In the run-up to the Vatican's release last week of its new "Norms on Most Serious Crimes," the New York Times continued its months-long effort to lay the responsibility for the decades-long clerical sex-abuse scandal at the feet of Pope Benedict XVI.
On July 2, the Times published an article, Church Office Failed to Act on Abuse Scandal, purporting to "show" that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had been given authority over sexual-abuse cases in 1922, despite the "claims" of Pope Benedict's supporters that the CDF (which Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger headed from 1979 until his election as pope in 2005) only received such authority in April 2001.
Remarks by Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi at the release of the new norms indicate that the Times may have stumbled onto a technical truth. As Father Lombardi put it:
In 2001 the Holy Father John Paul II promulgated a very important document, the Motu Proprio "Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela", which gave the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responsibility to deal with and judge a series of particularly serious crimes within the ambit of canon law. This responsibility had previously been attributed also to other dicasteries [Church offices], or was not completely clear.
In other words, the motu proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela may have been as much about clarifying where the responsibility for sexual-abuse cases lay as it was about transferring the responsibility for such cases. As Times reporters Laurie Goodstein and David M. Halbfinger write:
Yet throughout the '80s and '90s, bishops who sought to penalize and dismiss abusive priests were daunted by a bewildering bureaucratic and canonical legal process, with contradicting laws and overlapping jurisdictions in Rome, according to church documents and interviews with bishops and canon lawyers.
No one who has followed the scandal would claim otherwise, and the Times essentially admits that some bishops who wanted to do the right thing inadvertently did wrong because they didn't understand what canon law required. Unfortunately, that single kernel of truth is pretty much all that can be found in Goodstein's and Halbfinger's article. The rest of the piece is composed of (at best) misrepresentation of facts, as well as commentary disguised as reporting.
Take the article's central claim:
The office led by Cardinal Ratzinger, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had actually been given authority over sexual abuse cases nearly 80 years earlier, in 1922, documents show and canon lawyers confirm.
Goodstein and Halbfinger use this assertion (which, as Michael Sean Winters points out, at least one canon lawyer not interviewed by the New York Times disputes) to damn Cardinal Ratzinger for "never assert[ing] that authority, failing to act even as the cases undermined the church's credibility in the United States, Australia, Ireland and elsewhere."
Yet the Times' own acknowledgment in the same article that there were "contradicting laws and overlapping jurisdictions in Rome" undermines Goodstein's and Halbfinger's attempt to blame Pope Benedict for failing to assert an authority that no one was quite sure he had. Or, rather, an authority that everyone agreed belonged to "other dicasteries," chief among them the Roman Rota.
Indeed, Goodstein and Halbfinger admit the truth later on in their article: After having claimed that "documents show and canon lawyers confirm" that the CDF had the authority all along, the reporters write that "canonists were deeply divided on whether the old instructions or the 1983 canon law—which were at odds on major points—should hold sway."
In that sense, it is little more than an historical curiosity that documents have been unearthed that indicate that the CDF may have held authority over such cases from 1922 on. Until the late 1990's, no one--and certainly not Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger--believed that the CDF had such authority. That should be obvious even to the most cursory observer of the scandal, let alone to a New York Times reporter tasked with covering it. After all, why would Cardinal Ratzinger spend years lobbying Pope John Paul II to transfer authority over such cases to the CDF if he believed that the CDF already had such authority?
Goodstein and Halbfinger simply ignore that question. Instead, they argue that Cardinal Ratzinger had a "different focus" and "priorities"--priorities which, their commentary disguised as reporting makes clear, they consider bad. That those priorities--for instance, combating heresy and upholding the Church's traditional understanding of the role of bishops in the hierarchy of the Church--were clearly acknowledged by all as essential roles of the CDF makes no difference. Pope Benedict should apologize for holding different priorities 20 years ago than the reporters and editors of the New York Times hold today.
To drive that point home, Goodstein and Halbfinger make deliberately misleading claims, such as the following:
Cardinal Ratzinger also focused on reining in national bishops' conferences, several of which, independent of Rome, had begun confronting the sexual abuse crisis and devising policies to address it in their countries. He declared that such conferences had "no theological basis" and "do not belong to the structure of the church." Individual bishops, he reaffirmed, reigned supreme in their dioceses and reported only to the authority of the pope in Rome.
Note what the Times' reporters have done. If you take out the bolded portion of that paragraph, what Goodstein and Halbfinger have written is correct. In the 1980's and 90's, there was a controversy within the Catholic Church over the canonical status of national bishops' conferences, which had taken on a life of their own and begun to act as if they were intermediary institutions between the pope and individual bishops. Confusion reigned, because policies made by such conferences were regarded by many bishops, priests, and laymen as normative, even when they had no basis in canon law or liturgical norms.
In most cases, the contentious policies concerned the liturgy and the practice of other sacraments, such as Confession. But Goodstein and Halbfinger, by including the bolded material in their paragraph, give the wholly untrue impression that the controversy over bishops' conferences had something to do with clerical sex abuse. Either Goodstein and Halbfinger are deliberately trying to mislead, or they have been deliberately misled by one of their sources.
The latter possibility cannot be ruled out, since the Times has previously admitted that ambulance-chasing lawyer Jeffrey Anderson, who has made over $60 million through civil suits against the Catholic Church, fed Laurie Goodstein the story of Fr. Lawrence Murphy while Anderson was secretly planning to file a lawsuit against the Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI, using the Murphy case as its basis.
How much of Goodstein's and Halbfinger's article comes directly from Anderson? We have no way of knowing, because the editors of the Times, who insist that the Catholic Church should be "transparent" in Her affairs, aren't about to hold their reporters to the same standard. Yet it would surprise no one who has followed this controversy over the last ten years or more to find that Anderson's lawsuit against the Vatican and Benedict will use the 1922 grant of authority to the CDF to bolster Anderson's claims.
The New York Times makes much out of the fact that Cardinal Ratzinger's cover letter to the 2001 motu proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela states that the 1922 grant of authority (restated in the 1962 document Crimen sollicitationis) remained "in force until now." But such language tells us only that Cardinal Ratzinger won the battle in 2001 to have the authority explicitly and solely attributed to the CDF. Having done so, he pointed back to the 1922 and 1962 documents to provide added weight to that authority. The cover letter proves nothing more than that.
Well, except for one more thing: It gives the lie to the New York Times' claim that Cardinal Ratzinger was "part of a culture of nonresponsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction." If the future pope had wished to avoid any responsibility for handling clerical sexual-abuse cases, why did he lobby for years to have the authority granted exclusively to the Church office that he headed up? Goodstein and Halbfinger never address that question, nor did the New York Times editorial board in its July 9, 2010, editorial "The Pope's Duty," in which it attempted to lay the clerical sexual-abuse crisis at Pope Benedict's feet and deigned to tell the Holy Father how to do his job.
There's a reason why neither the reporters nor the editors address that question: The answer doesn't fit into their prepackaged narrative. More than any other member of the Vatican hierarchy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger saw the problem and pushed the Church toward a solution. In the words of Bishop Philip Wilson of Australia, whom Goodstein and Halbfinger quote (though, oddly, without mentioning his first name) and then promptly ignore:
"The speech he [Cardinal Ratzinger] gave [at a Vatican meeting on clerical sexual abuse in 2000] was an analysis of the situation, the horrible nature of the crime, and that it had to be responded to promptly . . . I felt, this guy gets it, he's understanding the situation we're facing. At long last, we'll be able to move forward."
Cardinal Ratzinger did get it; Pope Benedict does get it; and the Catholic Church is moving forward--no thanks to the reporters and editors of the New York Times, who, it seems, will settle for nothing less than the resignation from the papacy of the man who most fully understood and addressed this crisis.
Unfortunately for the editors and reporters of the New York Times, they continue to swing and miss.