. This, of course, makes addressing the causes of the abuse more difficult. Complex problems are not resolved with over-simple remedies.

Steinfels said that future historians of the scandals may face challenges like those of the authors of the John Jay reports.

He had considered writing a history of the scandals himself, but said:

‘I lack the strength and courage to write this history. … Historians whose explanations don’t fit preconceived ideas will be abused. … I pray others will take up that challenge.’

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