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The intertwined history of SNAP and NCR

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I hope you take the time to read David Gibson’s article on the 25th anniversary of the Survivor’s Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. The history of that organization and its battle to defend victims of sexual abuse from priest abusers and ecclesial cover ups is an important chapter in the larger history of the Catholic church.

That history is also intrinsically intertwined with the history of NCR, something that I have been rediscovering in my preparations for NCR’s 50th anniversary, which is Oct. 28. Readers of our print publication will know that I have been writing a history column, highlighting significant events and personalities NCR has reported on over the last 50 years. Here is an excerpt from a column I did in June, looking back 29 years:

Issue of June 7, 1985, Vol. 21, No. 32

Priest child abuse cases victimizing families; bishops lack policy response
Two articles totaling 11,000 words, spread over eight pages of this 24-page issue, were NCR’s entry into covering the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and the subsequent failure of bishops and chancery personnel to address these crimes.

Jason Berry gives a detailed account of Fr. Gilbert Gauthe, a priest of the Lafayette, La., diocese who in the fall of 1985 would stand trial for the sexual abuse of at least a dozen boys. The diocese had already paid out $4 million in settlements trying to keep the case out of court and families of victims silent.

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Arthur Jones’ article — a roundup of cases that were beginning to emerge in Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., San Diego, New York, Newark, N.J., Providence, R.I., and Pittsburgh — would find the patterns of the Gauthe case repeated across dioceses.

 

Editorial: Pedophilia problem needs tackling
It is our hope that in reporting the situation as it exists today, we, as church, will face these realities and take steps to protect the young and restore trust within our dioceses.

The scandal as NCR sees it is not only the actions of individual priests — these are serious enough — but with church structures in which bishops, chanceries and seminaries fail to respond to complaints or even engage in cover-ups; sadly, keeping the affair quiet has usually assumed greater importance than any possible effect on the victims themselves.

We think that ministerial boards should be established in each ecclesiastical province or state bishops’ conference to deal with this problem independent of bishops’ influence. The boards would comprise professional, experienced psychiatrists, social workers, clergy, laity and at least one attorney. These boards should be coordinated nationally through an existing entity, such as the National Conference of Catholic Charities in Washington. [In 1986, this body would be renamed Catholic Charities USA.]

That was only the beginning. NCR was devoting resources and space to this story 18 years before The Boston Globe picked it up. And it was no easy story to follow. From that first report on through the years, Editor Tom Fox and later editor Tom Roberts were under tremendous outside pressure to let this story go, but they didn’t. At the outset, our own readers savaged NCR for its reporting on the issue, taking the paper to task in the letters to the editor’s column and cancelling subscriptions. The issue after Berry’s and Jones’ first reports contained four pages of letters to the editor, the majority castigating NCR, accusing the editors and reporters of everything from yellow journalism to enabling falsehoods. Many suggested the clergy sex abuse could be better handled internally and not in the light of public opinion.

Too many people didn’t believe it and more didn’t want to know about it. One member of the  of the NCR board of directors even wanted Tom Fox fired because he doggedly pursued the story when almost no one else was reporting and editorializing on the issue. The rest of the board, to their credit, refused to second his motion. Fox stayed on and NCR persisted.

When victims and parents and siblings of victims felt stonewalled or ignored by diocesan officials, they brought their stories to NCR to tell. When many other, larger, better funded news outlets thought the story of clergy sex abuse was old news and rejected the work of Jason Berry and his late colleague and collaborator Gerry Renner, they found an outlet here at NCR. The same is true of Philadelphia journalist Ralph Cipriano.

I feel a strange mixture of emotions as I recount and reflect on this history. I have a great deal of pride for this news organization and its journalists for their work. But I am also sick at heart. My stomach churns and tears well up because I also recall the pain and anguish the victims — children — have felt, not just the pain and shame they bear for the physical aspects of abuse, but also the suffering the church and its leaders have put them through. The outrageous lack of empathy church leaders have shown for these children has brought shame to the church as an institution and its individual members. In the end none of us have done enough. What I feel must be purgatory.

********

Over the years, NCR has supported and criticized SNAP and that has helped shape the kind of organization it has become. But with SNAP, NCR had a more fundamental role to play, as Michael D’Antonio reported in his 2013 book Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal (page 114):

Leafing through the [National Catholic] Reporter, [Barbara] Blaine found Jason Berry’s first article on Gilbert Gauthe. As she read, her heart began to race and she broke into a cold sweat. Suddenly she felt unable to take a breath. … Coming on as she read an article about priests raping children, her panic attack was a signal from the girl she once had been, who wanted someone to acknowledge her experience, her pain, and her existence.

After this, Blaine would go on to found SNAP.

So SNAP, congratulations on your anniversary. My ardent hope is that you will work yourselves -- and us -- out of a job, but until then, NCR will be standing with you and the survivors you represent.

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