Clergy Sex Abuse, Intolerable; E. Coli, Less So

October 9, 2009 at 9:57 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I became aware of the legal battle between the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport and the New York Times and several other prominent newspapers in September when I spoke about my book, Tracing the Sign of the Cross,  at a meeting of the lay Catholic group Voice of the Faithful in the Diocese of Bridgeport. The group was unexpectedly enthusiastic about my presentation, for which I was grateful.

Over dinner the group’s leaders filled me in on the diocese’s seven year fight to keep sealed its records about the transfer of priests accused of sex abuse. The diocese’s argument is that releasing these documents would violate defendants’ constitutional rights as well as the church’s First Amendment rights against civil interference.

On Tuesday, the Times  reported that the US Supreme Court had declined to delay the release of these documents ordered by a lower court. It also said that this refusal to delay releasing the documents suggests that the court will also refuse to review the decision, giving the newspapers (and others) access at long last.

My first thought when informed about the years of litigation in this case is that the diocese’s actions here undercut former America editor Tom Reese’s observation that massive financial settlements with sex abuse victims would take money away from badly needed church programs for the poor. Here, I thought, it was diocesan refusal to release documents and subsequent endless appeals that were taking money away from church programs for the poor. (This may be mitigated by the fact that the legal work is being done pro bono by attorneys who lived in the diocese.)

I was reminded of this court fight between the Diocese and the newspapers when I read in last Sunday’s Times  an article on a seemingly unrelated topic, the flaws in the US ground beef inspection system that resulted in the paralysis of Stephanie Smith, a 22 year old children’s dance instructor in Minnesota.

The immediate cause of Smith’s paralysis is a virulent strain of E Coli called O157:H7, which sickens tens of thousands of Americans annually. Most of those stricken with this and other strains of E.Coli recover, but about 10% of these cases “develop into a condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can affect kidney function,” and, “in the worst cases, like Ms. Smith’s, the toxin O157:H7 penetrates the colon wall, damaging blood vessels and causing clots that can lead to seizures.” 

The article, which is quite lengthy, details the aspects of ground beef production that lead to E. coli contamination. But what really grabbed my attention were similarities between the actions of the corporation who distributed the ground beef that caused Ms. Smith’s paralysis (as well as those of the US Department of Agriculture) and the actions  of the Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport:

“Cargill…declined requests to interview company officials or visit its facilities…

“The meat industry treats much of its practices and the ingredients in ground beef as trade secrets. While the Department of Agriculture has inspectors posted in plants and has access to production records, it also guards these secrets. Federal records released by the department through the Freedom of Information Act blacked out details of Cargill’s grinding operation that could be learned only through copies of the documents obtained from other sources. Those documents illustrate the restrained approach to enforcement by a department whose missions include ensuring meat safety and promoting agriculture markets.”

Or, as an administrator in the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service observed, “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health.”

Admittedly, the Times pursued this story with the same tenacity it pursued the records of the Diocese of Bridgeport. But the discussion of the harm done to victims of E. coli in the Times article is vastly more nuanced—with some seriously harmed and others less so—than any discussion of harm done to clergy sex abuse victims that I have ever encountered. And are any of us Catholics—or anybody else for that matter—rushing to form a group called “Voice of Those Paralyzed or on Dialysis from E. Coli”? I think not. Sex abuse is a whole lot more galvanizing.

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