On March 25, the Times set off a worldwide firestorm with a front page story that made an incendiary accusation: "Top Vatican officials – including the future Pope Benedict XVI – did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned them that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church, according to church files newly unearthed as part of a lawsuit."
Falsehood upon falsehood – four errors in the first paragraph. First, the case to defrock Father Lawrence Murphy was approved by the "top Vatican officials," was never stopped by anyone in Rome and was ongoing when Murphy died. Second, Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, is not shown in the documents to have taken any decisions in this case. Third, the real villain, aside from Murphy himself, was the compromised former Archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, who had sat on the case for 20 years. Fourth, the files were not "newly unearthed"; a general chronology had been released by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee years ago, and the documents were released by the archdiocese itself.
The New York Times was guilty of egregiously shoddy reporting – or worse – on a story of global implications.
While the case was not new – the priest died in 1998 – the charge landed on front pages around the world, including the National Post, because the Pope was supposedly involved. Within days we learned that the Times was false on the facts, suspect in the sources and reckless in the reporting. All of which the paper had to implicitly concede a week later in an extraordinary rewrite by the same author. So what happened? Were the reporter, Laurie Goodstein, and her editors merely careless, genuinely duped or willing collaborators in an orchestrated smear?
The story did not get the extra scrutiny it deserved. The documents on which the story was based did not support the newsworthy charge against the Pope. After the National Post repeated the charges on our front page on March 26, I read all the documents, posted at the Times website. I wrote a point-by-point rebuttal, which was immediately linked to all over the world and played a contributing role in exposing the Times story. (It can be found now at fatherdesouza.ca)
For those who knew this file, the sources used screamed out for greater scrutiny. The first was Jeffrey Anderson, who gave the documents to Goodstein, a longtime reporter on Vatican affairs who covers the religion beat. Anderson is the most prolific contingency-fee lawyer in suing the Church, from which he has made tens of millions. He has current civil suits pending against the Vatican. It is in his direct financial interest to promote the public perception of complicity by the Pope. That alone should have prompted Goodstein to examine what the documents showed and to inquire of others whether there were other relevant documents that he did not give her. Instead, her story accepted fully the Anderson spin.
The next obvious step would have been to corroborate what was found in the documents. It was subsequently revealed that Goodstein did not even contact the key judicial official in the Murphy case, Father Thomas Brundage. Had she done so she would have learned that the defrocking trial was still ongoing until three days before Murphy's death, when it was stopped by Weakland – undermining the key accusation in her story. After Brundage corrected the record publicly, Goodstein finally interviewed him, five days after her original story appeared.
Within days we learned that the Times was false on the facts, suspect in the sources and reckless in the reporting.
The only other published source for the original story was Archbishop Rembert Weakland, the disgraced former archbishop of Milwaukee. He resigned in 2002 when it was revealed that he had a homosexual affair and then used $450,000 of archdiocesan funds to buy the man's secrecy. Weakland detailed his other clandestine homosexual affairs, his mismanagement of sexual abuse cases and his longtime hostility to Pope Benedict in his 2009 autobiography. Did Goodstein know how discredited Weakland was? She knew, as she wrote a flattering story about the autobiography last year.
So when she approached Weakland for comment on the story, some basic questions might have been in order. She did not ask them. First, why did Weakland, who had jurisdiction over the case since 1977, wait nearly 20 years before moving against him? Second, during the very period the Murphy case was underway, Weakland was negotiating the terms of his former lover's blackmail payoff. Would that not make his comments about transparency and justice somewhat suspect? Third, was there any independent corroboration to support Weakland's own letters? It is possible that bad sources can still provide good information. But did news editors the world over even know enough about the principals in this story to demand extra scrutiny?
As others began to ask those obvious questions, and it became apparent that Goodstein had not asked any of them, she published an extraordinary follow-up story on April 1. This one appeared on page 6, not the front. Gone was the suggestive headline. This one had the banal title: "Events in the Case of an Accused Priest." All of the accusations against the future pope are dropped, the new information from her tardy interview with Brundage is included, Weakland's comments disappear and Jeffrey Anderson is gone altogether.
The April 1 story is for all intents and purposes a correction of the March 25 story. Had it come first, it would not have made the front page on March 25; it likely would not have made the paper at all. The firestorm of the past two weeks would not have occurred.
Remember what the major items on the sexual abuse file were the day before Goodstein's story appeared. On March 20, Pope Benedict had published a blunt letter to Catholics in Ireland, apologizing to victims, lambasting the priest abusers and excoriating the failure of bishops to exercise proper oversight. On March 23, the annual independent audit of American dioceses revealed that in 2009, there were six credible allegations of sexual abuse of minors, in a church of 68 million people – a sign of astonishing progress in stamping out this evil. That was the news before The New York Times decided to make its own.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "The Pope and the press." National Post, (Canada) April 8, 2010.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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