The e-mail message was serious and required a thoughtful response. I decided not to reply right away but to return to it when I had more time to think. But I never did. I was busy, yes, but there were other reasons for my reluctance.
The message concerned the sexual abuse crisis, a subject Catholics are all too familiar with these days. My friend wanted to know how I, a new father whose adopted daughter was just baptized, was dealing with the slew of media reports issuing from Europe. What makes you and your family stay, he asked?
The question was addressed to me as a friend, but also as an editor at a respected Catholic magazine. “I am looking to America and people like you to help make sense of all this,” he wrote.
My colleagues and I are keenly aware of the special responsibility we bear in this time of crisis. In editorial meetings and casual conversations, we dissect the latest news reports, weighing how to respond. In our most recent editorials, “Pilgrim Church, Part I” and “Pilgrim Church, Part II” (5/10 and 17), we have tried to provide encouragement to our fellow Catholics while also looking at church structures that need reform.
Yet I feel obliged to distinguish my personal response to the crisis from our institutional response. As an editor, I have done my due diligence: I have followed the news reports and contributed to group discussions. Yet when I leave the office, when I sit at home or in the pew, I find myself tuning out when the subject of the abuse crisis is raised. When friends ask about it, I give a brief answer or don’t respond at all.
This is not new. In 2002 I worked at a newspaper in Connecticut when the scandal erupted in Boston. Because of my knowledge of the church, I was pulled from my regular beat to cover the emerging crisis. My first assignment was to a parish where two priests had been removed from ministry for suspected abuse. Reporting the story was a brutal exercise. The parish priests, and many parishioners, declined to talk to me. In the evenings I would return home mentally exhausted, loath to revisit the subject. I was relieved several weeks later to return to my small-town beat.
I have great respect for the journalists who reported on the sexual abuse crisis, especially those Catholic journalists who continued to follow the story even when national media attention flagged. Yet for me it proved to be a grueling endeavor. The latest round of media reports have stirred in me the same unease that first surfaced eight years ago.
What are the reasons for my discontent? At the newspaper my unhappiness was easy enough to explain: here I was, a committed Catholic, assigned to investigate the church. The cognitive and emotional dissonance was only natural. Today I am proud to work at a magazine that seeks to serve the church and can play a productive role in guiding it through the crisis. And yet the urge to “tune out the scandal” is still strong. The malaise persists.
I think I know why. In so many ways the church has been a life-affirming force in my life—never more than over the last year, as my wife and I pursued adoption. That process revealed to me the deep ways in which we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. It has been difficult for me to reconcile that singular moment of grace with the crisis of 2010. For professional reasons, I am obligated to read about the church’s failures and endure the invective of its critics; but when I can, I look away.
Some have reacted to the crisis with anger, others by leaping to the church’s defense. Still others blame the media. I change the channel. It is not a response I am especially proud of. I wish I had the passion of my crusading colleagues. Yet I know I am not alone. We all deal with trauma in different ways.