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Tough competition in the media-bias department

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 07, 2010

A German rag, Der Spiegel has produced a story that rivals the coverage of the New York Times in its flagrant bias against Pope Benedict and the Catholic Church. 

The headline provides sets the tone: Pope Benedict XVI Lashes Out at Secular Justice. You get the message: the Pope is opposed to justice. Subtle. If you read past the headline, you see that the Pope really didn't "lash out" at secular justice at all. He objected to the aggressive police raid on the Belgian bishops' headquarters. But as even the Spiegel story concedes, he "argued in favor of cooperating with the secular justice system." So the headline is roughly 180° off from the facts contained in the report.

It goes downhill from there. How much misinformation can you cram into a single paragraph? Let’s see:

Even in the sixth year of Benedict's pontificate, the Vatican has yet to provide the national churches with a globally binding policy for dealing with the perpetrators of abuse. It has not said how, under church law, abusive clergymen are to be reported and punished, nor how the Catholic Church will cooperate with secular justice systems.

It is the sixth year of this pontificate. Other than that, every statement in the paragraph is wrong.

  1. There are no “national churches” within Catholicism; there are national episcopal conferences, but the Church is universal.
  2. There is a globally binding policy for dealing with abusive priests. It is spelled out in the 2001 Vatican document Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela, which was partially revised in 2003.
  3. Church law does specify how abusive clergymen are to be reported; their cases are handled by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
  4. The Vatican has promised cooperation with secular law-enforcement officials, and directs bishops to report abuse to the proper authorities.

So we know that Der Spiegel is indifferent to the facts. The journal is equally disinterested in the principles of logic. Just below the spectacularly inaccurate statements above, we read:

This persistent refusal to give local bishops greater freedom in dealing with cases of abuse partially explains why an ever increasing number of cases are surfacing in Brazil and Italy -- and now also in Belgium involving bishops attempting to resolve cases of abuse their own way, without reporting them to the Vatican or state prosecutors.
  1. Just a few sentences back, the authors were arguing that the Vatican was at fault for not establishing a “globally binding” policy. Now the complaint is that local bishops didn’t have enough freedom. Did the editors notice a contradiction here? Did they care?
  2. And the next contradiction comes in the next sentence. If the bishops didn’t have freedom to set their own policies, how is it that they set their own policies?
  3. Finally, if the individual bishops, acting “their own way,” failed to notify police in their own countries, why is the Vatican to blame?

One more sample paragraph:

This has led to a power struggle between liberal and conservative forces in the Vatican. The conservatives in the church state see the zero-tolerance policy of US bishops as a means of curtailing the rights of accused priests. By contrast, liberal spirits are pushing to rapidly investigate and refer cases to secular authorities.
  1. What is a “church state,” I wonder?
  2. This has never been a liberal-conservative issue. Some prelates who are ordinarily classified as “conservative”—starting with the Pope—have pressed hard for aggressive investigation of abuse claims. Some known as leading “liberals”—one thinks of Archbishop Weakland and Cardinal Mahony in the US, and now Cardinal Danneels in Belgium—have done their utmost to keep information from public authorities.
  3. There is no “contrast” between the two stands sketched by Der Spiegel. It’s perfectly consistent to say that accused priests should have due process within the Church, while the charges against them should also be referred to public prosecutors. In fact that’s a good policy.

Der Spiegel finishes off this hatchet job with a reference to the case of Bishop Walter Mixa, whose resignation Pope Benedict accepted and reaffirmed. The article implies that the Pope defended Mixa when the German bishop was accused of sexual abuse. That’s another blatant inaccuracy. When Bishop Mixa threatened to retract his resignation, the Vatican pointedly announced that the Pope had accepted that resignation and the issue was not subject to renegotiation. The final sentence is a snide assertion that after an unspecified length of time devoted to prayerful reflection, “Bishop Mixa, like other retired bishops, would again be available for pastoral duties.” A crucial fact is missing from that sentence: Bishop Mixa will be allowed to perform pastoral work only with the permission of his successor. In all likelihood that permission will not be forthcoming, and the unfortunate prelate’s “period of healing and reconciliation” will last until his death. But that fact does not match Der Spiegel’s preconceptions, so it is not presented to the readers.

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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