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 Washington Notebook

February 18, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 7

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"Any sociologist will tell you that you can expect minimization" when information is self-reported. "And this is a self-report."

psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe
commenting on the numbers in the clergy sex abuse study from John Jay College of Criminal Justice


John Jay report leak whodunit; McCarrick gets presidential endorsement; Bishops on immigration proposal; Passion teaching moment; Child voting scorecard

By Joe Feuerherd

The National Review Board investigating the scope and causes of the clerical sexual abuse crisis anticipated that the study they commissioned would be leaked. They tried to plan for that eventuality.

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Back in November, as the American bishops met in Washington, board member Robert Bennett issued an ultimatum: if the findings of the eagerly anticipated report were disclosed prior to the scheduled Feb. 27 release, the board would make the report public immediately. Even bishops (and, ultimately, the board works for the bishops), would not see the report until a day or two prior to its public release.

The idea, it was clear, was to avoid exactly what has transpired: a "premature" release of the highly charged data. A leak, particularly if it was selective, could compromise the report's findings or allow those with an agenda not shared by the Review Board to get their "spin" out early.

Now, following CNN's disclosure of some of the study's major findings, the board has backtracked. Bennett and other board members are urging the public to withhold judgment until the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study on the "scope of the crisis" is formally presented on the first Friday of Lent.

The spin, it seems, is out of control.

There are actually two reports. The first, conducted by John Jay, will provide a quantitative analysis of the national scope of clerical sexual abuse over the last half century. John Jay researchers used data provided by nearly all U.S. dioceses and religious orders to determine the number of victims and alleged priest abusers. Access to the findings is reportedly limited to members of the Review Board and to John Jay staff.

The second report, a work of the National Review Board, will describe the "causes" of the crisis and is scheduled for release at the same time.

What does the John Jay report say?

CNN -- granted a sneak peek though not an actual copy of the study -- reported that more than 11,000 allegations of sexual abuse were made against approximately 4,500 priests over the past 50 years. Roughly half the priests were alleged to have committed a single act of abuse, while nearly 80 percent focused their attention on victims over the age of 11.

With those harsh facts on the table, let's go back to the leak.

Following the CNN report, bishops' conference president Wilton Gregory issued a statement. "I have not seen the reports, and so I cannot comment on their substance," said Gregory. (Clearly, if Gregory has not "seen the reports," he cannot be the leaker.)

So who provided CNN its peek? And to what end?

Speculation abounds.

Perhaps John Jay is the culprit. Upset that the self-reported data strains credulity, this theory goes, school researchers invited CNN in for a look. Abuse victims have long contended that the study is tainted because it relies on information (in the form of a survey) provided by the dioceses. For example, says survivor advocate Barbara Blaine, the notion that nearly half of the abusing priests are said to have committed "only" one act of abuse, is akin to believing an alcoholic only got drunk once.

Or perhaps someone with an interest in demonstrating that the clergy abuse crisis is really about homosexuality spilled the beans. CNN reported that the vast majority of cases involved minors between the ages of 11 and 17. If so, the leak may have backfired, given the tender age at which the study reportedly begins to group the "older" victims. Philip Jenkins, the Penn State University professor who argues that the abuse crisis is more about homosexuality than pedophilia, is not alone in hoping that the actual study provides more precise data. "I wish they had done a better breakdown of the ages, and maybe they do in the final report," Jenkins told NCR.

Or maybe someone thought it wise to release the information before influential bishops tried to water down the findings.

Or possibly some combination of the above.

Here's what we do know:

  • A number of bishops made clear their reluctance to participate in the John Jay survey. The methodology of the report, and the disinclination of some dioceses to submit to outside scrutiny, was the subject of extensive closed-door discussions at the bishops' June 2003 and November 2003 meetings.
  • Gregory of the bishops' conference fears a public relations meltdown when the John Jay report is formally released. "How do we engage in a serious public self-examination of our past on the issue of sexual abuse without engendering a type of sensationalistic coverage of past misconduct that obscures present achievements in eliminating that misconduct?" he asked at a September 2003 meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association.
  • The information is dripping out diocese-by-diocese. Bishops throughout the country, using the data they provided to John Jay, have tried to inoculate their local churches prior to the media maelstrom that is sure to hit next week. The dioceses of Bridgeport, Conn., San Jose, Calif., Richmond, Va., Anchorage, Alaska, Los Angeles, Arlington, Va. and Portland, Maine, are among many that, over the past few days, have spoon-fed local reporters the data they previously provided to the John Jay researchers. An effort to promote transparency? Perhaps. But also a communications strategy right out of Public Relations 101: Get your story out early so that when the big one hits you look good by comparison.
  • Another thing is clear: self-reported findings represent a "floor," not a "ceiling." The number of actual victims of clerical sexual abuse is no doubt higher than can be ascertained, given the constraints of the study. "Any sociologist will tell you that you can expect minimization" when information is self-reported, said psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe. "And this is a self-report."
  • We know one more thing. Someone leaked the findings to CNN.

    Was it a noble act or a nefarious breach of trust?

    Only the leaker really knows.


    Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick couldn't make it to Archbishop Carroll High School for a presidential appearance Feb. 13. But his absence was noted.

    President Bush was at the high school in northeast Washington to promote the school choice initiative for District of Columbia students approved by Congress last month. Bush greeted Washington Auxiliary Bishop Kevin Farrell. "And please," Bush asked Farrell, "give Cardinal McCarrick my very best."

    Bush clearly likes McCarrick, who was a key player in getting the education proposal approved. "There's no finer person in our country than Cardinal McCarrick," the president continued. "And I'm proud to call him friend. He's a decent, decent man." McCarrick, said Bush, couldn't attend the event because he was in Kosovo "spreading love and American good will." There is "no better person to do so than Cardinal McCarrick, by the way," said Bush.


    President Bush's proposed changes to U.S. immigration law are a welcome first step, but do not include the changes necessary to reform a "morally unacceptable" system, Bishop Thomas Wenski, coadjutor bishop of Orlando, Florida, and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration, told a Senate subcommittee Feb. 12.

    While supportive of elements of the Bush plan, particularly provisions that call for migrant workers to be granted legal status, Wenski told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Citizenship that "the temporary worker program proposed by the Administration falls short of providing appropriate protections to both U.S. and foreign-born workers."

    Unfortunately, said Wenski, the administration plan "does not include a path to residency for those who participate in the temporary worker program."

    And while the proposal guarantees that workers would receive minimum wage and be protected against discrimination and health and safety violations, it "does not indicate how such protection would be enforced." Said Wenski: "Labor protections should be specifically outlined in any legislation and workers should have the right to bring action against employers in federal court for violation of their rights."

    Further, Wenski told the subcommittee, "A central component of any immigration reform package should be a broad-based legalization program which provides the opportunity for permanent residency for undocumented persons of all nationalities."


    The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has had an on-again off-again relationship with Mel Gibson's controversial new movie, "The Passion of the Christ." In June of last year, the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs distanced itself from a report that was critical of the film. Later in 2003, as part of promotional efforts for the film, Gibson dropped by the bishops' office in northeast Washington and met with conference staff.

    Now, the ecumenical and interreligious affairs committee, clearly seeing the upcoming release of the film as a teaching moment, is publishing a collection of documents of Catholic teaching on the church's relationship to the Jews and its opposition to anti-Semitism. Included is the committee's 1988 "Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion."

    Other documents included in this collection comprise statements on Catholic teaching about the interpretation of scripture, Catholic understanding and proper presentation of the passion and death of Christ, and the church's ongoing condemnation of anti-Semitism.

    The Bible, the Jews and the Death of Jesus: A Collection of Catholic Documents, will be available Feb. 23 at a cost of $11.95. To order, call 800-235-8722.


    Politicians love babies at election time, but how do they vote on children's issues once in office? A Children's Defense Fund (CDF) scorecard, based on 11 votes in the House and Senate in 2003, provides a measure.

    A summary: Thirteen senators received a score of 100 percent, while 29 scored below 10 percent. Fifty-four House members consistently voted in line with CDF's priorities, while 211 House members got failing grades. The average score for senators was 50 percent, 42 percent for House members.

    The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is

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