Getting the Facts

It is sometimes said that to know everything is to forgive everything. Personally, I doubt it. Unquestionably, though, having a good grip on relevant facts is the best basis for making sound judgments about people and controversial events.

This is eminently true of making sound judgments about the sex abuse scandal that’s once again troubling many Catholics. Herewith a short quiz on that.

Did the incidents of abuse that we’re now hearing so much about occur very recently or several decades ago—or both, and roughly in what proportion? How does the Catholic Church compare with other churches and other large institutions (e.g., public schools) on this matter? What is the difference between “defrocking” and “laicizing” a cleric?

How did Pope Benedict deal with the problem during the nearly quarter-century when he was head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith? In that role, was he the Vatican’s point man on this issue all the time or did the CDF handle only certain cases during much of it? If certain cases, which ones? If that changed, when? How has Benedict managed the problem since becoming pope?

I could go on, but you get the point. There’s a lot to know about this matter. In case you wonder—I don’t immediately have the answers to all the questions above either. But the answers are out there if you want them. And someone relying for his or her information exclusively on the partial, often confused, and sometimes slanted coverage in the secular media would have a very poor picture of the facts.

A timely new source of reliable information is a book called Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis by Gregory Erlandson and Matthew Bunson (Our Sunday Visitor Publishers). Disclosure: I am a contributing editor of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper, and Erlandson and Bunson are friends. Be that as it may, the book is short, clear, trustworthy, and chock-full of facts. In the interests of truth-telling, it pulls no punches about this whole ugly business.

Another reliable source is the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Particularly useful there are the annual reports of the all-lay National Review Board established to monitor the bishops’ implementation of the tough policy on clergy sex abuse adopted in 2002 (, click on “Church Life & Ministries” and then on “Child and Youth Protection”). Note, too, that the widely anticipated, comprehensive study of the causes of this ugly problem by social scientists at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York is expected later this year.

There are many other sources as well, and a Google search will bring you a deluge of links. But be careful: some of what you will find there is reliable and some is not. This crisis has provided many groups and individuals with a glorious opportunity to grind their particular axes. Without a solid grounding in the facts, it can be difficult to separate the facts from the axe-grinding.

In the end, Erlandson and Bunson write, the story they tell is “about hope and trust.”

“For two millennia, hope and trust have always been justified, despite the sins of popes, bishops, priests, and laypeople. The way forward will be difficult and painful. But the commitment to the truth will guide our path, and our trust and hope in the Holy Spirit will shield us in the dark days and lead us to a renewal of the entire People of God.”

Amen to that.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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