Questioning the Pope

A top Vatican official said The Times “lacks fairness in its coverage of Pope Benedict.” The archbishop of Brooklyn urged parishioners to “besiege” the paper and send a message that the Catholic Church will no longer be its “personal punching bag.” Writers in The Wall Street Journal and other publications have assailed the paper.

“Falsehood upon falsehood,” the Rev. Raymond J. de Souza, a priest and professor at Queen’s University in Ontario, wrote in Canada’s National Post.

Hundreds of people have written to me. “I am outraged each time The Times intentionally disparages the Catholic Church, its pope and its bishops,” said Richard Kelly of Pittsburgh. Edwina and Gene Cosgriff of Staten Island wrote that The Times was guilty of “a yellow journalism hatchet job on a holy, venerable, outstanding religious leader.”

Hardly alone among the world’s news media, The Times has been covering the widening Catholic sexual-abuse scandal, which in recent months has expanded even to the German archdiocese of the future Pope Benedict XVI. But one Times article last month struck a particularly sensitive nerve. Relying on documents from a lawsuit, it described how local church officials and the Vatican handled the case of a Milwaukee priest who may have molested as many as 200 deaf boys.

It said that top Vatican officials, including Benedict when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, did not defrock Father Lawrence Murphy despite repeated warnings from American bishops that failure to act could embarrass the church.

The Murphy case, as reported by The Times and described in documents on the paper’s Web site, was this:

Murphy worked at a Catholic school for deaf children from 1950 until 1974. Although three successive archbishops were told he was molesting boys, he was quietly moved to northern Wisconsin, where he continued for 24 years to work with children in parishes and a juvenile detention center. Church officials never reported him to criminal or civil authorities, and complaints by victims and their families to the police and prosecutors were not acted upon.

In 1996, more than 20 years after Murphy moved away, the archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, wrote to Ratzinger, saying he had just learned that the priest had solicited sex in the confessional while at the school, a particularly grievous offense, and asked how he should proceed. Although there was no response, Weakland started an ecclesiastical trial but then worried about the church’s statute of limitations. He asked a different office in Rome for a waiver but was directed back to Ratzinger’s office.

After eight months, Ratzinger’s deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who is now the second-ranking official in the Vatican, authorized a trial that could end in Murphy’s expulsion from the priesthood.

But Murphy appealed to Ratzinger. The allegations were more than 25 years old, he was 72 and in ill health, and he had repented, he wrote. Bertone then suggested measures short of expulsion. Weakland said that, at a meeting in the Vatican, he failed to persuade Bertone and other officials to let the trial go forward, and it was halted in 1998, shortly before Murphy died. The documents support this account.

Many readers, including church officials, took the article as a direct attack on Pope Benedict. But much of their criticism does not hold up:

¶De Souza, writing this time on National Review Online, said The Times accused Ratzinger of “intervening” to prevent Murphy from facing penalties. The paper did not. The Times article did not establish what role, if any, Ratzinger played, saying only that communications about the case were addressed to him and that his deputy intervened. That’s a long way from saying Ratzinger did.

Cardinal William Levada, an American who succeeded Ratzinger as head of the Vatican office with jurisdiction in the matter, wrote an unusual 2,400-word statement on the Vatican Web site, attacking the article and defending the pope. He said the reporter, Laurie Goodstein, did not examine the decisions of civil authorities and local church officials because her point was to blame the pope.

It is a fair question why Milwaukee government officials were not more aggressive about the case, but it is also perfectly appropriate for The Times, with a worldwide audience, to pay far more attention to the handling of a sexual-abuse case under the jurisdiction of the prelate who would eventually become pope.

¶The presiding judge in Murphy’s canonical trial, Father Thomas Brundage, said in an essay online that he had never received any communication halting the trial, and many critics of the Times’s coverage pointed to this as evidence that there was no pressure from the Vatican to drop the case. But The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel later confronted Brundage with a memo showing that he actually drafted the archbishop’s letter officially abating the trial. Brundage posted a statement: “In all honesty, I do not remember this memo, but I do admit to being wrong on this issue.”

William McGurn, a vice president of the News Corporation, wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal saying that Goodstein should have told readers more about the sources who gave her the documents on which her article was based. She identified them as Jeff Anderson and Mike Finnegan, the lawyers for five men who have brought four lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Anderson told The Washington Post last week that he has filed more than 1,500 suits against the church, and the paper said he has made millions of dollars from them. McGurn said The Times should have emphasized that history.

Goodstein told me her article was not done at the instigation of the lawyers but came about from her own reporting inquiries. Regardless, the issue of whether Anderson has sued the church four times or 1,500 seems to me to be a red herring. The more important question is whether the documents were genuine and what they said about the case. I have read them and believe that Goodstein’s article is an accurate and reasonable account. Readers can interpret whether they showed a two-year lack of urgency about a horrendous case or, as Levada argued, a realistic judgment that it was “useless” to try a dying priest.

Some readers say The Times is anti-Catholic. They wonder why it isn’t giving equal effort to sex abuse in the public schools, or in other religions. And Levada and others argue that Benedict improved the Vatican’s response to such cases, streamlining the procedures for hearing them and apologizing to victims.

But it would be irresponsible to ignore the continuing revelations. A day after the first article about Murphy, The Times published another front-page article that said Benedict, while archbishop in Munich, led a meeting approving the transfer of a pedophile priest and was kept informed about the case. The priest was later convicted of molesting boys in another parish. The paper’s critics have been mostly silent about this report.

Like it or not, there are circumstances that have justifiably driven this story for years, including a well-documented pattern of denial and cover-up in an institution with billions of followers. Painful though it may be, the paper has an obligation to follow the story where it leads, even to the pope’s door.

This column was originally published in The New York Times on April 25, 2010.

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