When a libel is ‘nothing personal’

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 15, 2018

Last December, reflecting on the death of Cardinal Bernard Law in First Things, I wrote: “Law became notorious for his handling of abuse complaints, and rightly so.” Does that sound to you like a sympathetic treatment of the late cardinal?

In an article that that appeared in Commonweal two weeks ago, B.D. McClay implied, in a passing reference, that I was not only sympathetic toward Cardinal Law, but even willing to excuse his failure to respond to sex-abuse complaints. Since I have been denouncing bishops for that failure for more than 25 years now, I was appalled by the suggestion, and wrote to the editors of Commonweal asking for an apology. Instead, B.D. McClay doubled down, insisting that she had read my article correctly.

In her astonishing answer to my complaint, McClay concedes that I present Cardinal Law as “an object lesson in corruption.” Nevertheless she picks out a few words and phrases from my obituary— “vilified” and “embattled” and “misguided policies” and “tragedy”— in which she detects traces of sympathy for the cardinal. The subtle connotations of these terms, she argues, justify her novel interpretation of my article. While exploring the possible connotations of these terms, she overlooked such other phrases as:

  • …something worse than simple negligence…;
  • …ignored the suffering of abuse victims…;
  • …motivated by the question for human respect…
  • …self-serving statements that bore all the marks of outright perjury…; and
  • Nonsense!

Wrapping up her defense of the original article, McClay writes that my First Things obituary “painted focus on Law as suspicious even while condemning him.” She concludes that I deflected attention from Law by insisting that other prelates were equally guilty of covering up abuse. Aha! If that were the charge against me, I plead guilty. But that is not the charge that she made in the original article. There, in a parenthetical sentence she attributed this view to me: “(Everybody covers up child abuse; why do you care so much this time?)” Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with my work on the subject (such as McClay claims to have) would recognize that the parenthetical sentence is precisely the opposite of my attitude.

Words have meanings, and when they are put together in sentences those meanings should be reasonably clear to an honest reader. It is telling that McClay could not cite a single complete sentence in the First Things piece (or anywhere else) expressing the view that she imputed to me. Instead she fabricated that parenthetical sentence, and now uses esoteric analysis of isolated terms, and speculation about my motives, to justify a reading that is completely at variance with the plain language of the text.

McClay apologizes, more or less, for a “lack of clarity” that caused me to see her article as an attack on my character. I wonder: If I described her original piece as a defense of rape (which it certainly was not—but then my piece was certainly not a defense of indifference to sexual abuse), and then added that I didn’t intend any personal offense, would she be mollified?

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jim.K - May. 16, 2018 11:12 PM ET USA

    This morning's Mass reading seems to apply - Acts 20: 28-38 "I know that after my departure savage wolves will come among you and they will not spare the flock. And from your own group, men will come forward perverting the truth to draw disciples away after them. So be vigilant... (St Paul) Your readers know you and most of us know Commonweal. Keep up your valiant defense of the Faith as you have for these many years! And as for Card. Law, he has already been judged. Let's move on.

  • Posted by: MatJohn - May. 16, 2018 4:36 PM ET USA

    An embedded mindset cannot be penetrated even when confronted with factual evidence to the contrary. It is trained to reply to that evidence with legal ju jitsu. Clay's piece demanded rebuttal. Attempting for admission to her flaws would require her to have an open mind. Result? Martial arts to the rescue.

  • Posted by: td4207 - May. 16, 2018 1:22 PM ET USA

    Wikipedia describes Commonweal as "a liberal American Catholic journal of opinion, edited and managed by lay Catholics, headquartered in The Interchurch Center in New York City." While I expect you and your colleagues to be widely read, I doubt whether Commonweal's subscribed readers wander too far afield from complementary PC publications to give your retort any credence or credit.

  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - May. 15, 2018 11:22 PM ET USA

    McClay's behavior is awful. But to be quite honest, I think both you and McClay are wrong about Cardinal Law. It was public knowledge well before 2002 that the Church, as well as society at large, was using therapy to treat abusers - and *no one* objected. Cardinal Law genuinely believed he was doing the right thing for both victims and priests. While the Boston Globe and the media at large would have you believe Law had nefarious motives in handling cases, that is 100% completely false.