Just an awkward headline?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 11, 2018

The headline on the Associated Press story is provocative:

Vatican Official: Sex abuse scandal is church’s ‘own 9/11’

But is the headline accurate? Read on:

A top Vatican official says the clerical sex scandal is such a game-changing catastrophe for the Catholic Church that he called it the church’s “own 9/11” on the 17th anniversary of the attacks on the US.

Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, a top aide to both retired Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, told a book presentation Tuesday that he by no means was comparing the scandal to the nearly 3,000 people killed in the US on Sept. 11, 2001...

Excuse me? That’s exactly what he was doing. If he didn’t mean to make a comparison, why did he mention 9/11? There’s an unhappy tendency, in clerical circles, to make a public statement and then, realizing that statement was infelicitous, to insist that the words don’t mean.... what the words obviously mean.

In this case, however, Archbishop Gänswein may be innocent, because—as the full AP story shows—he said that the sex-abuse scandal is unlike 9/11 in that it did not happen on one specific date. So in that sense, there is no comparison. There is a comparison, he suggested, insofar as the Catholic scandal, like the terrorist attack, exacted a catastrophic cost in human suffering. He lamented “how many souls have been wounded irrevocably and mortally by priests from the Catholic Church.”


Just by the way, the AP story refers to a “top Vatican official.” Archbishop Gänswein certainly did have an influential post in the past, back when he was private secretary to Pope Benedict XVI. But now, as secretary to a retired Pontiff, he’s nowhere near the “top” of the Vatican pecking order. It’s true that he also holds the title of Prefect of the Pontifical Household. The title sounds important, and it’s true that the man who holds the title traditionally receives a red hat when he retires. But would you refer to Cardinals James Harvey, Dino Monduzzi, or Jacques-Paul Martin (Gänswein’s predecessors) as a “top” Vatican official? Only if you wanted to inflate the importance of your 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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Sep. 12, 2018 10:20 AM ET USA

    Quote: "There's an unhappy tendency, in clerical circles, to make a public statement and then, realizing that statement was infelicitous, to insist that the words don’t mean.... what the words obviously mean." The tendency seems growing but it really has to stop! It makes the involved bishops look like Three-card Monte con artists. Just let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.'