A tendentious hatchet job?

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he leads a mass during his pastoral visit to Sulmona, central Italy, July 4, 2010. REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito (ITALY - Tags: RELIGION)

Happy Independence Day! On Friday, we looked at the 4,000-word New York Times attack against Pope Benedict XVI. Much of the story was a good exploration of the complexity of Vatican canon law that contributed to difficulties in quickly resolving some of the sex abuse crisis. But much of it — including the first breathless paragraphs — was blatant editorializing against Benedict without substantiation. I came out strong against it because it was a deeply unfair piece that argued against where its own reporting led. I thought it would be interesting to review how the piece was being received in other quarters.

Over at the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters wrote in “Contra the NY Times“:

This morning’s New York Times “expose” regarding then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s role in the Vatican’s response to the clergy sex abuse crisis exposes more than it intended. It exposes the fact that the authors, Laurie Goodstein and David Halbfinger, and their editors, do not understand what they are talking about and, at times, put forward such an unrelentingly tendentious report, it is difficult to attribute it to anything less than animus.

NCR is certainly not a bastion of traditionalism, for what it’s worth.

I wondered how those quoted in the article felt about it considering that their quotes were largely supportive of the Pope while the article was so brutally anti-Benedict. I’ve only seen one of the sources speak out and he was not pleased. Ignatius Press founder and editor, Father Joseph Fessio, called the article a “masterpiece of topsyturvydom“:

Great theme: the bishops wanted to do more but were handcuffed by the Vatican’s–and Ratzinger’s–in action. That’s a wonderful storyline which is a masterpiece of topsyturvydom.

One question can cut through it all: You are a bishop, say in 1980, and you find one of your priests has been abusing little boys. What do you do? Nothing whatever prevents you from removing that priest from ministry, disciplining him, and reporting him to civil authorities. All talk about “arcane canonical processes”, “complicated and overlapping jurisdictions”, is simply beside the point.

And if one needed any indication of the mindset of the NYT, the beginning of this sentence would provide it: “As Father Gauthe was being prosecuted in Louisiana, Cardinal Ratzinger was publicly disciplining priests in Brazil and Peru for preaching that the church should work to empower the poor and oppressed,…”

First Things was one of many to use the t-word in its article How Do You Spell Tendentious? They also referred to it as a “hatchet job”:

I could go on, but it would be tedious. It’s almost always tedious to refute tendentious reporting.

In any event the article ends up refuting itself, because the various bishops closely involved in the Vatican’s admittedly inadequate responses to the sexual-abuse crisis uniformly praise Ratzinger. Australia’s Archbishop Wilson is typical. After the 2000 meeting, he reported: “I felt, this guy gets it, he’s understanding the situation we’re facing. At long last, we’ll be able to move forward.”

Catholic World News had a substantive critique on how the article handled the Crimen sollicitationis issue. And Phil Lawler critiqued the piece generally. Here are the first and last paragraphs, also at the Catholic World News website:

Today’s New York Times, with another front-page attack on Pope Benedict XVI, erases any possible doubt that America’s most influential newspaper has declared an editorial jihad against this pontificate. Abandoning any sense of editorial balance, journalistic integrity, or even elementary logic, the Times looses a 4,000-word barrage against the Pope: an indictment that is not supported even by the content of this appalling story. Apparently the editors are relying on sheer volume of words, and repetition of ugly details, to substitute for logical argumentation. …

The Times story, despite its flagrant bias and distortion, actually contains the evidence to dismiss the complaint. Unfortunately, the damage has already done before the truth comes out: that even a decade ago the future Pope Benedict was the solution, not part of the problem.

Rod Dreher, over at Beliefnet, is known for his criticism of the church’s handling of the sex abuse problem. Still, he thought the article did a disservice to readers:

This is incredibly unfair, even tendentious, designed to lead the reader to the conclusion that Ratzinger busied himself being “God’s Rottweiler,” as his enemies have called him, attacking favorite causes of liberals, while letting abused children hang. My longtime readers know that I have not hesitated to criticize Benedict over his handling of the scandal, when I thought that criticism was warranted. It’s hard for me to conclude, though, that this massive Times story today is meant as much more than an unfair, and ideologically-driven, attack on the Pope.

Did anyone else weigh in? I tried to find a substantive defense of the article but I couldn’t even find much in the way of any defense, much less anything in response to the criticisms you read above. This comment in the thread of our previous discussion was about the best I could find. Have you seen anything defending the piece on the merits or did it just land with a thud?

What do you think the net effect of this piece will be, both in terms of public opinion about Pope Benedict and the credibility of the New York Times on this issue?

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  • TDJ

    This NYT hit-piece will serve to reconfirm the elites and the would-be “reformers” in their opinions and little else. The piece is the latest in a coordinated attempt to repress the Church and expel her from the public arena. The piece will not stop the NYT’s subscription base from shrinking.

  • http://courageman.blogspot.com CourageMan

    Look at the NCR commenters, Mollie. D-Pressing.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I did look at those comments. I didn’t see any informed defense of the piece. I think it’s pretty natural to expect emotional reactions to a piece like this — both pro and con — but I’m also interested in substantive defenses or critiques.

  • Norman

    Commonweal seems to think the it tells a greater truth, or an impressionistic truth, or at least is on the side of the angels. They do not grapple with the minor detail that the article’s editorial assertions are contradicted within the article by its own sources. Other National Catholic Reporter bloggers than Winters follow Commonweal’s approach: whatever flaws there are in the details, it speaks to a greater truth etc. Over at America, Fr. Martin says it is all very interesting and solicits comments from his audience. No fools, the Jesuits.

    As to the greater impact of the article, neither the AP nor Reuters has run a version of it yet.

  • Norman

    Of course, under a “greater truth, damn the details” standard, anything can be printed. The Times may as well just print “the pope is a bad man, a very bad man” above the fold every day.

  • Julia

    Sounds like Commonweal believes in “truthiness”.

    Or Dan Rather’s insistance that some accusations are really true in spite of the evidence having been forged.

  • http://courageman.blogspot.com CourageMan


    You mean you wanted a “good* and *informed* defense of the NYT piece. Well. That’s very different.

    Never mind.


  • Norman

    To be fair to Commonweal, they only credit the article with doing “a better job than previous ones in conveying the complexity of church bureaucracy, and the not-necessarily-sinister role that complexity played in allowing this scandal to grow.” But that isn’t what the explosive lede in the Times article promised, and any defense of the article should deal with that. The Commonweal piece also does not deal with the complexity of the canon law issue as Winters and Lawler did; but to be even fairer to Commonweal, perhaps this isn’t a rigorous take on the article at all but a simple blog post of first impressions.


    I’m not sure what to say for the two other National Catholic Reporter bloggers.

    Joe Ferullo: http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/benedict-1980s

    Tom Roberts: http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/valuable-contribution-record-sex-abuse-crisis

  • Norman

    Ferullo includes this howler: “Back in 1983, changes in Canon Law gave the cardinal’s Congregation office authority to deal with pedophile priests.”

    This wasn’t alleged in the Times piece and I haven’t heard this claim anywhere else.

    But he does say: “By the end of the report, Benedict himself is somewhat redeemed — painted as a man who took a while to ‘get it,’ but who eventually over-rode obstinate Curia functionaries and began to tackle the pedophilia issue head-on.”

    Which again is the opposite of that explosive lede.

    Still looking for a substantive defense; anybody else find one?

  • Martha

    Effects of the piece?

    Those who are convinced the Pope is evil and the Church should be dismantled will just find this as yet more evidence. Those who think it’s a hatchet job will think it proves their point.

    I’ve gotten into a mild tussle over the Belgian police raids elsewhere and there are those who are genuinely horrified by the scandal, are not raving liberals, and are still fixated on ‘this is just the Vatican doing more covering up for guilty bishops’.

    Even when I pointed out elements better suited to a Dan Brown novel – such as anonymous tip-offs resulting in the cops drilling holes in tombstones for allegedly hidden documents, which turn out to not be there – are involved, the reaction was “Are you in law enforcement? They had to do this!” and not addressing facts such as the police raiding an independent commission and taking away all the files in despited of the wishes of the victims, some of whom contacted the commission on pledge of confidentiality and who did not want the police involved.

    Any mud will do to throw in this dreadfully sad horror. So no, I’m not expecting any minds to be changed.

  • Norman

    Perhaps Ferullo misptyped- 1922, 1983, a person is bound to get confused. Perhaps he is hanging his hat on not having said “sole” authority, because as Msgr. Scicluna is quoted in the CWN piece, there was a great deal of confusion:

    “… [F]ollowing the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, there was a period of uncertainty as to which of the delicta graviora were reserved to the competency of this dicastery.”

    But he still hasn’t matched the lede with the rest of the article. My, but I’m feeling very fair today. And posting too much.

  • Dan

    The issue of whether the NYT has support exists not for just this article but for the NYT’s recent coverage of the sex abuse scandal generally. Although Church-bashing is perennially popular in some quarters, the NYT’s current anti-Benedict crusade does not seem to have gained many followers elsewhere in the media apart from the AP. The LA Times, for example, has had very little about the sex abuse scandal in recent months. In fact, the only places that I see stuff about the sex abuse scandal are the NYT, AP, and the Catholic press. I am not the most comprehensive consumer of media so perhaps I am missing something here. But if I am not, it leads to the question: why is the NYT so obsessed with the Catholic Church?

  • Passing By

    allowing this scandal to grow.

    There is no scandal.

    There is a series of … tendentious… attempts by The New York Times and the AP to hang something on Pope Benedict. I suppose they think if you sling enough mud, something will stick. Or, perhaps, if you repeat a lie enough, people will believe it. Sadly, the latter is true, and I suspect the net effect on public opinion of Pope Benedict will be negative. The net effect on the credibility of the NYT? You are asking the wrong boy. I haven’t found them credible in years.

    This all reminds me of the Year of the Shark. Attacks were no more common that year, but you would know it from the panic the media induced during what was, I suppose, a slow news period. Then there’s the probably apocryphal story of the editor who needed copy so he took a slight rise in crime stats and declared a “crime wave”. The difference is that this present – ok, “jihad” is an ok word to use – is far more malicious, given that the pope really is the one most likely to address the real abuse problem.

  • Passing By

    Sorry to double post, and also if this is off-topic, but it’s an honest analysis of the current situation by an atheist. I do think it addresses the journalistic issues and certainly Mollie’s comments, at least indirectly.


  • Jerry

    To those that think it’s all the NY Times fault and that there is no scandal, I’ve been paying attention to news stories out of Europe including this one that I saw today:Belgian child sex abuse police probe death threats

    There is certainly bad reporting and bias both for and against showing up in the media, but there have been abominable crimes that even hardened criminals find offensive as attacks on those in prison for such crimes against humanity illustrate. And those terrible crimes and the at best tepid response needs to remain front-and-center in the ongoing media coverage.

  • http://courageman.blogspot.com CourageMan

    Jerry … what is being criticized is the narratives into which the real abuse is being tendentiously and sometimes outright falsely drafted. Whatever the failings of the Church as a whole and many in it, there is every indication that Joseph Ratzinger was one of the good guys. But the NYT turns every legitimate story or interesting analysis into its “it’s all hard-line Papa Nazi’s fault” template, even when, as in the case of this piece of merde, the facts laid out in the guts of the story indicate otherwise.

    OH … and has anyone noticed this story yet:


    Not two days after one MSM outlet tells how Rome is bad for being too legally fastidious about defrocking priests, another MSM outlet tells how US dioceses are bad for defrocking too many priests, rather than keeping them on the rolls and supervising them.

    The Church can’t win. It will be blamed no matter what it does.

  • Passing By

    Jerry – the Belgium story was mention on the last pope thread, with an interesting comment by Julia.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    To see anyone at National Catholic Reporter even lightly criticizing the NY Times on abuse coverage is a real head-turner. For among most orthodox Catholics the NCR is jokingly called the “National Anti-Catholic Reporter” because of all its usual radical left-wing fulminations. And Commonweal isn’t far behind. Both these publications give the appearance they would be ecstatic if the Catholic Church adopted the NY Times secular religious and moral catechism. They apparently have seen how wonderfully “successful” it has been in some other mainstream churches.

  • http://faithandreason.usatoday.com Cathy Grossman

    Buried in the Times article and all the to-and-fro, are two paragraphs that I think stick to Benedict. The Times details the success of the U.S. bishops’ program and the failure of the Vatican, on his watch, to extend the lessons learned to the rest of the world. That’s what I made note of at F&R — and what I think puzzles and dismays many readers.

    “Those measures seem to be having an impact. Last year, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 513 people made allegations of sexual abuse against 346 priests or other church officials, roughly a third fewer cases than in 2008.

    “Yet the Vatican did not proactively apply those policies to other countries, and it is only now grappling with abuse problems elsewhere. Reports have surfaced of bishops in Chile, Brazil, India and Italy who quietly kept accused priests in ministry without informing local parishioners or prosecutors.”

    I also highlighted Winters at his new NCR gig so readers could see a strong defense of Benedict. But I stopped there or the blog post would have read like a ping-pong match.

  • Norman

    “Buried in the Times article and all the to-and-fro, are two paragraphs that I think stick to Benedict. The Times details the success of the U.S. bishops’ program and the failure of the Vatican, on his watch, to extend the lessons learned to the rest of the world.”

    When journalists address such issues it would be constructive to introduce the competing concepts of Collegiality and Ultramontanism. Some of us, a few, favor the latter, but it has not been the governing principle of the Church, especially since Vatican II. By an odd quirk many outsiders assume it has been.

  • http://courageman.blogspot.com CourageMan

    … a point that already has been rebutted.

    The NYT smear assumes without reason that the only reason not to do so would be nefarious. In a universal church that is (and only can be) federally governed as a day-to-day matter and whose “local branches” have to deal with every manner of secular authority and de-facto-attitudes of officialdom — it’s utterly unsurprising that Rome wouldn’t impose a single rule in this type of “praxis” matter.

  • Suzanne

    The answer by apologists for Rome — every country is different so we couldn’t possibly apply the American model everywhere — is fine as far as it goes. But you have to own the results.

    If not applying the American model means you have the Church elsewhere in the world returning to its default setting (hide it, move the priests around, hope nobody notices) then you have to take responsibility for that and figure out a model that does work.

    And nobody who keeps bringing up China, et al, has suggested what you should do in countries like that. Do abusive priests in those countries just get a pass from legal ramifications because the greater Church might suffer?

  • Suzanne

    @Courage man:

    another MSM outlet tells how US dioceses are bad for defrocking too many priests, rather than keeping them on the rolls and supervising them.

    Actually, the story seems to be pretty evenhanded in explaining the difficulties involved in monitoring priests, comparing it to the larger problem of tracking and controlling sexual predators in general.

    What about this story seemed unfair to you?

  • Julia

    Suzanne said:

    What about this story seemed unfair to you?

    Among other things – the title:

    Dioceses oust abusers they pledged to monitor


  • Julia

    And nobody who keeps bringing up China, et al, has suggested what you should do in countries like that. Do abusive priests in those countries just get a pass from legal ramifications because the greater Church might suffer?

    For one thing, the US bishops brought a proposal to the Vatican and had it approved.

    Maybe the Chinese bishops are preparing a proposal of their own. The Pope is not a world-wide dictator – he has no civil authority outside Vatican State. All compliance is voluntary and no court will enforce the church’s rules.

  • Julia

    Forgot to say that the current directives say that bishops should obey their local civil laws about reporting. What’s wrong with that?

  • http://courageman.blogspot.com CourageMan

    The fact Suzanne thinks the issue is the Church ensuring that priests “get a pass from legal ramifications” and that such could even be a problem in China, of all the places on Earth, indicates … well … a lot. All of it OT.

    Her other post, at me, actually does raise a journalism-related question.

    Yes, the AP story does explain the subjects Suzanne raises. But its premise and structure could not be clearer — the Church promised to do X as an anti-abuse action, it’s now not doing so, instead doing Y. The suggested headline is “Dioceses oust abusers they had pledged to monitor.”

    If this were the only story in existence in the universe on this topic and/or the sidebar issue of defrocking, and it were possible and meaningful to consider it as a Platonic essence, I would have no serious complaint.

    But as I thought I had made clear, my complaint is that this “Church bad because of X” story comes at practically the same time as a (far worse journalistically, though that isn’t relevant for my point here) “Church bad because of not-X” story. It redundantly confirms the widespread perception that the Church’s actions will be condemned by the secular mainstream media no matter they are. And the Church and its people will draw the logical conclusions about the media.

  • Suzanne

    So the second writer should have just thrown in the towel — not written the story at all? Despite the fact that it was apparently factually correct and explained something important about the difficulties in handling these situations?

    Your response certainly confirms the widespread impression that what apologists for Rome really want is no coverage of sex abuse by priests. And the media will draw the logical conclusions about the credibility of your critiques.

  • http://courageman.blogspot.com CourageMan

    I’m not suggesting anything conspiratorial or instrumental, though it is a fact that reporters on the same beat know broadly what others are doing and follow their coverage.

    I am saying that nearly all MSM reporters have an anti-Catholic filter that determines the narrative and the context into which the limited share of the limitless number of true facts will be put.

    Your response certainly confirms the widespread impression that what apologists for Rome really want is no coverage of sex abuse by priests.

    “certainly confirms”?? If it injured my reputation at all that would be libel.

    Not at all … my response says (not suggests) that “apologists for Rome” (do we have a Facebook page I can join) want coverage to be based on a single moral standard. We reject a structure and understanding that yields, as a whole, “damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”

  • jackku

    Let us not forget that it was the bad priests who destroyed the lives of little children. Are there any parents out there? I tell you if that happened to my child and all they did was shuffle Father Drop-his-pants somewhere else to prey again (no pun intended), I would be livid; somebody might have to die.

    If your child was molested at school, you would make the principal pay. If in the boy scouts, the Boy Scouts of America. If at your own church,…. you sure as heck would demand some accountability. And, what if you discovered the offender had done it before!!… and was still giving mass!! The body of Christ from the stained hand of a child-molester??

    What if the child in question were…… Jesus himself.

    And do you think God would be pleased with the Vatican’s responses? Despite the New Testament exhortation to deal with issues among believers from within, I personally believe (can you Catholics on this blogosphere “personally believe” anything??) the Vatican has dropped the ball a number of times in the last decade plus,… and thus has lost most of its credibility. Remember in Acts when Ananias was struck dead for holding back some money from the apostles? How much worse is this offense. I predict you will see civil authorities dump the Vatican like a hot potato. They must defend their people too.

    I am convinced those on this site are full of devotion, but have some misplaced anger. Stop defending the guilty and make a correct judgment. Even Benedict has said the current sins are from within the church. A full inquiry must be necessary for any honest person can begin to trust this church again.

  • Julia

    can you Catholics on this blogosphere “personally believe” anything??


  • Passing By

    Reading this post and the comments (plus those on the last pope post), I’m struck again by the stereotypical script being played out. The New York Times is playing it’s part with stories that follow a type established (or at least embedded in current culture) Watergate: corrupt leader covers up crimes. It’s a sort of ritual being played out in the media and the culture:

    Stories get told. Some are valid and true (Geoghan and Shandley in Boston, Kos in Dallas, Gauthe in south Louisiana), a fair number of bishops really did shuffle priests, and so on. Some stories are exaggerated or (as the title of this post notes) tendentious. Catholics – and in this case even responsible journalists – note the exaggerations and lies. Others, including some Catholics, then accuse the contrary voices of shilling for a corrupt church. Five hundred year old myths, accusations and polemics get trotted out for another round, and so on, back and forth. Facts are held in small regard and everyone goes home feeling righteous or persecuted, as the case may be.

    My own lines in the script are fairly well-established by now (I’ve followed this story since the Kos scandal in the mid-90s). My job is to encourage people to read Pedophiles and Priests, or, at least, this summary of the facts. My job is to point back to the actual facts of the case. For this, I’m accused of shilling for the Vatican, at which point I dramatically reveal that I work in law enforcement (related work, actually) and actually make the community safer for children. Maybe knowing something about real pedophiles has made me jaded, or maybe I’ve just read too much: facts, you know.

    Nice bridge back to journalism: all the details, technicalities, and accusations don’t obscure the relevant fact:. The New York Times has repeatedly told lies about the pope who has, in fact, done the most to address this problem.

    Well, people do love their rituals. If these actually contributed to the welfare of children, they might be tolerable. Unfortunately, they appear to be little more than a revival of the old Know-Nothing nativism.
    So I close with a probably off-topic question to those in the media or these comment threads who are so concerned with the special problems of the Catholic Church. What are you doing about the same problem in your own religious groups, schools, and families? We know that Catholic clergy offend at a lesser rate, or more likely an equivalent rate than these other groups.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    One issue the press generally ignores is that the “Catholic sex abuse scandal” does not, in most cases, involve “pre-pubescent” or “pre-adolescent” children, but involves minors between the ages of 15 and 17, or maybe as young as 12. In several countries sexual relations between adults and minors beganing at age 14 are legal, and in the Netherlands the age of consent for sexual relations may be lower than that. I believe the age is 14 in Canada.

    I bring this up specifically since the Catholic Culture article mentioned a statement that said that abuse of pre-adolescent children was considered a grave sin. Since the vast majority of sex abuse cases did not involve pre-adolescent children, they generally do not fall into such a category.