Yesterday, on 9/11, some readers objected to my posting a photo of someone jumping from the top of one of the burning towers. Too graphic, they said. My view is that we sometimes have to display stark images to tell a truth that is hard to grasp. We’ve all seen the planes hitting the buildings countless times. The simple horror of a man jumping to his death spoke eloquently about the pain and terror of that day 11 years ago. At least it did to me, in a way that wasn’t gross or exploitative.
But people have different thresholds for this kind of thing. I was shocked today by images of the body of US ambassador Chris Stevens being carried through the streets of Benghazi. I’m choosing not to link to them, but they’re widely available on the Internet. I don’t think you need to see his dead body to appreciate the horror of what happened to him. Again, though, it’s a judgment call.
I thought about this question again when I read the Catholic artist and blogger Kevin O’Brien’s latest piece about the Bishop Finn and Father Groeschel situations. O’Brien previously disclosed that members of his immediate family have suffered from sexual abuse. In today’s blog, O’Brien gets testy with Catholic interlocutors who accuse him of overreacting on sex abuse. He begins his blog like this:
Content Warning: I get a bit graphic in my last paragraph in bold below. Readers may wish to skip it, especially victims of abuse. I’m trying to point out what this crime really consists of. Sometimes the language needs to match the act so those who don’t understand start to get a clue.
I agree with him here. Back when I was writing regularly about the abuse scandal, it was a source of constant frustration for me how some people would deflect or diminish the seriousness of the acts by euphemizing them away, or by using language that evokes a kind of clinical detachment. Sometimes using this kind of language is necessary and justifiable, but often I found people simply did not grasp the reality of what the abuse scandal entailed. When you would speak in detail about what abusers did to children, some people would freak out. Which was an appropriate response.
Look, for example, at a recent blog post by the popular conservative priest Father Zuhlsdorf, in which he denounces the liberal National Catholic Reporter for its recent editorial calling on Bishop Finn to resign in the wake of his misdemeanor conviction related to a clerical child pornographer. If you read this post, you would never guess that Finn repeatedly protected a priest who took photographs of the genitalia of little girls. When I was a Catholic, I disagreed with nearly everything NCR wrote that wasn’t bylined “John L. Allen, Jr.,” but in this case, the paper is exactly correct, and Zuhlsdorf is hysterically wrong. I was tipped off about the Father Z. entry by one of this blog’s regular readers, a conservative Catholic, who wrote:
He is a conservative, traditional minded priest and I usually enjoy reading him, but I was shocked yesterday to see his attack on NCR due to their call for Finn’s resignation. What shocked me more than anything was the tone of Fr. Z’s post, which implied that bishops should not respond to “whispered allegations” about priests. And yet, the priest in this case had CHILD PORN on his computer. I responded in the comments but he refused to print my response. I initially was sympathetic to Finn but after reading all the facts of the case, I can’t believe that once again a bishop has minimized potential harm to our children. If you have a moment, check out Fr. Z’s post from yesterday about it and see if you are as shocked as I was. If I lived in Kansas City, I would be refusing any more donations to the diocese and would be writing letters to the Apostolic Palace.
I wish I was as shocked as our reader, but at this point, the circle-the-wagons tribalism of that subculture is standard. This is why some people feel it necessary to speak frankly about what happened — to break through the fog put out by the Father Z types who seem to believe that more than anything else, the image of the Church must be preserved and protected.
And yet, there is always the risk that the horrific details can overwhelm one, and cause one to react with unbounded passions. I had to stop reading my friend Lee Podles’s book “Sacrilege,” which is about the scandal. Drawing on legal records, Podles pulled no punches at all. He wrote about what happened to these kids. It was, to me, utterly searing. I couldn’t get through the book. Lee looked into the palantir and wrote what he saw. I looked into the palantir and was nearly undone by it.
And yet, I would not choose to be ignorant of what I learned during all that.
When does graphic imagery or intensely detailed descriptions of something terrible add to our understanding, and when does it make understanding more difficult, because the passions the details evoke override the reason?
It’s hard to get this right.