Der Spiegel really doesn’t like Catholic Bishops

Der Spiegel really doesn’t like Catholic Bishops January 10, 2013

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A European magazine has written a hit piece on the Catholic Church and the clergy abuse scandal that is unfair, incomplete and one-sided … Sound familiar?

The latest installment comes courtesy of Der Spiegel. In an English-language piece entitled “German Catholic Church Cancels Inquiry” published on 9 Jan 2013, the mass circulation news weekly takes a stick to the Deutsche Bischofskonferenz, the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference, over the cancellation of a study it had begun on the clergy abuse scandal.

The German bishops could well paraphrase Sally Fields, “You don’t like me, you really don’t like me!”

Here is the lede:

It was a major promise after a major disaster: In summer 2011, the Catholic Church in Germany pledged full transparency. One year earlier, an abuse scandal had shaken the country’s faithful, as an increasing number of cases surfaced in which priests had sexually abused children and then hidden behind a wall of silence.

The Lower Saxony Criminological Research Institute (KFN) was given the job of investigating the cases in 2011. The personnel files from churches in all 27 dioceses were to be examined for cases of abuse in an attempt to win back some of the Church’s depleted credibility.

But now the Church has called off the study, citing a breakdown in trust. “The relationship of mutual trust between the bishops and the head of the institute has been destroyed,” said the Bishop of Trier, Stephan Ackermann, on Wednesday morning.

How’s that for telegraphing your editorial opinions. Der Spiegel opens the story with a slippery trick — it defines the terms of the argument and then savages its opponent for not meeting those terms. The lede all but accuses the church of hypocrisy.  “They promised transparency but have cancelled the investigation.”

It makes an assertion the church is a shallow self-serving institution stating the abuse study was undertaken as a public relations stunt, an “attempt to win back some of the Church’s depleted credibility.” Der Spiegel may well think so, but should not it have cited a statement to this effect by the church, or even from one of its detractors?

Following the bishop’s explanation as to why the study was cancelled — the church did not trust Prof. Christian Pfeiffer of the KFN — Der Spiegel offers Pfeiffer space to air his complaints about the bishops lack of cooperation. A politician is then given a platform to criticize the church for cancelling the study, followed by an old quote from a Church spokesman stating:

Before the inquiry was called off, the spokesman for the German Bishops’ Conference, Matthias Kopp, had insisted that the project should continue regardless of the outcome of the conflict: “Should cooperation with the KFN fall through, there would be a continuation of the project with another partner,” he said.

The story then peters out with a few more quotes from Pfeiffer and a gratuitous editorial aside followed by a spiteful jab at Bishop Ackermann.

The project was of incalculable importance to the Catholic Church, because the loss of confidence after the abuse scandal was enormous. The cancellation of the inquiry throws into high relief Bishop Ackermann’s statement from 2011: “We also want the truth, which may still lie hidden in decades-old files, to be uncovered.”

The story as told by Der Spiegel  is the Catholic Church organized a face-saving study on the clergy abuse scandal, but pulled out saying they did not trust Pfeiffer just as the KFN’s investigators began digging in the bowels of the chancelleries. The clear insinuation being the Catholic Bishops Conference are a bunch of hypocrites.

Let me stop for a moment and say I have no special knowledge of this case. I have no reason to privilege the testimony of the bishops over Pfeiffer  or Pfeiffer over the bishops. The only dog I have in this fight is that of professional journalism. And this story as journalism stinks.

Why? Take a look a the press release from the Deutsche Bischofskonferenz that served as the basis for this story. Bishop Ackermann explains in detail the study was ended due to a personal dispute with Pfeiffer — and that the study will continue with another investigator.

This is a critical omission by Der Spiegel. The study has not been cancelled — the investigator has been fired and the study will be restarted with a new team. Rather than report what Bishop Ackermann said in his statement:

Ich bedauere, dass der jetzige Schritt unumgänglich wurde, der allein mit dem mangelnden Vertrauen in die Person von Professor Dr. Pfeiffer zusammenhängt. Gleichzeitig bin ich zuversichtlich, dass wir schon bald das Forschungsprojekt mit anderen Partnern in Angriff nehmen können.

Roughly translated as:

Regrettably this step was inevitable due solely to our the lack of trust in the person of Prof. Dr. Pfeiffer. At the same time I am confident that we will soon be able to address this research project with other study partners.

Der Spiegel brings up an old quote from a spokesman for the bishops saying that should there be a conflict between the bishops and the KFN, the study would continue. By not mentioning the current statement while inserting the older one, Der Spiegel is insinuating bad faith.

I have never worked with the German bishops and do not know their reputation for truthfulness or transparency. There are some English and American ecclesiastical entities and figures whom I have learned not to trust — if  one London based Anglican agency were to tell me the sun will rise tomorrow morning, I would not print that story until I saw the sun rise myself and then I would ask for a second opinion — their reputation for integrity is so poor. There well may be bad faith on the part of the bishops. Pfieffer thinks so. But Der Spiegel is improving the story — sexing it up (to use a British newspaper phrase) — so that the reader will be led to believe one side over another. If deliberate that is journalistic misconduct, if an accident that is a most unfortunate error.

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8 responses to “Der Spiegel really doesn’t like Catholic Bishops”

  1. George, your last sentence was “garbled in translation.” It reads as follows:

    If deliberate that is journalistic misconduct, it an accident that is a most unfortunate error.

  2. We’re delving into semantics here, but the study is independent… meaning, it belongs to the researcher, not the church.

    Yes, Der Spiegel could have made it clear–as Reuter’s did in reporting the same story–that the church was still interested in having the sex abuse scandal investigated and would hire another researcher, but they weren’t wrong to say Pfeiffer’s study had been called off.

    • Your point is right up to a point. However, my criticism of Der Spiegel is that they omitted mention of the bishop’s statement that a new study partner would be found — leaving the impression of the church torpedoing any or all studies of the abuse scandal.

  3. I don’t know if by now the journalistic misconduct is deliberate (i.e. stems from a conscious decision in this particular case) but it certainly is the modus operandi of the Spiegel. This is the way the paper writes about everything it doesn’t like, which always has included the Church.

    Pfeiffer’s study has indeed been called off but it’s the bishops’ intention to continue with somebody else. The bishops’ are not known for transparency but they are generally trustworthy. For his part, Pfeiffer is a man who likes to see his face in the media. He is a controversial figure and maybe it was stupid to work with him in the first place.

    The point of contention is the following: Pfeiffer says the bishops (blaming Munich and Regensburg in particular) wanted to censor him, whereas Bishop Ackermann of Trier said that the bishops merely wanted to ensure that if there were differing opinions during the study, minority opinions on church-specific issues would be included in the text.

  4. One other major angle must be mentioned: The study is designed to access tens of thousands of personnel files, sitting in the classified archives of the German dioeceses. That means a huge dragnet investigation through a material which is confidential, by principle. If the bishops will be known from now on as employers that jeopardize the confidentiality of personnel files, this will not enhance their prestige as employers. And data privacy used to be a big schibboleth among the liberal media. Not so in this case.

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