Authors Greg Erlandson and Matthew Bunson continue the discussion they began in the book from Our Sunday Visitor, Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal. Send us feedback at email@example.com. Kindle Edition available for download at amazon.com.
The CNN Report, “What the Pope Knew,” was as bad as the sneak previews suggested. It was a messy patchwork of ominous music, endless photos of a solemn Pope Benedict, one-sided commentary and truly sad interviews with victims who recounted shameful incidents of abuse and then were coaxed to link them to Pope Benedict.
If mega-lawyer Jeffrey Anderson should have gotten co-authorship rights for his role in The New York Times exposes of last March (as Ken Woodward opined), then he should have been listed as a producer on this show. His documents, his clients and his agenda dominated: And that agenda is simply to lay the groundwork for a legal case against the Vatican.
The CNN special report, reported with particular unctuousness by Gary Tuchman, stitched together several reports of priest abusers to infer that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was somehow guilty of obstruction of justice. At each turn in the story, CNN avoided shedding real light on the incidents, but instead used generalizations and innuendo to suggest that Ratzinger was insensitive to the plight of the victims. For editorial commentary, the report relied heavily on independent journalist David Gibson. Unfortunately, even though Gibson is first quoted as saying that Cardinal Ratzinger is neither hero nor villain, in the rest of the show he seems to tilt rather decisively to the latter.
Perhaps the most obvious example of CNN’s bias was how it concluded its report on the Murphy case (which was already reviewed extensively in this blog). After neglecting to report on the diocesan investigation of Murphy – approved by the Vatican – that had taken place, it suggests that the Vatican had been unduly deferential to Murphy in telling then-Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland to drop the trial and look for another way to remove him from active ministry. The archbishop did the Vatican’s bidding on Aug. 18, the report said, concluding that Murphy would remain a priest “for the rest of his life.” What it did not say explicitly, and what underlined the Vatican’s decision to find a way other than the trial to deal with him, was that Murphy died three days later.
There are many people who should be embarrassed by this show, most particularly Fr. Tom Reese, S.J., who allowed himself to be portrayed as the kind of priest that Cardinal Ratzinger really wanted to pursue rather than pedophiles, an accusation that ignores the cardinal’s track record and his job description, and an inference that cannot be backed up by the facts.
Most compelling about the special were the conversations with the victims. To hear them describe their shame, to see their anger all these years later at what priests did to them, is to be reminded yet again that terrible crimes were done and many lives were damaged, even ruined. That fact no one can deny.
It is unfortunate that, even in the television wasteland of weekend evening cable, CNN did not see fit to make a real contribution to a better understanding of the crisis. It would have helped, for example, if Tuchman had shed light on the Church’s own understanding of canon law regarding ordination, the priesthood and sexual abuse violations.
CNN could also have talked at greater length with bishops like Archbishop Weakland and Bishop John Cummins of Oakland to find out why they found it so hard to supervise abuser priests with the authority they always possessed. And Tuchman might have documented the many changes the Church has made to safeguard children and root out dangerous priests, while putting it all within a larger context: How society has grown in its understanding of the crime of sexual abuse, and how other organizations, like the Church, have been improving their safeguards as well, often looking to the Church for advice on how to do this.
If CNN had been less focused on bolstering a lawyer’s self-serving efforts to build a case and had sought to update the public’s understanding of a scandal, it might have actually performed a service, instead of tarnishing its own fading reputation for solid reporting.
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