The controversy over Pope Benedict XVI’s handling of clergy sex abuse is a classic example of the clash of two profoundly different cultures — the culture of contemporary secular journalism and the culture of ecclesiastical bureaucracy at the highest level of the Church. It illustrates the harm that comes from miscommunication or no communication between them.
Two questions are unavoidable here. Are the media anti-Catholic? Is the Church anti-media? But to understand fully what’s happened, a third factor — arguably more important than either of these — must be taken into account: the deeply rooted mutual incomprehension commonly existing between journalists and high-ranking churchmen.
Time and again incomprehension has been central to the blunders and hostilities that mark recent events.
On the side of the media, much of that involves assuming a degree of papal knowledge and control of local personalities and events that not even popes of the high Middle Ages presumed to claim. Especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the idea of “collegiality” — although imperfectly realized — has dominated the relationship between the pope and local bishops. The result is an approach to governance stressing the autonomy of local authorities.
On the side of the Church, lack of understanding seems to arise especially from failure to comprehend the mind-set of professional journalists.
It’s a fundamental tenet of journalistic ethics that reporters should approach the situations and people they cover with open minds. That includes minds open to the possibility that the people they’re dealing with have done or are doing something wrong, and aren’t telling the truth.
The result is a built-in leaning toward skepticism that, largely for historical reasons, is especially strong when the people in question are officials of a large institution like the government or the military — or the Catholic Church. Among American journalists, a definitive turning point was the Watergate experience of the early 1970s, which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation and jail terms for several White House staff.
Loyal Catholics may find this attitude shocking and offensive when it leads journalists to be suspicious even of the pope. Unfortunately, official cover-ups of clergy sex abuse in the past provide plenty of evidence to support it. Moreover, skepticism is an important part of how journalists are trained to think and, as they see it, indispensable to doing their job in the public interest.
That doesn’t rule out anti-Catholicism on the part of media professionals. But it argues against hanging the anti-Catholic label on all of them simply because being skeptics is part of their job.
Setting the stage
The facts of the recent controversy are part of the public record and needn’t be spelled out in detail here. The stage for the latest trouble was set last year by the appearance of an official report detailing shocking abuse in the past in Irish residential schools operated by Catholic religious orders.
There was more shock later last year in another official report spelling out the scope of clergy sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin. Public anger and media frenzy were further heightened by new disclosures of old abuse in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and some other countries.
The Church was left reeling in a way familiar to American Catholics from what happened in 2002 when, starting in Boston and spreading across the country, disclosures of clergy abuse and official cover-up were in the news for weeks.
In response to the new flare-up, Pope Benedict summoned the bishops of the hardest hit country, Ireland, to Rome for what amounted to an official scolding. Several Irish bishops resigned, and the pope dispatched a hard-hitting letter to the Church in Ireland combining criticism of ecclesiastical leadership with encouragement.
While all this was happening, another lurid scandal in the life of the Church was unfolding — new revelations regarding the sordid hidden life of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ. Father Maciel, who died in 2008 at the age of 87, is now known to have sexually abused seminarians and fathered one or more children.
Acting on orders from Pope Benedict, a five-member international team of bishops last year carried out an official investigation of the Legionaries. After meeting with the investigators, the pope announced May 1 that he would appoint an apostolic delegate to oversee the order’s reform and restructuring.
Laying the blame
As this overview suggests, efforts by the pope to deal with this crisis inevitably drew attention to the Vatican in general and, especially, to him. Some criticism of the pope, whether reasonable or not, was inevitable in the circumstances. But the form this criticism took was unexpected, even astonishing.
Leading the charge was The New York Times. That deserves emphasis because of the Times’ role as the most important newspaper in the United States and, very likely, in the entire world. Its importance comes not simply from its coverage and commentary, but from its influence on other news organizations, print and broadcast, that take their lead from the Times on what stories to cover and how to cover them.
On March 25 the newspaper published a story — written by Laurie Goodstein, a veteran reporter on religious affairs, and accompanied by extensive documentation — about a deceased Milwaukee archdiocesan priest, Father Lawrence Murphy, believed to have sexually abused some 200 boys at a school for the deaf where he was chaplain from 1950 to 1974.
Twenty years later, the archdiocese launched an ecclesiastical trial aimed at removing him from the priesthood, but, in view of the lapse of time and the priest’s failing health, the trial got scant encouragement from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI. It was halted by the archdiocese in 1998, a few days before the priest died.
The Times’ principal source was Jeffrey Anderson, an attorney who has made millions representing abuse victims in legal actions against the Church and is now attempting to bring the pope into court to answer for his supposed misdeeds.
What the record mainly showed, however, was that officials in two Wisconsin dioceses, as well as the civil authorities, looked the other way for two decades before action was finally taken in the Murphy case. But the implication was that Pope Benedict was somehow responsible.
The New York Times broke the Murphy story, but other media then rushed to seize it and run with it. Hints and allegations came tumbling out — in the pages of the Times and elsewhere — regarding supposed derelictions of duty by Pope Benedict.
Of the two cases involved, one came up in the Archdiocese of Munich, Germany, while he was archbishop. In 1980, a priest there undergoing psychiatric treatment for child molestation was given a parish assignment — a blunder for which the former vicar general of the archdiocese has taken responsibility.
The other case occurred in 1985 in the Diocese of Oakland, Calif., where diocesan authorities delayed for years before doing anything about an abusive priest. In both cases the pope was being held to account for other people’s mistakes, but media eagerness to hang something on him had by then reached fever pitch.
Was this because of anti-Catholicism? If The New York Times was not being anti-Catholic, its obsessive reporting succeeded in conveying that impression to many people. It didn’t help that the newspaper’s top editor, Bill Keller, has described himself as a “collapsed Catholic.”
Clark Hoyt, the Times’ public editor — in effect, ombudsman — rejected the accusation of bias. In an April 24 column titled “Questioning the Pope,” he wrote: “Painful though it may be, the paper has an obligation to follow the story where it leads, even to the pope’s door.” But that raised an interesting question in some minds: As the Washington Post in 1974 brought down a president over Watergate, did The New York Times now dream of bringing down a pope over sex abuse?
Meanwhile, along with other American media, the Post, generally ranked No. 2 or 3 among U.S. newspapers, was playing catch-up on the pope story. Soon sloppy journalism in its pages redounded to the disadvantage of the Church.
In a Good Friday homily, with Pope Benedict present, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the Vatican’s official papal preacher, preached a sermon in St. Peter’s likening the pounding the Holy See was the taking to the Holocaust. Comparing the Vatican’s embarrassment to the killing of 6 million Jews was plainly ludicrous, and many Jews were predictably offended.
Next day the lead story on Page One of the Post reported the priest’s remarks and the critical reactions to it. The story intimated that Father Cantalamessa spoke for the pope.
Significantly, the Post, like other American newspapers and print media, is in an ongoing financial crisis that has resulted in a decline in the scope and quality of its news coverage. (It is symptomatic that The Washington Post Co. is currently attempting to sell Newsweek magazine, which it has owned since 1961.) The Post doesn’t have a bureau in Rome — in fact, for monetary reasons, it has even closed its bureaus in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Thus it cobbled together its Page One Father Cantalamessa story from wire service dispatches instead of its own reporting.
To people familiar with the Vatican, the newspaper’s handling of the story bordered on absurd. The papal preacher’s position, while a high-visibility one, has no bearing on policy matters. In no way is he a papal insider. To suppose he spoke for the pope on this occasion was a flight of fantasy.
A journalist at the Post, hearing these criticisms, agreed that the paper had given the story more attention than it deserved, but insisted this wasn’t all the Post’s fault:
“It’s just not clear to the typical person what the Vatican is doing, often, and thus it leaves people open to debates like: Is this some random guy who gave a talk and no one cares? Or is that ridiculously naïve; this is a guy speaking on Good Friday in the most prominent church in the world in front of the pope! Maybe they’re sending out a lower level guy to make an argument and see if it sticks.”
Media relations missteps
If the incident showed ignorance at a major newspaper, it also illustrated self-defeating failings at the Vatican. In truth, the Holy See does a consistently mediocre-to-bad job of explaining itself. And its failure to understand and practice crisis management when needed is lamentable.
In many large institutions and organizations, the onset of a crisis like this one would have been recognized early and someone would have been put in charge of handling it. Staff people — like Father Cantalamessa — would have been told not to sound off, or get their remarks cleared before they did.
“We are not a multinational corporation,” a Vatican source huffed in response to that suggestion. True enough. But the Vatican does well to adopt sensible management procedures from whatever source.
One obvious communication step to take immediately after the March 25 story in The New York Times would have been to assemble and publish a calm, clear, detailed and unassailably factual account of what the pope actually did in the Father Murphy case in Milwaukee.
Instead, the day after the story broke, an unsigned front-page article in L’Osservatore Romano contained this diatribe: “The prevailing tendency in the media is to ignore the facts and to strain interpretations, with the aim of depicting the Catholic Church as the only institution responsible for sexual abuse.”
Although Cardinal William Levada, the American now heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a more temperate protest concerning the “attack mode” of The New York Times, the Vatican newspaper’s overheated comment set the tone for much that followed. That included Father Cantalamessa’s ill-considered remark and a disparaging reference on Easter to “petty gossip of the moment” by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, former Vatican secretary of state who is now dean of the College of Cardinals.
Reducing the blunders
As the media firestorm raged and the Vatican’s response improved only slowly, the world was treated to a display of something observers of the Holy See have long understood: The communication structures and procedures of the Vatican need top-to-bottom review and revision.
One conspicuous problem concerns the Vatican Press Office, the Sala Stampa. Its director, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, is universally acknowledged to be a decent, hardworking and competent man. Unfortunately, he has too many jobs, including the directorship of Vatican Radio along with the press office.
Worse still, by Father Lombardi’s own admission, the pope rarely talks to him. Instead, he gets his instructions from the Secretariat of State, the super-office responsible for coordinating other Vatican offices. Especially in a crisis, it’s inviting trouble for the media spokesman to be so badly out of the loop.
As for the rest of the Vatican communication apparatus, L’Osservatore Romano also reports to the Secretariat of State and sometimes appears to be operating on its own wavelength.
And the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, despite its grand title and an international body of consultors with media experience, has virtually no say in the Holy See’s media relations.
As a result, the Vatican’s message was confused, with high-ranking personages communicating mainly anger and defensiveness. Efforts to defend the pope were often more rhetorical than factual. Obvious things like compiling a chronology of steps taken by the Vatican and the pope never got done. The painful irony is that in the Father Maciel case, as well as in regard to sex abuse generally, Cardinal Ratzinger was one of the first in the Vatican to grasp the seriousness of the abuse problem and try to do something about it.
Necessary though it is, reforming Vatican communication structures and procedures wouldn’t solve all the problems so apparent in this episode, including the tendency of curial officials and others to cite media anti-Catholicism as their chief defense. Anti-Catholicism in media there certainly was and is, but too much reliance on this line permits those who use it to paint themselves as victims instead of correcting their mistakes.
In the end, the Church and most secular media really do stand on opposite sides of a great gulf — often called “culture war” — focusing on fundamentals of belief and value. That won’t change even if the Church, starting with the Vatican, does acquire more understanding of the media world and more skill in dealing with it. But doing that would reduce the number of blunders on both sides and help win the Church a fairer hearing than it now often gets.
At least it’s worth trying.
Russell Shaw, an OSV contributing editor, is the former spokesman for the U.S. bishops and a current consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
Timeline of recent events (sidebar)
Murphy Report on the handling of sex abuse claims in the Archdiocese of Dublin concluded that Church leaders were more interested in “the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church and the preservation of its assets” than in the protection of victims. Several Irish bishops offered to resign.
Pope summoned Irish bishops to Vatican for summit on sex abuse scandal and urged them to work together to bring healing to victims of abuse and to restore the credibility of the Irish Church.
German bishops apologized for sex abuse in Church schools and opened hotline for victims. On March 12, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg (above), met with pope to discuss scandal.
Vatican released Pope Benedict’s letter to Irish Catholics, in which he apologized to victims of clergy sex abuse and called for a yearlong period of penance with the intention of strengthening the Irish Church.
The New York Times publishes a story about Milwaukee archdiocesan priest Father Lawrence Murphy, who was accused of molesting deaf children from 1950 to 1974, that implied Pope Benedict XVI did not take proper action on the case when it came before Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the 1990s.
The New York Times reported that Pope Benedict, as archbishop of Munich in 1980, was copied on a memo about the return to pastoral work of a suspected priest abuser. In response, Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi told the media that the archdiocese confirmed that the pope had no knowledge about the decision to reassign the priest.
In his Good Friday sermon, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, compared the media firestorm surrounding the Vatican with violence against Jews and “the most shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.” He later apologized for his remarks.
The Associated Press reported that in 1985 then-Cardinal Ratzinger resisted the Diocese of Oakland’s pleas to laicize Father Stephen Kiesle. Vatican officials responded that, at the time, he had no authority to impose dismissal from the priesthood as a penalty for sex abuse and that, again at that time, removal from ministry was the responsibility of local Church officials, not the Vatican.
Pope Benedict met privately with sex abuse victims in Malta and promised that the Church was doing all it could to combat abuse.
During his flight to Portugal, the pontiff addressed the sex abuse crisis, saying: “Among the new things that we can discover today in this message is that attacks on the pope and the Church come not only from the outside, but the suffering of the Church comes from inside the Church, from sins that exist inside the Church. This, too, we have always known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way, that the biggest persecution of the Church doesn’t come from the enemies outside but is born from sin inside the Church.”