Check, recheck and triple check (UPDATED)

Messy check on chalkboard

It appears that ace Vatican reporter John Allen isn’t the only person who noted problems with the New York Times‘ recent attempt to link Pope Benedict XVI to a particularly sickening story of priest abuse.

We looked at Allen’s critique already. The Times said the fact that only 20 percent of abuse cases went to trial was a mark of “inaction” by the office Benedict oversaw when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. But Allen said that most Vatican observers would say that allowing bishops to handle cases instead of sending them all to trial was much more favorable to the victims. Allen summed up his take on the situation in a new op-ed for the Times:

After being elected pope, Benedict made the abuse cases a priority. One of his first acts was to discipline two high-profile clerics against whom sex abuse allegations had been hanging around for decades, but had previously been protected at the highest levels.

He is also the first pope ever to meet with victims of abuse, which he did in the United States and Australia in 2008. He spoke openly about the crisis some five times during his 2008 visit to the United States. And he became the first pope to devote an entire document to the sex-abuse crisis, his pastoral letter to Ireland.

What we are left with are two distinct views of the scandal. The outside world is outraged, rightly, at the church’s decades of ignoring the problem. But those who understand the glacial pace at which change occurs in the Vatican understand that Benedict, admittedly late in the game but more than any other high-ranking official, saw the gravity of the situation and tried to steer a new course.

When I read the original Times story by Laurie Goodstein, it struck me as an attempt to latch onto the European media’s current feeding frenzy on the Pope. The story was about Father Lawrence Murphy’s sexual abuse against deaf children in Wisconsin and all hinged on supposed inaction by then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s office. And many critics are saying it wasn’t well researched. Over at First Things, George Weigel says that the sources used for the story were tainted:

Rembert Weakland is the emeritus archbishop of Milwaukee, notorious for having paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to satisfy the demands of his former male lover. Jeff Anderson is a Minnesota-based attorney who has made a substantial amount of money out of sex abuse “settlements,” and who is party to ongoing litigation intended to bring the resources of the Vatican within the reach of contingency-fee lawyers in the United States. Yet these two utterly implausible–and, in any serious journalistic sense, disqualified–sources were those the Times cited in a story claiming that, as cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [CDF], Joseph Ratzinger, later Benedict XVI, had prevented sanctions against Father Lawrence Murphy, a diabolical Milwaukee priest who, decades before, had abused some 200 deaf children in his pastoral care. This was simply not true, as the legal papers from the Murphy case the Times provided on its Web site demonstrated (see here for a demolition of the Times‘ case based on the documentary evidence it made available). The facts, alas, seem to be of little interest to those whose primary concern is to nail down the narrative of global Catholic criminality, centered in the Vatican.

I disagree that the sources are disqualified. However, Weakland’s resignation under scandal probably should have been disclosed more prominently. And I think his own involvement in a sex scandal means he shouldn’t be relied on so much. As for the attorney, perhaps it would help to discuss his financial interest in the matter but I tend to think that people understand how lawyers are compensated.

But there’s another criticism of the story’s sourcing. Father Thomas Brundage, then-presiding judge for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, presided over the canonical criminal cases involving Father Murphy. You can read his entire statement here but he takes issue with part of the reporting:

With regard to the inaccurate reporting on behalf of the New York Times, the Associated Press, and those that utilized these resources, first of all, I was never contacted by any of these news agencies but they felt free to quote me. Almost all of my quotes are from a document that can be found online with the correspondence between the Holy See and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. In an October 31, 1997 handwritten document, I am quoted as saying ‘odds are that this situation may very well be the most horrendous, number wise, and especially because these are physically challenged, vulnerable people.” Also quoted is this: “Children were approached within the confessional where the question of circumcision began the solicitation.”

The problem with these statements attributed to me is that they were handwritten. The documents were not written by me and do not resemble my handwriting. The syntax is similar to what I might have said but I have no idea who wrote these statements, yet I am credited as stating them. As a college freshman at the Marquette University School of Journalism, we were told to check, recheck, and triple check our quotes if necessary. I was never contacted by anyone on this document, written by an unknown source to me. Discerning truth takes time and it is apparent that the New York Times, the Associated Press and others did not take the time to get the facts correct.

Additionally, in the documentation in a letter from Archbishop Weakland to then-secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone on August 19, 1998, Archbishop Weakland stated that he had instructed me to abate the proceedings against Father Murphy. Father Murphy, however, died two days later and the fact is that on the day that Father Murphy died, he was still the defendant in a church criminal trial. No one seems to be aware of this. Had I been asked to abate this trial, I most certainly would have insisted that an appeal be made to the supreme court of the church, or Pope John Paul II if necessary. That process would have taken months if not longer.

Well that’s an even more effective argument against using Weakland as a source, I guess. (To abate means “to end.”) He goes on to say that he has no reason to believe that Ratzinger was involved “at all” and that the changes made by Ratzinger’s office meant that sexual abuse cases began to be handled “expeditiously, fairly, and with due regard to the rights of all the parties involved.” He notes, like Allen, that Benedict has repeatedly apologized to the victims and instead of blaming him for inaction, he should be credited for being a strong and effective leader.

It sounds like some of the more informed voices on this matter are saying the same thing about then-Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict. That their view is in such contrast to the narrative the Times story promoted does point to problems.

And it’s not just the Times. The Associated Press ran a story about how the mentally unstable man who shot Pope John Paul II believes that Benedict should resign. I’m not entirely certain why that’s newsworthy.

To their credit, sort of, the Associated Press put up an article noting a few of Brundage’s claims. To me, it reads somewhat defensive. And it ignores Brundage’s claims that he wasn’t interviewed in stories that quoted him. Instead, it says he merely “disputed” the attribution of “quotes from documents with his name handwritten at the top”:

He said he didn’t know who wrote those documents or under what context, but he didn’t disagree with any of the information in them.

See! No problem! I always find it interesting how reporters can sort of get whipped up into a frenzy when investigating certain people or organizations but get downright nuanced and meek when looking at problems with journalism.

UPDATE: Father Brundage now says he must have been mistaken about whether or not he was asked to abate.

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  • Michael
  • Julia

    But Allen said that most Vatican observers would say that allowing bishops to handle cases instead of sending them all to trial was much more favorable to the victims.

    Allen meant that priests could be dismissed and laicized when the evidence was overwhelming without having a local or Vatican trial.

    A huge Times error not mentioned here is that Benedict’s department didn’t begin reviewing sex abuse cases until 2001. Those cases were previously sent on appeal directly to the Rota – the Vatican’s Supreme Court, which is now headed by Arbishop Burke. Original trials were local and the Rota was not involved unless there was an appeal. After 2001, all sex abuse files were sent for review to Benedict’s department, which does not have its own court.

    Benedict’s department before 2001 dealt with abuses of the confessional, in addition to its usual subject matter – theology. Abuse of the confessional cases are very tricky to try because everyone involved except the penitent/victim is subject to the seal of confession. That’s why there was correspondence between Milwaukee and the Secretary of that Department.

    Also-if you write a letter to the US State Department, I doubt very much if you will be dealing directly with Hilary Clinton; the same with any other cabinet department. But somehow the fact that Benedict wasn’t personally involved in the correspondence or later meeting in the Milwaukee case is twisted to mean something it isn’t.

    The Times reporter could have found out these elementary facts with a phone call to a canon lawyer. I don’t see any evidence she did that. Instead she relied on US tort lawyers for information on how the Vatican system works.

    A further problem: we have a common law system in the US; the Vatican, like most of Europe, has a civil law system. Why do Americans assume that all countries’ legal systems are just like ours? The Anglo-Saxon model we inherited from England is not followed everywhere. The reporter did not seem to understand that, either.

    Here’s a link to canon lawyer Ed Peters’ explanation of canon law and canon lawyers. This is only one of many sites found by Google. Dr. Peters is very well known in Catholic circles and is only an e-mail or phone call away.

  • Peter

    Isn’t journalism supposed to raise questions, and then let readers decide for themselves based on what they read? The NYT asks questions about Ratzinger’s role, but leaves it to the reader to decide about that role.

    While Allen is well thought of, he’s also criticized for being too much of and insider and that he’s often an apologist for Vatican bureaucracy. His critiques here reflect that by saying it looks bad, but then saying it looks good if you know how poorly things are run inside. Weigel is just reciting tropes and FT boilerplates, so can’t really be taken too seriously.

    Only the former judge raises any serious concerns about the journalism, and he was a pretylty minor player in the story.

  • Karen Vaughan

    In a related article, see the NY Times Pattern of Priestly sexual abuse which implies that the culture of the 60s was responsible for the spike in abuse cases at . While some of the data analysis- by age and type of crime- is interesting, the statistical criticisms in comment 14 by Trepid and further analysis in comment 17 by Pointer show some real ghosts. It also shows how apparently neutral statistical data can be extremely misleading.

  • CV

    Regarding that AP(!) story about a would-be papal assassin’s views on the current pope’s situation, I think this has to be a new low in national reporting. As the WSJ commented:

    Turkey of an Interview

    “The Turkish man who shot Pope John Paul II says Pope Benedict XVI should resign over the Catholic Church’s handling of clerical sex abuse cases,” the Associated Press reports from Ankara:

    ‘Mehmet Ali Agca, who emerged from prison in January nearly 29 years after wounding Pope John Paul II in Rome, has declared himself a messenger from God. Agca told journalists in Istanbul on Monday that “I want the pope to resign not arrested,” as he waved a Turkish newspaper reporting calls for the arrest of the pope. The press conference marked his first public comments since his release. There are questions about Agca’s mental health.’

    So Agca may be clinically insane, “has declared himself a messenger from God” and thus is insane by any everyday definition, and is a murderer (he killed Abdi Ipekçi, a left-wing Turkish journalist, two years before attempting to assassinate the pope).

    Why in the world does the AP or any other news organization think his views on anything are newsworthy?”

    Why, indeed?

  • Peggy

    This NYT report, jumped on by the media pack, is one of the worst cases of journalistic malpractice I’ve seen. No checking of facts. No contact with one of the most reliable sources. The agenda was first and foremost the goal.

    Peter: Journalists are to convey information with some reasonable level of accurately and reliability. Their job is to report the facts. They usually perform due diligence on sources and facts before printing them. A columnist or editorial writer may lay out the facts as well and specifically raise questions for consideration. But in either case, the full set of facts must be presented with some accuracy in order for readers to reach an informed, reason opinion about the subject.

    No apology or correction from the NYT yet, I guess? MoDo’s column piling on was horrendous. Abp. Dolan and Brooklyn bishop DiMazio have spoken out against the NYT false reporting.

  • Jerry

    The AP had a story about the legal process that helps fill out the story. is one online source. I think it’s very important to remember that the Pope is a head of state and attempts to bring him into a lawsuit in the US would open our President to the same process in any foreign country where a suit was followed.

    So if you read someone saying “the Pope should be forced to testify”, it’s a good counterbalance say “so the President would also be forced to testify in, say, Sri Lanka?

  • Peter

    The moment Dolan and DiMazio are happy with a scandal story is the moment we should be concerned about the credibility of the reporting. Go back and review the criticism of the Boston Globes work on the scandal. It’s the same script

  • Martha

    “I always find it interesting how reporters can sort of get whipped up into a frenzy when investigating certain people or organizations but get downright nuanced and meek when looking at problems with journalism.”

    But Mollie, we all know that the Free Press has been endowed with the charism of infallibility when speaking ex cathedra; it says it right there in the First Amendment to your Constitution :-)

  • dalea

    This is incredibly confusing. What does the canon law have to do with US criminal law? Is the practice in place here that when confronted with a situation a US citizen has a choice of legal systems? Facing what in the US is a crime, can a US citizen elect to turn the entire matter over to the Vatican’s canon law and ignore any obligations to the US legal system? The coverage completely looses me. My understanding would be that while canon law may be a totally nice thing, it has no bearing and absolutely no effect on the obligations US citizens have to report crimes. The coverage here is not very helpful.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    In South Hadley Mass. a girl hung herself because of all the vicious bullying in the public high school of her that had been going on for months. And noone in responsible authority -from teacher,to librarian, to principal, to superintendant– did anything about it even though they all apparently knew the brutalization she was receiving.
    The DA has investigated and decided none of those in authority can be prosecuted for anything even though this state supposedly has a mandatory reporting law for such situations.
    Nor, apparently, can those in responsible authority be fired.
    And, though the teen-age bullys who drove the girl to her death are being prosecuted –they are properly still considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law and WILL BE treated as such until a long drawn out procedure settles their guilt or innocence. Meanwhile they are entitled to be in school (unless the liberal law along these lines has changed lately).
    Local radio talk shows have been deluged with people, young and old, telling of their experiences of being brutalized in public school, nothing done– one even claimed his parents, not the bullys, were threatened with arrest if they kept him out of school. Another parent found out his daughter was being brutalized–after she attempted suicide–and the school had known of her plight.
    As for sueing–forget it–not enough money to interest the lawsuit lawyers–state law gives a lot of protection to the public schools-no matter how horrendous the situation.
    After the South Hadley case dies down will the media carry on a deserved crusade against what goes on in many public schools the way it is now crusading against the Catholic Church without too much regard for accuracy??? No one should hold their breath.

  • Julia

    For what it’s worth, here is a statement from the current head of the Vatican department that Benedict headed at the time of the Milwaukee events described in the NYT article.

    It helps that he’s an American and can describe the situation in terms that Americans can better understand than the usual statements from the Vatican.

  • Dan

    Further to Deacon John’s point, the public schools have a current, unaddressed problem with sex abuse whereas the present hoopla concerns what happened in the Church decades ago. Does anyone even know if the European film industry restricted Roman Polanksi from working with child actresses after he was convicted of raping a minor? No one knows because no one cares how many kids were put at risk with him. What does it matter when Chinatown was such a good film?

    Another irony is that the root of the problem is very likely all the cultural change of which the NYT is such a fervent champion: the culture that derives from ideologies that advocate free love, abortion on demand, and all the rest. The rise in the rate of the incidence of sex abuse by Catholic priests coincides exactly with the influx into the Church, under the guise of “reform” purportedly authorized by Vatican II, of the foreign (to the Church) ideologies of which the NYT is so fond.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Isn’t journalism supposed to raise questions, and then let readers decide for themselves based on what they read?

    Maybe. Partially.

    But if the answer to a question is available, it is also not the journalist’s job to hide the ball. If the question is purely a matter of opinion, of course, it is different. And of course, the journalistic standards of accuracy and thoroughness are still to be observed in such a situation

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    A part of the media that gets short shrift from the liberal educated elite is talk radio (too conservative for those of liberal persuasion, I suppose. It’s only the peasants voicing their ignorance to even more ignorant hosts.)
    However, tonight I was listening to a Boston radio station that is all over this South Hadley story and reminders kept coming up. Reminders from the time period when the situation was the worst in the Church for silence. Reminders of “The Blue Wall of Silence” in virtually all police departments. Reminders of how mistakes in hospital operating rooms were covered over as “Doctors Bury Their Mistakes” and noone in the operating room “rats” them out. Reminders how public school culture was against “telling stories out of school” about anything unseemly there.
    And yet to read the news media of the last few years you would think only the Church had a “silence” problem.
    Of course, the Church should have been better than the culture of the period that was so bad. And now the Church is the scapegoat for that era in the media even as more and more factual evidence comes out that it was Cardinal Ratzinger who was the prime force behind speeding up removal of rotten priests. Cardinal Mahoney just published a blog telling how every bit of help he needed to get rid of his bad apples was quickly forthcoming in every case once Ratzinger was in charge in Rome speeding up every procedure he could within the paramaters of justice to accused priests.
    And, of course the media hits at and attacks against Christianity or specific churches all seem to coincidentally come to a head at Christmastime or Easter season. It is hard to believe there is not a deep well of bigotry behind all these “coincidences” over the years.

  • Kevin J Jones

    One of the most disturbing examples of poor reporting came with the presentation of Pope Benedict’s Palm Sunday address as if it were a response to the allegations specifically. The stories pushing the “pope not intimidated by petty gossip” theme were based on a poor synthesis of the original.

    Here’s the source:

    But this external rout is above all an image of the interior movement of existence, which occurs in the following of Christ: It is an ascent to the true height of being human. Man can choose an easy path and avoid all toil. He can also descend to what is lower. He can sink into lies and dishonesty. Jesus goes ahead of us, and he goes up to what is above. He leads us to what is great, pure, he leads us to the healthy air of the heights: to life according to truth; to the courage that does not let itself be intimidated by the gossip* of dominant opinions; to the patience that stands up for and supports the other. He leads us to availability to the suffering, to the abandoned; to the loyalty that stands with the other even when the situation makes it difficult.

    And here’s how Reuters reported it:

    While he did not directly mention the scandal involving sexual abuse of children by priests, parts of his sermon could be applicable to the crisis he and the Roman Catholic Church are facing.

    The pontiff said faith in God helps lead one ‘toward the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion.’

    “Parts of his sermon could be applicable to the crisis,” the Reuters article said. The article was titled “Pope signals won’t be intimidated by abuse critics.”

    But readers don’t catch on that Reuters was claiming to interpret “signals” about something Pope Benedict “did not directly mention.”

    Now media outlets are asking those poor victims of sexual abuse how they feel about the Pope’s comments, as spun by Reuters.

    NBC News said the supposed phrase “stunned” Boston victim Gary Bergeron, who responded:

    “‘Intimidation’ is what we felt decades ago, as we started coming forward.’Petty Gossip’ is what our claims were called.”

    So thanks to the media, a victim of sexual abuse now suspects the Pope is uncaring and intransigent because of a synthesized phrase that didn’t even address the issue.

  • Suzanne

    Responding to Dan’s point: We actually don’t know whether the rise in sexual abuse reports corresponded to an actual increase in sexual abuse occurrences. It’s possible that people were simply more willing to break the silence than they had been in generations past.

  • Passing By

    Assuming no one will read this comment to the end, let me start by praising the New York Times for publishing John Allen’s op ed. It doesn’t make up for the Goodstein propaganda or Dowd’s shrill screed. But it’s nice. And it’s worth noting that Allen is hardly a Vatican groupie. He has routinely taken a critical stance and a superior tone.

    Isn’t journalism supposed to raise questions, and then let readers decide for themselves based on what they read?

    Yes. And by that definition, Goodstein’s article was very poor journalism indeed. She presented selected information from biased sources which led readers, by the nose, to a pre-ordained conclusion. That’s quite the opposite of “raising questions”.

    RE: #10 – the reason we are discussing canon law is that the civil legal system did nothing time after time. In the case of Father Lawrence Murphy, particular, the police were notified and did not file charges. It was the Church that put him out to pasture for 20 years and upon learning that he wasn’t completely incapacitated, pursued the matter further.

    Here’s another deconstruction of the Murphy case from the other NCR.

    A passing thought: we are talking about “raising questions”, is there anyone questioning (in the Murphy case and others) whether what is being sought is justice or vengeance?

    I’m sorry, but I can’t pass by without inserting this about Rembert Weakland, one of the sorriest excuses for a human being to ever have any sort of leadership role in any institution. It’s from Wikipedia, but I remember when it was current, and more than this:

    In 1984, Weakland responded to teachers in a Catholic school who were reporting sexual abuse by a local priests by stating “any libelous material found in your letter will be scrutinized carefully by our lawyers.” The Wisconsin Court of Appeals rebuked him for this, calling his remarks “abrupt” and “insensitive.”[6] In 1994, Weakland said those reporting sexual abuse were “squealing.” He later apologized for the remarks.[6]
    According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a deposition released in 2009 reveals that Weakland shredded reports about sexual abuse by priests.[7]

    The notion that a “journalist”, or even real anti-Catholic bigots could give this creature credence is too much to believe. I suppose it depends on what you want to thing.

  • Doug Sirman

    JPII-Fanboy, Maciel-Apologist & slanderer of Maciel victims, George Weigel, manages NOT to mention JPII even once when talking about past responsibility. The man has NO integrity.

  • CV


    Your confusion simply further illustrates the deficiencies in the NYT’s original reporting on this.

    In the sad case of the Milwaukee deaf children who were abused by the now deceased priest at the center of the scandal, the civil authorities WERE informed and did not bring charges against the priest.

    This latest controversy turns on whether or not the Vatican (and then-Cardinal Ratzinger) made the right decision in declining to “defrock” the priest–which required a lengthy canonical legal process–since the man was literally weeks away from death (he died just a short time later). When you read the facts of the case, I think it’s a completely defensible decision.

    If Goodstein had actually interviewed the Church judge in the case, instead of relying on biased sources such as the pathetic and disgraced former Milwaukee bishop (Rembert Weakland) who IMO bears the bulk of the responsibility, we might actually know what the hell actually happened.

    There is an abundance of accurate information out there (such as Archbishop Levada’s recent detailed statement) but of course it will languish in the Catholic ghetto while we’re all treated to more ill-informed Maureen Dowd columns (yes she wrote a second one, just as bad as the first).

    Beyond whether or not this reflects anti-Catholic bigotry, are basic standards of journalism too much to hope for from the NYT these days?

  • Peter

    Mollie, it appears you need to issue a clarification. It appears Brundage, who scolded the NYT and others for failing to “check, recheck, and triple check our quotes” and not Discerning truth” needs to take his own advice. He was never quoted in the NYT story, as he now admits.

    Father Brundage, who is now working in the Archdiocese of Anchorage, posted an essay this week saying he was never informed that the trial of Father Murphy had been halted.

    He also said that he had been misquoted in both The New York Times and The Associated Press. In an interview on Wednesday, Father Brundage acknowledged that he had never been quoted in any Times articles about the Murphy case — and the paper did not misquote him. He said he was misquoted in an Associated Press article that was posted temporarily on the Times Web site, and he mistakenly attributed that to The Times.

  • Mollie


    It’s funny, but the only evidence I could find of the New York Times publishing a story about Brundage was from an AP story I found on the Times web site.

    I looked for other evidence but didn’t find any.

    However, the Times still ran the AP story — and if it was “temporarily” up there, it was still up when I wrote the note the other day.

    So while I think it’s an important distinction, I’m not sure how much it matters to readers of the Times. I mean, even reporters such as myself don’t always check bylines . . .

    More than anything, though, I don’t think anyone has adequately explained (or even attempted to explain?) relying on discredited sources such as Weakland without talking to key players such as Brundage.

  • Mollie

    Incidentally, I looked at Goodstein’s handling of the Brundage charge here. I think she handled it well.

  • pharmer

    It’s refreshing to see real journalists outside of the mainstream press, who are actually attempting to dig up the facts. These are the ones I link up on my personal site.

    A note about the timing of this latest media blitz against Pope Benedict. He’s apparently being punished with “news” of old cases because he opposed Obamacare (for ethical reasons) and directed the USCCB to do the same.

    Expect reprisals if you stand against this U.S. administration.

  • pharmer

    Apology and correction regarding my website link.