”The question is, should this indictment have ever been brought? Which office do I go to to get my reputation back? Who will reimburse my company for the economic jail it has been in for two and a half years?”
So said former Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan to The New York Times following his acquittal on state charges of fraud and theft in 1987. Accused by the Bronx DA of attempting to defraud the New York City Transit Authority of $7.4 million on a subway construction project in the late 70’s, before he entered the Reagan Administration, Donovan and his co-defendants were found not guilty on all charges — with one jury telling the Times she believed the prosecution was politically motivated. While rejoicing in the not guilty verdict after his two year ordeal, Donovan lamented that it was not fair that the news of his being a decent man would receive far less publicity than the accusation he was a criminal.
What should a newspaper do in this situation? How can it restore the reputations of those falsely accused? Human nature being what it is, the news of an evil man is far more interesting than that of a good one. Critics often accuse newspapers of printing only bad news — senior church leaders upbraid me from time to time for focusing on scandal, corruption and hypocrisy and downplaying the good works performed by church. It does little good to respond that I dutifully report on the good news, but no one reads it. Stories of church sponsored campaigns to stop child marriage in Africa or of female genital mutilation, for example, are read by only a few, while a naughty vicar story is good for tens of thousands of hits, while an Al Gore in bed with the Church of England will get picked up by Drudge and crash the servers.
In the Donovan case The New York Times acted properly and professionally according to the dictates of the craft. They reported without bias, cant or agenda. To have done more would have been special pleading, engaging in propaganda to sway public opinion to think as our masters tell us.
What then should we make of The Times coverage of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee abuse lawsuit? On 1 July 2013 The Times printed a story entitled “Dolan Sought to Protect Church Assets, Files Show”. This was followed on 3 July 2013 with an editorial entitled “Cardinal Dolan and the Sexual Abuse Scandal” and a 6 July op-ed piece by Frank Bruni entitled “The Church’s Errant Shepherds”. Apart from a correction on 16 July The Times does not appear to have followed up on the story.
Which is curious as the first article starts off with a bang.
Files released by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee on Monday reveal that in 2007, Cardinal Timothy F. Dolan, then the archbishop there, requested permission from the Vatican to move nearly $57 million into a cemetery trust fund to protect the assets from victims of clergy sexual abuse who were demanding compensation.
Cardinal Dolan, now the archbishop of New York, has emphatically denied seeking to shield church funds as the archbishop of Milwaukee from 2002 to 2009. He reiterated in a statement Monday that these were “old and discredited attacks.”
However, the files contain a 2007 letter to the Vatican in which he explains that by transferring the assets, “I foresee an improved protection of these funds from any legal claim and liability.” The Vatican approved the request in five weeks, the files show.
The article continues in this vein, proffering evidence and arguments that while Archbishop of Milwaukee, Cardinal Dolan acted disreputably by moving church assets out of the reach of creditors. The Times editorial doubled-down on this assertion writing:
Tragic as the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church has been, it is shocking to discover that Cardinal Timothy Dolan, while archbishop of Milwaukee, moved $57 million off the archdiocesan books into a cemetery trust fund six years ago in order to protect the money from damage suits by victims of abuse by priests.
While not labeling him a crook, the editorial board was quite clear in its opinion the archbishop had engaged in shady dealings and had not lived up to the high moral standard The Times expected of the Cardinal Archbishop of New York. The censure of the op-ed pales in comparison to the rage that seethes through Frank Bruni’s piece. The underlying acts of abuse were bad enough, but the institution’s response has been worse.
I mean the evil that an entire institution can do, though it supposedly dedicates itself to good.
I mean the way that a religious organization can behave almost precisely as a corporation does, with fudged words, twisted logic and a transcendent instinct for self-protection that frequently trump the principled handling of a specific grievance or a particular victim.
However, Bruni’s column is a column. A reader may agree with his sentiments or find them unhinged. They are written to provide entertainment based on current events — they are not reporting in and of themselves. The Times‘ op-ed piece is also only the opinion of the editorial board. One either agrees with its sentiments or does not. The underlying news stories however, are what makes or breaks the newspaper’s reputation for reporting. And here the paper disappoints.
On 30 July the Associated Press and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that a Federal District Court had ruled that Cardinal Dolan and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee had acted properly — and morally — by shielding cemetery funds from creditors. The Journal Sentinel story entitled “In win for Milwaukee Archdiocese, judge shields cemetery funds from creditors” reported:
In a decision that could have far-reaching implications for religious institutions around the country,a federal judge has ruled against forcing the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to tap its cemetery funds to pay sex abuse claims in its bankruptcy.
In issuing the ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge Rudolph T. Randa said including the funds would violate free exercise of religion under the First Amendment and a 1993 law aimed at protecting religious freedom. Randa cited the Catholic belief in the resurrection, which teaches that the body ultimately reunites with the soul, and the role of Catholic cemeteries in the exercise of that belief under canon law.
“The sacred nature of Catholic cemeteries — and compliance with the church’s historical and religious traditions and mandates requiring their perpetual care — are understood as a fundamental exercise of this core belief,” said Randa in overturning an earlier decision by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley.
Yet there has been nothing from The New York Times on this issue. When the ruling was handed down, I expected to see something. Perhaps another angry Bruni jeremiad on the courts protecting an evil institution, tut-tutting from the editorial board — but nothing. Perhaps it being August the staff are on holiday and no one was about to write this piece. Yet The Times has an AP subscription and could have run the wire service story.
What message is The New York Times sending by not reporting the court verdict, which as the Journal Sentinel story points out, stressed the judge’s decision that what Cardinal Dolan did was not only lawful, but was a moral act based upon the Catholic Church’s doctrines. Is The Times motivated by animus towards the Roman Catholic Church? Does it hate Cardinal Dolan?
I doubt the newspaper has a grudge against the archbishop. Life’s events are more often motivated by mistake and omission than deliberate aggression. Nevertheless, this does episode does not do credit to The New York Times.
Caveat: The New York Times may have reported this decision — if so, I have not seen it, nor been able to find it on their website. Times image courtesy of Shutterstock.