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Scott P. Richert

The New York Times Public Editor on Clerical Sexual Abuse

By April 26, 2010

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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.

April 27, 2010 at 12:58 pm
(1) maisy says:

Thank you for calling the NYT out on this. I’ve heard the paper repeatedly referred to as “the enemy” by clerics and lay Catholics. That is unfortunate but it does seem closer to the truth than the fact that they are just following a story. It is a clear, calculated attempt to further their secularist agenda. It is just one of the reasons that I believe it will continue to falter and die with a whimper.

April 27, 2010 at 1:28 pm
(2) Char says:

Unfortunatley these types of things are going to continue to happen until the Church comes clean across the board. Whether they are talking about a current case or a past case and making allegations. Our Church protects the priests, on molesting, stealing, lying, bullying etc… I have first hand experience and others that I know have had different experiences that witness this protection. The Archdiocese in every location I’m sure has heard that they run like the mafia. They have a world all their own. They try to keep it all within their walls, protecting one another like a brotherhood. This is wrong. when they start to listen to the people and trust the flock instead of trying to protect someone that may not be fit to be a priest, that is when the church will change. When someone from a church has hard evidence of a priests misuse of power, that priest should be excommunicated or fired! Not protected by “church” law. The old saying… What would Jesus do? Jesus would call him out on his wrong doing and ask him to repent. The right thing for that priest to do would be to step down. Because we are human and that priest is on a power trip, he won’t step down due to his arrogance so then it is up to the Pope to have him removed. What I understand and I hope someone can clear this up for me. the Pope can not have anyone removed. I am told the Pope and Archbishops are equal. The Pope is just someone for council??? The bishop has the say in his own diocese. So what good is the pope to the people when he has no control to tell these Bishops to remove someone immediately? i.e. the Indian Priest that raped/molested (can’t remember which) a child the pope told him to have him step down but the bishop said no. Explain to me the role the pope and bishops have because the way it looks right now the bishops can do what ever the hell they please. It is extremely hard to stay in the catholic church. My family and I can’t even volunteer any longer because we are just sick over all the things we see and hear. The only thing keeping us going to Mass is Jesus Christ, we have to try with each week that passes, not to let our anger get the best of us as we sit in our pews. What does He think as we sit there stewing. Its shameful.

April 27, 2010 at 1:31 pm
(3) Tom Piatak says:

An excellent piece.

April 28, 2010 at 11:51 am
(4) Rosalee Adams says:

The church failed for years to protect its children from these sexual predators. I don’t feel sorry for the Vatican and do not see why any Catholic should. But what I failed to see also is why a parent would take the problem to the church when it belonged in a police station. These priests who sexually violated these children are criminals. If they were tried and found guilty they should have been defrocked and sent to prison like any other criminals.
There is so much protesting by the Vatican.
What sickens me even more is how long it has been going on and yet they want to canonize the last pope.
Canonize? I hardly believe covering pedophiles makes for saintly behavior……….
As a cradle Catholic I am sickened and as a person who was molested as a child I am further sickened. Mine was not perpetrated by a priest, but it does not matter. I have never forgotten as those who were violated by priests will not. What makes it so much worse for them is they trusted their priest as their spiritual guide.

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