Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Journalists abandon standards to attack the Pope

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 10, 2010

We're off and running once again, with another completely phony story that purports to implicate Pope Benedict XVI in the protection of abusive priests.

The "exclusive" story released by AP yesterday, which has been dutifully passed along now by scores of major media outlets, would never have seen the light of day if normal journalistic standards had been in place. Careful editors should have asked a series of probing questions, and in every case the answer to those questions would have shown that the story had no "legs."

First to repeat the bare-bones version of the story: in November 1985, then-Cardinal Ratzinger signed a letter deferring a decision on the laicization of Father Stephen Kiesle, a California priest who had been accused of molesting boys.

Now the key questions:

• Was Cardinal Ratzinger responding to the complaints of priestly pedophilia? No. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which the future Pontiff headed, did not have jurisdiction for pedophile priests until 2001. The cardinal was weighing a request for laicization of Kiesle.

• Had Oakland's Bishop John Cummins sought to laicize Kiesle as punishment for his misconduct? No. Kiesle himself asked to be released from the priesthood. The bishop supported the wayward priest's application.

• Was the request for laicization denied? No. Eventually, in 1987, the Vatican approved Kiesle's dismissal from the priesthood.

• Did Kiesle abuse children again before he was laicized? To the best of our knowledge, No. The next complaints against him arose in 2002: 15 years after he was dismissed from the priesthood.

• Did Cardinal Ratzinger's reluctance to make a quick decision mean that Kiesle remained in active ministry? No. Bishop Cummins had the authority to suspend the predator-priest, and in fact he had placed him on an extended leave of absence long before the application for laicization was entered.

• Would quicker laicization have protected children in California? No. Cardinal Ratzinger did not have the power to put Kiesle behind bars. If Kiesle had been defrocked in 1985 instead of 1987, he would have remained at large, thanks to a light sentence from the California courts. As things stood, he remained at large. He was not engaged in parish ministry and had no special access to children.

• Did the Vatican cover up evidence of Kiesle's predatory behavior? No. The civil courts of California destroyed that evidence after the priest completed a sentence of probation-- before the case ever reached Rome.

So to review: This was not a case in which a bishop wanted to discipline his priest and the Vatican official demurred. This was not a case in which a priest remained active in ministry, and the Vatican did nothing to protect the children under his pastoral care. This was not a case in which the Vatican covered up evidence of a priest's misconduct. This was a case in which a priest asked to be released from his vows, and the Vatican-- which had been flooded by such requests throughout the 1970s -- wanted to consider all such cases carefully. In short, if you're looking for evidence of a sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, this case is irrelevant. 

We Americans know what a sex-abuse crisis looks like. The scandal erupts when evidence emerges that bishops have protected abusive priests, kept them active in parish assignments, covered up evidence of the charges against them, and lied to their people. There is no such evidence in this or any other case involving Pope Benedict XVI.

Competent reporters, when dealing with a story that involves special expertise, seek information from experts in that field. Capable journalists following this story should have sought out canon lawyers to explain the 1985 document-- not merely relied on the highly biased testimony of civil lawyers who have lodged multiple suits against the Church. If they had understood the case, objective reporters would have recognized that they had no story. But in this case, reporters for the major media outlets are far from objective.

The New York Times-- which touched off this feeding frenzy with two error-riddled front-page reports-- seized on the latest "scoop" by AP to say that the 1985 document exemplified:

…the sort of delay that is fueling a renewed sexual abuse scandal in the church that has focused on whether the future pope moved quickly enough to remove known pedophiles from the priesthood, despite pleas from American bishops.

Here we have a complete rewriting of history. Earlier in this decade, American newspapers exposed the sad truth that many American bishops had kept pedophile priests in active ministry. Now the Times, which played an active role in exposing that scandal, would have us believe that the American bishops were striving to rid the priesthood of the predators, and the Vatican resisted! 

No, what is "fueling a renewed sexual abuse scandal" is a media frenzy. There is a scandal here, indeed, but it's not the scandal you're reading about in the mass media. The scandal is the complete collapse of journalistic standards in the handling of this story.

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: jplaunder1846 - Apr. 17, 2010 4:28 AM ET USA

    I agree with the criticisms of the mistakes, the stupid mishandling of some cases, the downright evasion of responsibility by sections of the hierarchy particularly in the 70s and 80s. However the criticism in the media ia primarily by 2 elements - those who thirst for justice and those who thirst with blood. The latter are hypocritical over the sex abuse and the distress of the victims, their attack is to seek to destroy no matter the outcome, a cabal led by the cabal of Hitchens and Dawkins.

  • Posted by: jplaunder1846 - Apr. 17, 2010 4:21 AM ET USA

    The incessant attack on the Pope and the Church over the pedophilia issue - is occuring also in Australia. The same press elements who have an agenda to destropy the church operates here as well.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 15, 2010 11:04 AM ET USA

    Perhaps the bishops of the world can adopt this simple prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola: Lord teach me to be generous, Teach me to serve You as You deserve; To give and not count the cost; To fight and not heed the wounds; To toil and not seek for rest; To work and not ask for reward Save that of knowing That I am doing Your will.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 13, 2010 7:42 PM ET USA

    What we need to do is hire one of the bottom feeder attorneys to sue the Times - let's pick a nice round figure of $500,000,000 - for libel and resulting damamges. Not for damages to the Pope, but for damages to the US hierarchy. It needn't be pursued to trial, but the depositions should provide a field day.

  • Posted by: voxfem - Apr. 12, 2010 10:09 PM ET USA

    I wish, just once, that the facts in these stories were accurate. Maybe the complexity of the Church structure is beyond people who don't seem to grasp the system of Checks and Balances very well either. Perhaps some terminology clarification? In any case, we need to pray for the Holy Father and for the Church.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 12, 2010 11:53 AM ET USA

    According to this report it appears that this particular priest was already out of active ministry by order of his Bishop but now requesting laicization. But this bishop had removed him from active ministry already which was the appropriate step. To be wholly accurate we would need the actual letter sent to Card. Ratzinger's congregation to ascertain precisely what was asked andhow many details were shred concerning this priest.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 12, 2010 11:28 AM ET USA

    If anyone takes the time to transcribe the letter shown in facsimile by AP and translate it, there is no mention of abuse but it appears mainly to be informing the bishop of how he should proceed with the priest requesting laicization and that the congregation would have to study the entire request for some time and that the age of the priest is one area of question and it is important to ensure that no scandal be caused by such.

  • Posted by: john.paul3561 - Apr. 12, 2010 10:25 AM ET USA

    I fully agree that the secular media, in particular the NY Times, loves going after the Catholic Church. But in some of these cases, we really don't help ourselves. Mr. Lawler's defense is commendable, but the troubling aspect of this case (if true) is that this particular priest was already charged criminally with molestation, and was already given a sentence. If that is true, and he then asked out of the priesthood,what would the Vatican be waiting for? Why delay at all?

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Apr. 12, 2010 12:36 AM ET USA

    The lack of discipline regarding the Bishops has been conveniently forgotten..., the one valid point against which the Vatican could not defend...., instead (of correcting ourselves) mockery of our enemies is the latest thing. Is there any authority to hold the Bishops accountable on this earth?

  • Posted by: adamah - Apr. 10, 2010 7:33 PM ET USA

    Because Fr. Lombardi is a nitwit.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 10, 2010 2:52 PM ET USA

    Question: why don't we get these clear explanations from Fr. Lombardi?

  • Posted by: - Apr. 10, 2010 2:48 PM ET USA

    Wonderful clarity in this post, sir, thank you. Of course, one might ask whether today's journalists actually have standards and if so, what are they?

  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - Apr. 10, 2010 12:15 PM ET USA

    The headline should read 'Society Abandons Standards to Attack Pope'.