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The courageous honesty of Peter Steinfels

After what must have been weeks of painstaking research, Dr. Steinfels reached a harsh but, to my mind, persuasive conclusion.

The Department of Justice seal is seen July 30, 2018, in the Great Hall at the Main Justice Building in Washington. The Justice Department said in mid-October it was opening its own investigation into Pennsylvania's Catholic dioceses and clergy sex abuse claims. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Peter Steinfels’s long career in journalism included years of service as editor of Commonweal (from which perch he took me to the woodshed more than once), followed by a decade as senior religion correspondent of the New York Times. Steinfels has now done the Catholic Church in the United States — and American society as a whole — a tremendous service by telling some disturbing truths about the August 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse in six Keystone State dioceses. His lengthy article, “The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report: Not What It Seems,” was first published on Commonweal’s website this past January 9; it is required reading for those determined to grapple with the linked problems of sexual abuse and episcopal failure in the Church.

Like anyone with a grain of moral sensibility or human feeling, Steinfels, long a leader of U.S. Catholicism’s liberal wing, was revolted by the graphic stories of sexual predation contained in the grand jury report, which Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro presented with great fanfare last August 14. Yet unlike other journalists who bought Mr. Shapiro’s lurid presentation hook, line, and sinker, Steinfels actually read the entire report — and then took the trouble to sift through its hundreds of pages to see if the data supported the charge that “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all.”

After what must have been weeks of painstaking research, Dr. Steinfels reached a harsh but, to my mind, persuasive conclusion: Attorney General Shapiro’s office had produced an “inaccurate, unfair, and fundamentally misleading report” whose “shortcomings should not be masked by its vehement style, its befuddling structure, or its sheer bulk.”

Steinfels rightly does not spare the Church. The Pennsylvania report “documents decades of stomach-churning violations of the physical, psychological, and spiritual integrity of children and young people. It documents that many of these atrocities could have been prevented by promptly removing the credibly suspected perpetrators from all priestly roles and ministry. It documents that some, although far from all, of those failures were due to an overriding concern for protecting the reputation of the Church…”

But then he calls Attorney General Shapiro to account: “What does the report not document? It does not document the sensational charges contained in its introduction (i.e., the only part most reporters and editorialists read) — namely, that over seven decades, Catholic authorities, in virtual lockstep, supposedly brushed aside all victims and did absolutely nothing in the face of terrible crimes against boys and girls — except to conceal them. This ugly, indiscriminate, and inflammatory charge, unsubstantiated by the report’s own evidence, to say nothing of the evidence the report ignores, is truly unworthy of a judicial body responsible for impartial justice.”

Might other states do better? Only, Steinfels suggests, if future grand jury or state-investigative reports “are written in a way that expresses necessary, justifiable repulsion toward crimes against children and young people without burying all efforts at analysis in a mudslide of outrage,” as the Pennsylvania grand jury report did.

The sexual abuse of the young is a plague throughout society. Since Abuse Crisis 1.0 in 2002, no institution in the United States has done more to acknowledge the plague, reach out to its victims, and devise means to prevent its further occurrence than the Catholic Church. There is deeper reform needed in the Church, and there are more churchmen to be held accountable for gross irresponsibility. But in the course of confronting this evil within our Church, U.S. Catholicism has learned some things that could benefit those willing to get to grips with the revolting reality of sexual abuse. If, however, other state attorneys general follow the path pioneered by Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro and reinforce the false impression that a culture of child rape and institutional cover-up is festering in the Catholic Church right now, no one is going to look to American Catholicism for models of how to address the plague.

That is not only bad for the Church; it’s bad for all of American society. So let the Church, while cooperating fully with state investigative agencies, create and support a panel of distinguished, retired judges (preferably non-Catholics) to review the reports that issue from those investigations — and then publish an analysis of each report’s probity, fairness, and reliability, absent any editing of the panel’s conclusions by Church authorities.

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About George Weigel 468 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. Mr. Wiegel is talking, and asking us to take an approach, that is (wittingly or unwittingly), the talk and approach designed by ex-Cardinal McCarrick, the arch-liar, homosexual predator and post-Christian fraud.

    Our problem is what the National Review Board says it is, and NOT what McCarrick says it is, which is repeated above by Mr. Wiegel.

    True Grasp of Problem (per our Church’s own 2002-04 National Review Board and it’s Chairman Gov. Frank Keating): (1) homosexual abuse (82% of cases) of teenage boys by homosexual predators in the priesthood; (2) aided and abetted by living US Bishops and Cardinals (like Mahony and Wuerl McCarrick) who systematically covered up this abuse, witholding information from and opposing and thwarting the Review Board in getting to the root cause of the problem: protection of Bishops and priests committing sodomy or fornication or adultery.

    False Label of Problem – the very label crafted by a McCarrick in 2002-04 to deny and thwart the Truth (above): “sex abuse of young people (pedophilia).

    When and if Mr. Wiegel stops using, wittingly or unwittingly, the McCarrick propaganda, he can then joun Gov. Keating and Judge Anne Burke in their true grasp of the problem, and perhaps help fix it.

    But his language above is McCarrick-sleek.

    • “False label of Problem”?

      Steinfels found that the Pennsylvania report documents “violations of the physical, psychological, and spiritual integrity of children AND young people”–not as you write “sex abuse of young people (pedophilia)”.

      Abuse of young “children” is pedophilia; and the also-noted abuse of “young people” (e.g., the 82 percent in the Jay Report of 2004, consisting of teens) is “homosexuality,” and does not appear to be omitted by either Steinfels or Weigel.

      • No…it is just deemphasized and we lead with the usual charge of “abuse of children” when, in the true order and scope of things, the accurate descritpion would be homosexual predation of teenage boys and, to a lesser extent, girls and some pedophilia.

  2. My last line must be corrected, but that is OK, because it bears repeating: Mr. Wiegel, liberate yourself from talking “McCarrick-speak.”

    • Weigel, I go with Altieri on this one.

      Steinfels does not like the grand jury report perhaps because it is becoming more and more evident that the problem is homosexuality in the priesthood.

      • Not only homosexuality in the priesthood, but amorality in the priesthood that goes right to the top. Now we have a pope who preaches moral relativism. In the seventies and eighties, it was mostly theologians in academia who were moral idiots. Now it’s most everyone with a collar, and even a man with such a fine mind like Weigel has become more interested in calling strong critics of Francis “crazy” rather than address the consequences of moral lunacy at all levels of the Church God entrusted to us.

  3. Chris in Maryland, is the content of George Weigel’s brief article focusing as it does on the service of Steinfel’s review and then rendering a recommendation with regard to the subset of the abuse problem addressed, necessarily mutually exclusive to the legitimate concerns you state? McCarrick wanted to limit any investigation to the abuse of minors and did not want to expand accountability to include bishops, but the proposal on the table doesn’t seem to do that in of itself, albeit it is very much in need of supplemental measures that includes protections for all categories of vulnerable persons (e.g., seminarians, nuns, handicapped adults, etc.). I would be careful about impugning Weigel’s motives without supporting evidence per his full position or something inherent to the structure of his proposal that necessarily denies that there is a homosexual predator problem that the Church needs to address.

    • Dear Faithful Son –

      I did make an explicit effort to be careful not to impugn his motives, by deliberately inserting the phrase “wittingly or unwittingly.”

      Perhaps you are suggesting I might have better just said “I assume unwittingly.” If so, that’s certainly an effective way to write it, and a fair criticism of my comment.

      My point was not to impugn Mr. Wiegel’s motives, which I trust are well intentioned, but rather to have him stop using the ambiguous language confected by ex-Cardinal McCarrick, since by using that language, we remain stuck where the McCarrick establishment intends us to remain.

      We must cease talking with McCarrick’s lexicon, or else we cannot defeat the evil he has wrought for the last 50 years.

      Your friend in Christ


  4. Unfortunately there is no one to take Mr Steinfels to the woodshed. The Pennsylvania Attorney General is a politician; Steinfels and Commonweal are and have always been a propagandist collective. And we all know what Weigel is. What is missing in this story is the unseen extraordinary influence of the hierarchy that was careful to “leave no fingerprints.” Let them spin it as they may the report is “not what it seems”-it’s a lot worse. Courage to by-pass a “revulsion of crimes against children” to woo the leftist elite? I think not.

  5. Also, regarding Mr. Wiegel’s praise of Mr. Steinfels, I have very little knowledge about Mr. Steinfels himself, but I understand he is s Professor Emeritas at Fordham.

    If Prof. Steinfels is a faithful Fordham Catholic like the late Dietrich Hildebrandt or the current philosophy teacher Fr. Koterski, then I am inclined to applaud Mr. Steinfels motives, while disagreeing with his recent counter-attack on the PA District Attorney.

    Which is not to say I trust the motives of the PA Didtrict Attorney…I assume he would gladly ignore sex abuse committed by PA public school teachers, for political reasons.

    But returning to Prof. Steinfels, knowing what we know about the general condition of Fordham, since its 1967 break-away from the Church (Land of Lakes Statement, in which Fordham joined McCarrick when he was Pres. of the U. of Puerto Rico), and the fact that Mr. Steinfels writes for Commonweal, it is far more likely that Mr. Steinfels approves of the post-Catholic trajectory of Fordham, in which case I would also doubt Mr. Steinfels motives, and caution Mr. Wiegel to be careful himself.

  6. George Weigel is the George Will of the American Catholic Church. Vastly over-rated and consistently proven wrong by facts and events.

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