Action Alert!

CNN's appalling attack on the Pope

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 24, 2010

This weekend the CNN television network will air a special report, “What the Pope Knew.” The goal of the show, apparently, is to persuade viewers the Pope Benedict XVI bears much of the blame for the sex-abuse scandal. If that requires massaging the facts and covering up inconvenient evidence, CNN is prepared to take those steps.

The CNN special concentrates on the case of the late Father Lawrence Murphy, a Milwaukee priest who was the target of multiple abuse complaints. In March of this year the New York Times gave the Murphy case front-page treatment, and charged that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had stymied a bid by the Milwaukee archdiocese to laicize the accused priest. That charge was based on a series of misunderstandings: about the case, about the duty of the Milwaukee archdiocese, about the Vatican’s authority, and about the priest’s due-process rights under the Code of Canon Law. As I wrote at the time, a proper understanding of the story would have led the Times to understand that Cardinal Ratzinger was not at fault:

This is a story about the abject failure of the Milwaukee archdiocese to discipline a dangerous priest, and the tardy effort by Archbishop Weakland--who would soon become the subject of a major scandal himself--to shift responsibility to Rome.

Eventually the misunderstandings in the Times story were cleared up, objective reporters recognized that the Murphy case was in no way a “smoking gun” demonstrating the Pope’s culpability, and the story slipped into the background. But now, six months later, CNN is resurrecting the same charges that the Times story made—without bothering to mention that the charges have been discredited.

The CNN report not only repeats the errors of the Times story, but ignores the powerful rebuttals that followed. Is this a question of journalistic incompetence, or something worse? Matthew Balan of Newsbusters inclines to the latter explanation, charging that the CNN show “left out key information in order to paint Benedict XVI in the worst possible light.”

"How exactly does CNN have so little journalistic integrity that it can repeat inaccuracies that were widely debunked seven months ago, and for which there is clear, incontrovertible documentary evidence?” ask Greg Erlandson and Matthew Bunson, the co-authors of Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis. It’s an unanswerable question.

In addition to the Murphy case, CNN has also unearthed the similar case of an Illinois priest who was convicted of sexual abuse. CNN contacted one of the priest’s victims, and “told him about a letter signed by the pontiff—then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—refusing to defrock the pedophile priest.”

What Cardinal Ratzinger actually said, in a letter to the bishop responsible for the case, was that the abusive priest could not be laicized without a trial. Under the terms of canon law, the accused priest had the right to defend himself against the charges. The Springfield diocese could bring charges against him, just as the Milwaukee archdiocese could have brought charges against Murphy. But the bishops supervising these cases should have handled the matters themselves, rather than shuffling the cases off to Rome for a solution.

Ironically these two cases cited by CNN —one from Milwaukee, one from Springfield-- have something else in common. Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee and Bishop Daniel Ryan of Springfield both resigned after having been credibly accused of sexual abuse. In the headlong effort to indict the Pope, CNN is in effect relying on the testimony of two bishops whose own credibility has been gravely damaged by the sex-abuse crisis.

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: Saved by Grace - Sep. 27, 2010 8:36 AM ET USA

    An article on this site today tells us that Mrs. Obama says that our president carries a card with a picture of Mary Help of Christians in his wallet. Is it time for "card carrying" Catholics to get those cards out and pray to Our Lady for protection? Storm heaven through Mary Help of Christians!

  • Posted by: - Sep. 26, 2010 3:31 PM ET USA

    I saw the CNN report and was appalled by this partially untrue story built up on inuendos and "could have beens" - The inane comments that followed the story on their website speak for themselves... I was overhearing some people at the place I had breakfast this morning and I had the impression people believed this diatribe as if it was Gospel fact... unbelievable. There are people in USA who are not aware that Catholicism is a Christian religion, a shame!

  • Posted by: desert_rat114345 - Sep. 25, 2010 10:30 PM ET USA

    CNN is a failing Network. They are desparate.

  • Posted by: Mike in Toronto - Sep. 24, 2010 10:12 PM ET USA

    No, no "lawsuit". Are we to play their sad game? Except in cases of individual possession, the Catholic Church does not lower herself to respond directly to Satan. Like St. Michael, she invokes Almighty God, and says, "The Lord rebuke you" (cf. Jude 1:9).

  • Posted by: - Sep. 24, 2010 7:38 PM ET USA

    It would seem that the credibility of ALL bishops as been damaged by the sex-abuse crisis. Very grave mistakes were made about how the matter should have been handled and now all of us are paying for it. It will take may years to over come the stigma of the scandle. "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy ride."

  • Posted by: - Sep. 24, 2010 7:04 PM ET USA

    The Vatican should hit them with a defamation lawsuit!!!