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Another vicious, inaccurate, and contradictory New York Times attack on Pope Benedict

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 02, 2010

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 thrust of the argument presented by the Times is that prior to his election as Pontiff, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger did not take decisive action to punish priests who abused children. Despite its exhaustive length, the story does not present a single new case to support that argument. The authors claim, at several points in their presentation, that as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Cardinal Ratzinger had the authority to take action. But then, again and again, they quote knowledgeable Church officials saying precisely the opposite.

The confusion over lines of authority at the Vatican was so acute, the Times reports, that in the year 2000 a group of bishops met in Rome to present their concerns. That meeting led eventually to the change in policy announced by Pope John Paul II the following year, giving the CDF sole authority over disciplinary action against priests involved in sexual abuse. By general consensus the 2001 policy represented an important step forward in the Vatican’s handling of the problem, and it was Cardinal Ratzinger who pressed for that policy change. How does that sequence of events justify criticism of the future Pope? It doesn’t. But the facts do not deter the Times.

The Times writers show their bias with their flippant observation that when he might have been fighting sexual abuse, during the 1980s and 1990s Cardinal Ratzinger was more prominent in his pursuit of doctrinal orthodoxy. But then, while until 2001 it was not clear which Vatican office was primarily responsible for sexual abuse, it was clear that the CDF was responsible for doctrinal orthodoxy. Cardinal Ratzinger’s primary focus was on his primary job. 

After laying out the general argument against the Vatican’s inaction—and implying that Cardinal Ratzinger was responsible for that inaction, disregarding the ample evidence that other prelates stalled his efforts—the Times makes the simply astonishing argument that local diocesan bishops were more effective in their handling of sex-abuse problems. That argument is not merely wrong; it is comically absurd.

During the 1980s and 1990s, as some bishops were complaining about the confusion at the Vatican, bishops in the US and Ireland, Germany and Austria, Canada and Italy were systematically covering up evidence of sexual abuse, and transferring predator-priests to new parish assignments to hide them from scrutiny. The revelations of the past decade have shown a gross dereliction of duty on the part of diocesan bishops. Indeed the ugly track record has shown that a number of diocesan bishops were themselves abusing children during those years.

So how does the Times have the temerity to suggest that the diocesan bishops needed to educate the Vatican on the proper handling of this issue? The lead witness for the Times story is Bishop Geoffrey Robinson: a former auxiliary of the Sydney, Australia archdiocese, who was hustled into premature retirement in 2004 at the age of 66 because his professed desire to change the teachings  of the Catholic Church put him so clearly at odds with his fellow Australian bishops and with Catholic orthodoxy. This obscure Australian bishop, the main source of support for the absurd argument advanced by the Times, is the author of a book on Christianity that has been described as advancing “the most radical changes since Martin Luther started the 16th-century Reformation.” His work has drawn an extraordinary caution from the Australian episcopal conference, which warned that Robinson was at odds with Catholic teaching on “among other things, the nature of Tradition, the inspiration of the Holy Scripture, the infallibility of the Councils and the Pope, the authority of the Creeds, the nature of the ministerial priesthood and central elements of the Church’s moral teaching." Bishop Robinson is so extreme in his theological views that Cardinal Roger Mahony (who is not ordinarily known as a stickler for orthodoxy) barred him from speaking in the Los Angeles archdiocese in 2008. This, again, is the authority on which the Times hangs its argument against the Vatican.

And even the Times story itself, a mess of contradictions, acknowledges:

Bishops had a variety of disciplinary tools at their disposal — including the power to remove accused priests from contact with children and to suspend them from ministry altogether — that they could use without the Vatican’s direct approval.

It is not clear, then, why the Vatican bears the bulk of the responsibility for the sex-abuse scandal. Still less clear is why the main focus of that responsibility should be Pope Benedict. On that score, too, the Times blatantly contradicts its own argument. Buried in the Times story—on the 3rd page in the print edition, in the 46th paragraph of the article—is a report on one Vatican official who stood out at that 2000 meeting in Rome, calling for more effective action on sexual abuse.

An exception to the prevailing attitude, several participants recalled, was Cardinal Ratzinger. He attended the sessions only intermittently and seldom spoke up. But in his only extended remarks, he made clear that he saw things differently from others in the Curia.

That testimony is seconded by a more reliable prelate, Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide:

“The speech he gave was an analysis of the situation, the horrible nature of the crime, and that it had to be responded to promptly,” recalled Archbishop Wilson of Australia, who was at the meeting in 2000. “I felt, this guy gets it, he’s understanding the situation we’re facing. At long last, we’ll be able to move forward.”

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

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Nov. 17, 2017 8:07 PM ET USA

    The 48% may have been trying to be on the winning side favored by the Pope. It is called Job security.

  • Posted by: Foundas - Nov. 17, 2017 5:43 PM ET USA

    Having lived in the diocese where Cupich came from I was gladdened that he did not get the position. He did everything he could in Spokane to dampen the Church's involvement with Pro-Life activities; by not participating in them himself, by threatening the priests and seminarians if they participated, and by having an open battle with the 40 Days for Life folks.

  • Posted by: feedback - Nov. 15, 2017 12:32 PM ET USA

    48% of Bishops cast their votes for Card. Cupich to represent them as the pro-life leader. That high percentage puzzles me greatly: what do they know that others don't?

  • Posted by: - Oct. 28, 2010 11:26 PM ET USA

    Why the surprise? Jesus himself was accused personally of blasphemy, of lunacy, of violating the sabbath, of identifying himself as the Messiah, of visiting the homes of unclean people, tax collectors and lowlife figures, of walking with prostitutes etc. He was persecuted most of his life to be killed and finnally that was achieved. We know some accusations were partial facts, some were inaccurate and most were flagrant lies. Are we Catholics supposed to FOLLOW Jesus or the New York Times?

  • Posted by: samuel.doucette1787 - Jul. 06, 2010 9:20 AM ET USA

    The real problem was that, as great as a teacher the late Pope John Paul II was, he was an abysmal administrator. The confusion over the chain of command to deal with these cases back in the 1980s and 1990s can be placed at his feet. He was a saintly man and a saintly Pope, but like all of us in this valley of tears, he had his imperfections.

  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - Jul. 05, 2010 11:42 AM ET USA

    How can anyone at all familiar with the facts write that the Times is generally on track?

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jul. 04, 2010 9:18 AM ET USA

    Unfortunately, I think there are enough buried skeletons in our Church to keep the "Times" going for quite a while. They may be throwing a few wild punches, but they are generally on track.

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Jul. 03, 2010 7:36 PM ET USA

    I quit worrying a long time ago about what the NYTimes says about anything. Most people get their news elsewhere anyway, so it's only a matter of time before the paper goes under. Editors may think they're in the mainstream of journalistic reporting, but they really aren't. The nation has moved right but the media seem not to have noticed.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 03, 2010 4:04 PM ET USA

    Please note that, unilke the stories of several months ago attempting to place the blame for sexual abuse on the Vatican in general and the Pope in particular, this "story" has not been picked up by the other major news outlets, at least as far as I can see. Even the Nat'l Catholic Reporter defends the Pope, so far out of whack it is.