A journalist’s vocation is, according to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, “to seek out the truth and to tell true stories about the world by writing these stories in an entertaining and interesting fashion.” But what happens when the fascinating, complex story a journalist is reporting involves a scandal in their own faith?
That question was at the heart of a Nov. 19 discussion panel, “Healing the Breach of Trust,” which was hosted by The Catholic University of America’s Institute for Human Ecology. The panel, which was moderated by Douthat featured religion journalists Elizabeth Bruenig (The Washington Post), Christopher White (Crux/The Tablet), and J.D. Flynn (Catholic News Agency), who earned his licentiate in Canon Law from the University in 2007.
[Watch the video from the event here.]
Over the course of the hour-long conversation, the four journalists discussed numerous issues related to the sex abuse crisis, including the role the secular and Catholic press play in investigating, reporting, and framing the public’s understanding, and the ways they believe the Church can move forward and heal after the ongoing scandals.
The discussion is the first of a series of planned conferences at Catholic University titled, “The Church and the Laity: Healing the Breach of Trust.” University President John Garvey gave a brief introduction at the event, noting that the current crisis feels different than the one in 2002: “In 2002, most Catholics trusted the bishops to take care of the problem,” he said. “Today many Catholics see the bishops themselves as the problem. The faithful have lost trust in their bishops.”
President Garvey urged the faithful to find a way to respond to the crisis that will take a step toward healing that loss of trust. He also announced the launch of a new University project entitled “The Church and the Laity,” which will examine the role of the lay faithful in Church reform.
Douthat began the conversation by asking panelists how their experiences as faithful Catholics have shaped their coverage of abuse revelations. In terms of pure storytelling, Douthat said the sex abuse crisis is a compelling assignment for journalists because it is a “remarkable human drama” and a “complex story.” On the other hand, he noted that Catholic journalists feel a personal responsibility and commitment to the institution they are covering.
“We believe the Church is a means through which God has willed the salvation of the human race,” Douthat said. “That makes covering the Church at this moment complicated.”
White said he finds covering the abuse scandal “profoundly exciting and profoundly challenging.” His faith has been affirmed by the number of people who are passionate about learning the truth and taking steps in a positive direction, but he said he also misses the days when he could look at his faith in a less complicated way.
“I miss not thinking I have to observe my faith instead of simply practicing it,” he said. “I miss thinking of a cardinal or archbishop as just someone I respect and not someone I cover.”
Bruenig said she takes solace in the fact that she can bring her faith to her work, especially when it involves speaking to abuse survivors.
“I think that for them, knowing that I am a fellow Catholic who cares in a very real way, there is a therapeutic element,” she said.
Still, she said there have been some stories she wished she didn’t need to hear.
“It’s indelible, I can’t unknow it,” she said. “I do hope the victims and the survivors and the journalists covering this, I hope they’re getting something good out of it and that it’s not having an overall detrimental effect.”
A lack of information from Church authorities is a common challenge for journalists covering the abuse crisis, the panelists said.
“Our religion reporters literally wrote a story about all the people who refused to talk to them,” said Douthat. “The Vatican is very closed to us. It’s not like reporting on someone like Trump. There are ways the Vatican can more successfully stonewall The New York Times in ways that an American politician or bishop cannot.”
This lack of response can put journalists in an uncomfortable position. While clergy understand the importance of the investigations, they are sometimes too cautious or fearful to answer questions on the record.
“We broke a story this summer and a bishop called me and said, ‘Thank you for doing this and please keep naming names. We need this purification of the church,’” said Flynn. “But then the closer we got to his diocese, the more those ‘thank you’s’ started to dry up.”
Flynn believes that one issue standing in the way of rebuilding trust in the Church is a lack of transparency from Church leadership about the specific steps taken to investigate abuse allegations. Decisions need to be made about when to reveal names of credibly accused priests and what terms like “credibly accused” even mean. He also believes there should be set penalties and processes in order for priests who engage in acts of sexual misconduct of any kind.
“Catholics want transparency in the process and they want more details,” Flynn said. “At the same time, due process is still very important.”
To conclude the discussion, Douthat asked the panelists what their first actions would be to heal the Church, if they were suddenly placed in charge.
White said he would place a mother as the leader of the sexual abuse investigations. Flynn suggested a large public penance for all Church leaders. As for Bruenig, she said she would advocate for a culture of radical truth-telling inspired by Christ himself.
“Before any procedural change, before any policy comes forward, we just have to adopt a policy of telling the truth even if it hurts you because this is a religion that has a radical sacrifice at the center of it,” she said.
Radical self-sacrifice is at the middle of Christianity because it’s a thing that inspires faith. If Jesus sacrificed himself for you, that’s something you can believe in and people want to feel that way about the Church.”
Upcoming events in the “Healing the Breach of Trust” series include: “The Role of the Laity in Responding to the Crisis: Theological and Historical Foundations,” on Feb. 6; “What’s Really Going On? The Root Causes of the Current Crisis,” on March 26; and “Renewal in the Church: Principles for Effective Lay Action,” on April 25.