CNN's missed opportunity

The CNN special report “What the Pope Knew,” which aired Sept. 25-26, was as bad as the sneak previews suggested. It was a messy patchwork of ominous music, endless photos of a solemn Pope Benedict XVI, 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 deserved co-authorship rights for his role in The New York Times exposés 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, was warmed-over reporting from months ago done much more thoroughly by the Times and others. It stitched together several reports of priest abusers to imply that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) was somehow guilty of obstruction of justice. At each turn in the story, CNN avoided shedding real light on the incidents, but rather used generalizations and innuendo to suggest that Cardinal Ratzinger was insensitive to the plight of victims. 

For editorial commentary, the report relied heavily on independent journalist David Gibson. Unfortunately, even though he 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 Father Lawrence Murphy case. It downplays the Vatican’s support of a very belated diocesan investigation of the abuser priest, and suggests that the Vatican had been unduly deferential to Father Murphy in telling then-Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland to drop the trial and look for another way to remove him from active ministry because he was ill. The archbishop did so on Aug. 18, 1998, the report said, concluding that Father Murphy would remain a priest “for the rest of his life.” What it did not say explicitly, and what underlined the Vatican’s decision, was that the priest died three days later. 

There are many people who should be embarrassed by this show, most particularly Jesuit Father Tom Reese, who resigned as editor of America magazine after Pope Benedict was elected. Did he know that CNN would portray him 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 implication that cannot be backed up by the facts? 

It is unfortunate that 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 to find out why they found it so hard to supervise abuser priests with the authority they always possessed. And it might have documented the changes the Church has made to safeguard children and root out dangerous priests, while putting it all within a larger context of a society where one out of every four girls and one out of every five boys is likely to be abused.  

If CNN 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. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher, and co-author of “Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis” (OSV, $12.95).