On Sunday, April 25, 2010, exactly one month after the New York Times set off a firestorm with the front-page headline "Vatican Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest Who Abused Boys," the Times public editor, Clark Hoyt, responded to criticisms of that story and similar coverage in the Times of the clerical sexual-abuse scandal.
The column has an undeniably defensive tone, starting with its title, "Questioning the Pope," which implies that critics of the Times' coverage are accusing the Times of lèse-majesté rather than of shoddy or biased reporting. Hoyt points out that the Times is "Hardly alone among the world’s news media . . . [in] covering the widening Catholic sexual-abuse scandal," which both obfuscates the Times' role in driving the coverage here in the United States (something that one might think that the Times would be proud of) and exaggerates what has happened. The scandal isn't "widening"; media both here and abroad have been reviving old cases that were discussed in the media years ago and treating them as if they were new "revelations."
Hoyt responds to William Cardinal Levada, who correctly pointed out that "civil authorities and local church officials" had direct authority over the case, not the Vatican, by claiming that it is "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." Cardinal Levada had argued that Laurie Goodstein was attempting to "blame the pope"; Hoyt's response, rather than absolving her (as Hoyt seems to think it does), confirms that Cardinal Levada was correct.
Hoyt begins the column by quoting a number of the criticisms of the Times' coverage and notes that "Hundred of people have written to me." Why, then, did he wait a full month to respond? Might it have something to do with the last major criticism that he quotes, from William McGurn at the Wall Street Journal, that pointed out that Goodstein acknowledged her main sources to be lawyers Mike Finnegan and Jeff Anderson, but failed to note that Anderson proudly proclaims that he has filed over 1,500 lawsuits against the Catholic Church?
Hoyt responded to McGurn by arguing that "whether Anderson has sued the church four times or 1,500 seems to me to be a red herring." But Hoyt himself fails to note a salient fact: On Thursday, April 22, three days before Hoyt's column appeared, Anderson filed a federal lawsuit against the Vatican and Pope Benedict in the case of Fr. Lawrence Murphy—the very case discussed in Goodstein's article. While Anderson has previously sued the Vatican, he has been unsuccessful so far. Whether the publicity generated by Goodstein's story will help him this time is uncertain, but it's reasonable to assume that Anderson thinks it will—and that puts Goodstein's use of Anderson as her main source in a very different light.
Indeed, Hoyt himself gives the reader reason to suspect that he thought that Goodstein might have crossed the line: "Goodstein told me her article was not done at the instigation of the lawyers but came about from her own reporting inquiries." Why would he even ask that question unless there was room for doubt? And why, exactly, would Goodstein have been inquiring about a decades-old case that had been discussed at great length in the Wisconsin media years ago?
In the end, Hoyt's column leaves both questions hanging. It's too bad: Clark Hoyt has a very good record as the Times' public editor, proving himself willing on a number of occasions to call the Times on the carpet when the paper makes a mistake.
This was not one of those times.