What Peter Steinfels got wrong about the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report

By Christopher R. Altieri
Catholic World Report
January 13, 2019

Steinfels’ much-discussed Commonweal essay is a 12,000-word cavil of a single adjective in the introductory paragraph of a 1,300-page document that, imperfect as it was, did what it set out to do.

Veteran religion reporter Peter Steinfels’ recent, lengthy essay in Commonweal, on the supposed faults and failings of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and the media coverage of the Report, is the sort of piece that tempts a writer to respond point-by-point, and line-by-line.
I will resist that temptation, but Steinfels’ essay does call for a reply.

Steinfels raises some real and significant concerns, most of which regard the grand jury system in general. The specific case of the grand jury that investigated the Catholic bishops of Pennsylvania is at best an instance of those concerns.

Steinfels is right to note that grand juries are easily manipulated for political purposes, and their reports can be used to damage rivals or enemies. I share his concern. There is a risk to core principles of rule-of-law in free society—hence to free society itself—attendant on the use of grand juries, arguably illustrated in the kind of grandstanding the Pennsylvania Attorney General made of the Grand Jury empaneled to investigate the Church in Pennsylvania.

“Eternal vigilance, the price of liberty,” is not just a slogan. If Attorney General Josh Shapiro was careless in the use he made of the instrument, bishops were counting on greater and more general carelessness when they covered up abuse and enabled abusers.

Steinfels is also deeply concerned with reporters and news outlets, which he says have given short shrift to the improvements bishops have made in crafting and implementing new and robust safeguarding measures. That may not be exactly wrong, but there are two problems with making it a central complaint in an essay like the one he wrote.

First, making that case might not take the column inches his essay did, but it would have to be backed by more real data than he brings to bear, and much more rigorous analysis of it than he offers.

Second, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was not about the bishops’ progress in getting a handle on the noxious culture and nefarious dealings of clerical and hierarchical leadership over the past 15 years. It was about their failures—which were not mere failures of oversight, but included active coverup and enabling—for which only a few Catholic clerics have ever been charged and no bishop in Pennsylvania past or present has faced meaningful consequences.

Steinfels accuses the Pennsylvania Grand Jury of using its report “to be judge and jury, and to hand down convictions.” The report itself explicitly disavows this role, however; in fact, it describes its work as simply the best that could be done under the circumstances, due to statute of limitations. “This Report is our only recourse,” the Report reads. “We are going to name names and describe what they did—both the sex offenders and those who concealed them. We are going to shine a light on their conduct, because that is what the victims deserve.”

There is room for doubt regarding some specific claims against individuals named, but the Pennsylvania system provides for responses, which are contained in the Report. But in the absence of the preferable public trial, the Report is the sole, admittedly inadequate, public remedy for a very unsatisfactory situation.

When it comes to the Report itself, the central theses of Steinfels’ treatment are that the Report makes an “ugly, indiscriminate, and inflammatory charge,” specifically that, “all of [the victims] were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all,” and that media coverage of the report was, “amenable to uncritically echoing this story without investigation,” which led to, “[t]he prevalent story about Catholic clergy sex abuse as deeply entrenched, largely unabated, and uniquely Catholic,” being, “now so embedded in the media as to make it resistant to evidence to the contrary.”

Steinfels concludes that the Report’s charge against Church leadership in Pennsylvania was “unsubstantiated by the report’s own evidence, to say nothing of the evidence the report ignores,” and, “is truly unworthy of a judicial body responsible for impartial justice.”

First of all, a grand jury is not, properly speaking, a judicial body—not, at any rate, the way a trial jury is—nor is its purpose to render impartial justice. As Steinfels himself notes, a grand jury is an investigative instrument, the purpose of which is to collect and weigh evidence of crime, and determine whether there is a prima facie case for criminal prosecution or sufficient grounds for other government action.

This is also why Steinfels’ charge the Pennsylvania Grand Jury did not properly highlight, weigh, analyze, or otherwise take into account exculpatory evidence, is misplaced. That’s not what a grand jury does. A trial jury does that—at trial.

Steinfels consistently ignores this basic and key distinction, or misapplies it in his analysis.

In the case of the investigating Grand Jury that issued its report last August, the Pennsylvania Attorney General needed to show evidence of such criminal activity sufficient to warrant the Grand Jury’s  empaneling in the first place. It was not a fishing expedition. Also, there was never any question of indicting the Catholic bishops of Pennsylvania—certainly not on the vast amount of evidence the Grand Jury collected, which pertained to crimes for which the statute of limitations had expired. Grand juries in Pennsylvania, however, are not limited to recommending judicial indictment. Here is how Pennsylvania defines a grand jury report in law:

A report submitted by the investigating grand jury to the supervising judge regarding conditions relating to organized crime or public corruption or both; or proposing recommendations for legislative, executive, or administrative action in the public interest based upon stated findings. (Title 42, Chapter 45, Section 4542)

It is odd to hear anyone crying foul over the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on the grounds it denied the bishops due process, as Steinfels does. A great part of the reason the grand jury was convened and its report came out the way it did were the decades of episcopal machinations that, among their effects, made timely prosecution of individual crimes impossible.

Steinfels takes particular issue with the Grand Jury Report’s claim that “all” of the victims were “brushed aside” when clearly, it wasn’t “all” of the victims. It was only “most” of the victims. Steinfels concedes the report proves widespread abuse and systematic coverup over decades.
After his painstaking read of the document, Steinfels in essence discovers that the 40th Statewide Grand Jury of Pennsylvania did its job.

Though his essay runs to nearly 12 thousand words, Steinfels does not offer a systematic critique of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. He does not even try to do so. He sets up a straw man: the inflated claim in the introduction to the report. He waves a red herring: the report doesn’t do the work of the defense. He picks a couple of cherries from the low, low branches: the misattribution of the phrase “circle of secrecy” to then-Bishop Donald W. Wuerl was one cause for considerable hand-wringing (even though the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report contained the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s extended rejoinder).

Steinfels’ protestations in that specific regard have a particular tin ring to them, as well: Cardinal Wuerl did not coin the phrase, “circle of secrecy,” but he did participate in the thing. We now know he participated in the thing both in Pittsburgh and in Washington, DC, where he succeeded the disgraced Archbishop Theodore McCarrick.

We now know Cardinal Wuerl had at least one report of McCarrick’s perverse conduct directly from one of McCarrick’s victims in 2004, when Wuerl was still bishop of Pittsburgh. One doubts whether Steinfels would have dedicated so much of his ink to this point, had he known then what we know now.

Steinfels’ concern about how the Report downplayed the post-2002 drop in reported incidents of abuse and improvement in safeguarding minors is also misplaced.

The Report is perhaps “begrudging” in that last regard, as Steinfels says. Then again, “There is no reason, of course, why a grand jury has to take such diocesan testimony at face value,” he also writes. To do their job, the grand jury didn’t need to mention this progress at all, and shouldn’t be faulted for not doing so.

If reportage of the story of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report contributed to the reinforcement of public perception of the abuse crisis “as deeply entrenched, largely unabated, and uniquely Catholic,” and to that public perception being “now so embedded in the media as to make it resistant to evidence to the contrary,” there’s a reason—and it isn’t hasty or irresponsible reporting.

Abuse is a societal problem, as is coverup, as are the facile irenicism and a false sense of camaraderie that lead to institutional thinking of the worst sort. But highlighting that in a critique a report dealing with abuse and coverup in the Church can easily sound like whataboutism.

Steinfels’ essay is, in short, a 12,000-word cavil of a single adjective (“all”) in the introductory paragraph of a 1,300-page document that, imperfect as it was (such documents always are), did what it set out to do, in spades: show there is a prima facie case to make against the bishops of Pennsylvania, who covered up abuse and enabled abusers for more than seven decades.

(The view expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CWR editors or Ignatius Press staff.)

Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief for The Catholic Herald. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.






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