News Analysis

Beyond the news cycle, state-level abuse inquiries go on

The Pennsylvania statehouse (CNS photo/Tim Shaffer, Reuters)

Complaining about the speed of the news cycle – every issue will be relevant for 15 minutes – is nothing new. And perhaps it is misleading: things would fade from memory quickly anyway. But the news cycle is certainly ill-suited for covering lengthy projects initiated by large and generally slow-moving organizations, like the Church and governments.

One such project is the wave of state-level investigations into dioceses, which began last year in the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report. Around half of the 50 states have some sort of investigation into their dioceses currently ongoing.

It is difficult to say how close those investigations are to completion – attorneys general and the like tend, of course, not to comment on ongoing investigations – but at some point the Church in America might be confronted with a couple dozen more equivalents of that Pennsylvania report, reporting on the history of sexual abuse in dioceses all over the country.

The mechanisms which might produce these reports vary based on the laws of each individual state and the powers of each attorney general. Many states have restrictions on launching grand jury investigations. As a result, some states need either the cooperation of the dioceses or liaisons with local district attorneys in order to conduct their investigations. In some places a lack of cooperation on the part of a diocese has led to scenes that would once have been unthinkable: in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, for instance, authorities arrived at archdiocesan offices with 60 armed agents in an unannounced raid to find documents.

In one respect, the release of these reports and whatever ensues will be the next stage in the process of attempting to atone for and deal with the sexual abuse that has occurred and prevent any more – a process that has gone in fits and starts since 2002. But it does not quite feel that way. The news stories and new developments about the abuse crisis do not feel as though they comprise some sort of unified narrative.

In the moment it seems as though the issue of sex abuse arises in response to some news story: the revelations about McCarrick, or the bishops meeting and attempting to work out some new policies. It then gets discussed for a news cycle or two, before fading away until the next revelation.

The sex abuse scandal is a black mark and a wound for the Church, and, like any deep wound that went untreated for a long time, the healing process will take a while, and it will hurt. The pain will never quite go away, and at times it will come back with a fervor. And when that pain comes back – after it seemed like it had gone and been by and large forgotten – it will shock and sadden almost as much as if the wound were freshly inflicted.

And so the long, slow pain of the sex abuse scandal will continue to flash up on occasion for the near future. To leave acknowledging it to the vagaries of the news cycle is, in some sense, an abdication of our responsibility to acknowledge the sins and crimes of the Church. The speed of the news and the rapid rate at which the issue of the day is replaced by the next carry with them the temptation to forget until we are forced again to remember. But Catholics cannot afford, for their own sakes and the sake of the Church, to succumb to it.