Religion story of the decade

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What was the biggest religion story of the decade? Unquestionably, the story of how American Catholic bishops, aided and abetted by civil authorities and mental health professionals, had systematically covered up the abuse of children by priests. This was big news locally in every Catholic diocese in the country. It became, because the USCCB was forced to confront it, a major national story. And it sparked rolling international coverage that, as this year’s revelations in Ireland attest, continues to play out. Given the breadth and depth of the coverage, I’m prepared to make the case that there has never been as big a religion story in the history of modern journalism–and that given the parlous state of journalism today, we may never see anything on its scale again.

But somehow, the entire thing has faded from national consciousness. There was not a peep about it in the NYT’s year-by-year wrap-up of the decade in the Week in Review last Sunday: Nor (in today’s NYT) did Phillip Niemeyer’s Op-Chart, “Picturing the Past 10 Years,” so much as allude to the scandal. When Pope Benedict met with victims of abuse during his visit in 2007, there was appreciation yes, but also a sense that the county was so over that story. A lot more attention was paid to what the pope was wearing–Prada or no Prada? Pedophile priests? Been there, done that.

That’s certainly the vibe coming from the Catholic bishops, who recovered their mojo in the health care debate this year. With the help of a forgetful public, reminders of the late unpleasantness are brushed aside as so much finished business.

Take the Most Reverend William E. Lori, Bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who spent much of the past decade fighting tooth and nail up to the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent diocesan documents on his predecessor’s handling of pedophile priests from seeing the light of day–such that the predecessor, Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, was enabled to get out of Dodge rather than face the music. Having finally lost his legal battle, Lori chose to devote his column this month not to an apology for the bad actions and callous stonewalling on Egan’s part that the documents reveal but to a celebration of the priesthood, complete with an assault on the media:

A kind and encouraging word also
means so much to us. For example, this past weekend, local newspapers
continued a spate of negative stories about the Catholic Church.
They pre­sented as “news” events and allegations from the 1960s
and 70s as if they had never been reported on before – when,
in fact, they were the subject of more than 200 news articles
in the past. In truth, there was nothing new to report. Everywhere
I went, parishioners went out of their way to offer me and my
brother priests encouragement. “Don’t let them get you down,”
I was told maybe hundreds of times. Two priests celebrated their
twenty-fifth anni­versaries to thunderous applause. Other priests
who were unfairly targeted were surrounded by the support and
love of the people they serve day in and day out.

Yes, we grieve over the events
of the past and reach out to those who were harmed. And yes,
we’ve taken massive steps to prevent these things from happening
again. Yet many people are recognizing, more clearly than ever,
that the Church and her priests are being unfairly and incessantly
targeted for what is actually a massive societal problem. So
please do not underestimate how much a kind and encour­aging
word means to us, your priests.

Today in Ireland, bishops are resigning right and left as the Church experiences (as one wrap-up puts it) a wholesale fall from grace. In America, it’s back to Clericalism Forever.