I mentioned recently that the Religion Newswriters Association had voted for the top religion stories of 2009 (featuring Obama in Cairo).
But I haven’t seen anyone weigh in on the top religion story of the decade.
Religion scholar Mark Silk is professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford. And he’s editor of “Religion in the News,” an excellent thrice-yearly journal about media coverage of religion.
On his blog, SpiritualPolitics, Silk (that’s him) names what is clearly—to my mind, at least—the religion story of this unnamed decade:
What was the biggest religion story of the decade? Unquestionably, the story of how American Catholic bishops, aided and abetted by civil authorities and mental health professionals, had systematically covered up the abuse of children by priests. This was big news locally in every Catholic diocese in the country. It became, because the USCCB was forced to confront it, a major national story. And it sparked rolling international coverage that, as this year’s revelations in Ireland attest, continues to play out. Given the breadth and depth of the coverage, I’m prepared to make the case that there has never been as big a religion story in the history of modern journalism—and that given the parlous state of journalism today, we may never see anything on its scale again.
A simple, powerful case.
To my mind, the sex-abuse scandal was one of the most most talked-about stories of the last decade, behind only 9/11, the ongoing war on terror, and the recession.
In 2002 and 2003, people wanted to talk about it wherever I went.
To this day, it comes up in conversation all the time.
Why? Because people can’t believe that it happened, that bishops allowed it to happen.
Silk makes the case that the scandal has been largely forgotten and that the church is anxious to put the whole nasty matter behind it:
But somehow, the entire thing has faded from national consciousness. There was not a peep about it in the NYT’s year-by-year wrap-up of the decade in the Week in Review last Sunday: Nor did Phillip Niemeyer’s Op-Chart, “Picturing the Past 10 Years,” so much as allude to the scandal. When Pope Benedict met with victims of abuse during his visit in 2007, there was appreciation yes, but also a sense that the county was so over that story. A lot more attention was paid to what the pope was wearing—Prada or no Prada? Pedophile priests? Been there, done that.
That’s certainly the vibe coming from the Catholic bishops, who recovered their mojo in the health care debate this year. With the help of a forgetful public, reminders of the late unpleasantness are brushed aside as so much finished business.
Even Silk doesn’t mention the surest proof that the scandal has faded from public consciousness: the lack of media coverage given the demise of the Legionaries of Christ.
In a small nutshell: Pope John Paul II was enamored with the Legionaries, a fast-growing, very traditional Catholic order of priests that was founded in 1941 in Mexico by Marcial Maciel. The pope ignored allegations by about a dozen former seminarians that Maciel had sexually abused them.
In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI publicaly retired Maciel from ministry, without saying why. But it was obvious.
This past February, the Legion itself disclosed that Maciel had fathered children and lived a “double life.” The Vatican is now investigating the order.
The whole story is set out in journalist Jason Berry’s video “Vows of Silence.”
One can argue that the tale of Maciel and the Legionaries is a microcosm of the larger sex-abuse scandal. Allegations of abuse were made and the church—in this case, the POPE—either looked the other way or ignored the evidence. What did he know? When did he know it?
I keep wondering whether the Maciel case will affect John Paul’s otherwise glowing reputation as the late pontiff zooms toward sainthood. It sure seems to be a dark stain on his pontificate. But hardly anyone knows about it.
The religion story of the decade still inspires curiosity, but no more.