Taking Sides in Vatican vs. New York Times

Did the paper of record bungle facts?

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Vatican official Cardinal William Levada's lengthy attack on The New York Times has commentators rushing to choose sides. The New York Times has broken some of the most devastating stories in the current Catholic abuse scandal. Reporter Laurie Goodstein dropped perhaps the biggest bombshell, exposing the Vatican's involvement in an abuse case in Wisconsin. (A priest named Father Murphy molested hundreds of deaf boys, yet was never prosecuted). The paper followed up with more evidence of the pope's knowledge of cases in Germany.

Accusations of anti-Vatican media bias were already flying before Maureen Dowd's unrestrained column attacking the pope helped helped bring special attention on the Times. In his response, Cardinal Levada focuses particularly on refuting Goodstein's conclusion that the pope was to blame for the decision not to defrock or prosecute Father Murphy. He takes a different view of the Vatican's leniency at the end of Murphy's life, and questions The New York Times' timeline of both the Wisconsin and German abuses.

Unsurprisingly, such a hard-hitting response from the Vatican has many commentators up in arms.

Pro-New York Times

  • 'The Vatican Spins, The NYT Wins,' declares The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan, adding that the former "whiffed bad" on the blow aimed at the Times. "The only way," he says, that then-Cardinal Ratzinger was not involved with the Murphy coverup is "if control-queen Ratzinger knew nothing of the final decisions of his number two in a meeting in Rome on a case where hundreds of defenseless deaf children had been raped and molested by an unrepentant priest for decades." He lists the evidence against this version of events.
  • Surely You Can't Be Serious  New York Magazine's Chris Rovzar doesn't buy Levada's defense, particularly when he writes that "only when it learned that Murphy was dying did the Congregation suggest to Weakland that the canonical trial be suspended, since it would involve a lengthy process of taking testimony from a number of deaf victims from prior decades, as well as from the accused priest." The key part of Rovzar's response:
In America, part of what we consider justice is the opportunity to bring criminals to face their crimes, hold them publicly accountable, and give victims the chance to share their stories in open court. We do not simply leave a serial criminal, much less one who molested 200 deaf children, to die peacefully with curtailed job duties ... Yes, trials are long and hard, but since when has that ever been an excuse not to have them?
  • The Times Has Done Its Homework  "The Times," observes Politico's Michael Calderone, "has included a number of primary documents online" to support its reporting. The timeline "clearly shows," he says, "the Vatican's doctrinal office--which Ratzinger ran--suspended a secret trial that could have punished the priest, who was given such leniency because of his declining health." Furthermore, he argues, the Times has given op-ed space to defenders of the Vatican, "making it tougher to argue that the paper's coverage hasn't been balanced."

  • Andrew Sullivan and New York Times Have It in for the Pope  At The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, E.D. Kain is not convinced by Sullivan's post. Reviewing the evidence, he says that he is "left to surmise that had Murphy not been on his death bed, the trial would have gone on accordingly. Had civil authorities not dropped the ball, he would have likely died in prison." Thus, he continues, while "a great many people are responsible for this horrible cover-up ... I fail to see how Pope Benedict is one of them."
  • 'Media Run to NYT's Defense'  At Newsbusters, Kyle Drennen is irritated by CBS's and MSNBC's "killing the messenger" headlines as they report the Vatican's attack. He suggests the excerpts the networks showed of of Cardinal Levada's letter were a little too short, and notices that neither network "featured a representative of the Church to address the issue."
  • Inaccurate Reporting  Father Thomas Brundage, judicial vicar who presided over Father Murphy's "canonical criminal [case]," sides with the Vatican:
With regard to the inaccurate reporting on behalf of the New York Times, the Associated Press, and those that utilized these resources, first of all, I was never contacted by any of these news agencies but they felt free to quote me...I was never contacted by anyone on this document, written by an unknown source to me. Discerning truth takes time and it is apparent that the New York Times, the Associated Press and others did not take the time to get the facts correct.

Trying to Find the Middle Ground

  • 'Is Middle Ground Possible on the Pope?'  The National Catholic Reporter's John Allen Jr. thinks both that the questions being raised in the media are legitimate, and that they "have to be seen in the context of [the pope's] overall record on the crisis, and particularly since 2001 ... there's a lot to be said for that record." In other words, he thinks both sides have a point. To some, he acknowledges, that makes him a papal apologist, while to others he's "complicit in a campaign led by The New York Times and other media outlets" todestroy the pope or "wound the church."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.