Abuse scandal tops religion headlines in 2018
Sunday, January 6, 2019
It was in 1983 that parents told leaders of the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, west of New Orleans, that Father Gilbert Gauthe had molested their sons.
Dominos started falling. The bishop offered secret settlements to nine families — but one refused to remain silent.
The rest is a long, long story. Scandals about priests abusing children — the vast majority of cases involve teenaged males — have been making news ever since, including the firestorm unleashed by The Boston Globe's "Spotlight" series that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.
This old, tragic story flared up again in 2018, and Religion News Association members selected the release of a sweeping Pennsylvania grand jury report — with 301 Catholic priests, in six dioceses, accused of abusing at least 1,000 minors over seven decades — as the year's top religion story.
"The allegations contained in this report are horrific, and there are important lessons to take away from it," said Michael Plachy, a partner at Lewis, Roca, Rothgerber, Christie, a national law firm that emphasizes religious liberty cases. However, "to be candid, much of what's in this report has been known for years. ... It's important, but it's mostly old news."
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia — a diocese not included in the grand jury report — requested an analysis of the 884-page document focusing on the impact of the church's 2002 Charter for the Protection Children and Young People. Among the law firm's findings: Of 680 victims whose claims mentioned specific years, 23 cited abuse after the charter — 3 percent of claims in the grand jury report. The average year of each alleged incident was 1979.
Much of the year's crucial news about clergy sexual abuse focused on efforts to hold bishops accountable when they were accused of abuse or of hiding abuse cases — including sexual abuse of adult victims.
Thus, this was a year in which my views clashed with the RNA poll. For me, the No. 1 story was the fall of retired Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, for decades one of America's most influential Catholics. In public remarks, he even claimed to have assisted in efforts to elect Pope Francis. McCarrick was removed from ministry and exited the College of Cardinals because of evidence that he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old altar boy in 1971 and, for decades, sexually harassed and abused seminarians.
My No. 2 story — the pope's decision to cooperate with China officials when selecting bishops — didn't make the RNA Top 10.
The RNA Religion Newsmaker of the Year was Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, after his stem-winding sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. McCarrick was not included on the ballot.
Here's the rest of the RNA Top 10:
2. An outspoken anti-Semite killed 11 worshipers at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue. It was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S history and came during growing reports of anti-Semitism in Western cultures and worldwide.
3. The Rev. Billy Graham, the world's most famous evangelist, died at age 99, ending a career in which he became the unofficial Protestant chaplain in America's public square. He preached to 215 million people during crusades in 53 nations.
4. A broad coalition of religious leaders, including some evangelical Protestants, opposed Trump administration policies separating families at the U.S. border. A delegation of Catholic bishops celebrated Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle, in the Rio Grande Valley on America's border with Mexico.
5. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a narrow ruling that avoided key First Amendment issues, ruled in favor of Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker who refused — on religious grounds — to create a unique cake celebrating a same-sex wedding.
6. The White House approved the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, drawing praise from evangelical Protestants and Jewish conservatives.
7. The Supreme Court upheld the so-called "Muslim ban," the Trump administration's restrictions on travel from several Muslim-majority countries accused to severe persecution of religious minorities.
8. Archbishop McCarrick barred from ministry, while debates continued about why he remained in power during decades of behind-the-scenes abuse reports.
9. Many candidates from minority faiths enjoyed big political wins, including victories by two Muslim women congressional candidates.
10. The Vatican's former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, released documents claiming that Pope Francis covered up sexual misconduct by McCarrick. He also called for the pope's resignation.
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King's College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.