Going after Benedict -- again

Pope Benedict XVI leaves at the end of the Vespers mass to celebrate the feast of Saint Peters and Paul in the Saint Paul Outside the Walls basilica in Rome June 28, 2010.  REUTERS/Tony Gentile  (ITALY - Tags: RELIGION)

The New York Times has published yet another massive (4,000 words this time) hit piece on Pope Benedict XVI. It's authored by Laurie Goodstein and David Halbfinger, although it does not read like a normal, hard-news piece by Goodstein, whose work has often been praised here at GetReligion. This flood of digital ink is more of a reported op-ed essay than a news story. Their basic argument is that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict, does not deserve his reputation as the Vatican insider who did the most to change the way the institution handles sex abuse claims. Let's start here:

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. But for the two decades he was in charge of that office, the future pope never asserted that authority, failing to act even as the cases undermined the church's credibility in the United States, Australia, Ireland and elsewhere

That's quite the allegation. It stands against almost everything that has been reported on this story, even from some of the best Vatican reporters in the business. So what's the evidence?

Well, let's just say there's a reason it gets buried way down in the piece. First we have seven paragraphs of dramatic claims -- such as the paragraph above -- and breathless language about "secret meetings" before we get to a quote. And that comes from (wait for it) Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, a retired auxiliary of the Sydney, Australia archdiocese. Now, I'm by no means saying he shouldn't be quoted, but he's more than just "outspoken" as the Times describes him. Australian bishops have basically gone so far as to warn the public about doctrinal difficulties he's had with the church, including "the nature of Tradition, the inspiration of the Holy Scripture, the infallibility of the Councils and the Pope, the authority of the Creeds, the nature of the ministerial priesthood and central elements of the Church's moral teaching."

Anyway, I think he's the first person quoted because all of the other people quoted have very nuanced quotes explaining the complexity of what was going on. I mean, apart from the dramatic set-up and a bit of hearsay, the claims of the piece come nowhere near being proven. Even Robinson's last quote is to say that Ratzinger was "extraordinarily supportive of what we were doing" to combat child abuse.

Okay, so what about the claim that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had been given authority over abuse cases in 1922 and that Benedict was willfully ignoring that as the church fell apart? Honestly, we never really get to any smoking gun. After 40-some paragraphs, this is the closest, I guess. It is dealing with a 2000 "secret" meeting:

Archbishop Wilson said in an interview that during the session he had to call Vatican officials' attention to long-ignored papal instructions, dating from 1922, and reissued in 1962, that gave Cardinal Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, previously known as the Holy Office, sole responsibility for deciding cases of priests accused of particularly heinous offenses: solicitation of sex during confession, homosexuality, pedophilia and bestiality.

Archbishop [Philip Edward Wilson of Adelaide, Australia,] said he had stumbled across the old instructions as a canon law student in the early 1990s. And he eventually learned 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.

If the old instructions had prevailed, then there would be no cause for confusion among bishops across the globe: all sexual abuse cases would fall under Cardinal Ratzinger's jurisdiction.

Okay, so we learn that there's all sorts of confusion between these different instructions. There are quotes from canon lawyers saying that the situation was a mess. But long story short is that a year after this meeting Pope John Paul II issued a letter clarifying the matter. It dictated that all cases of sexual abuse by priests should now be handled by Cardinal Ratzinger's office. At the same time that happened, Ratzinger put out a document saying that the 1922 and 1962 instructions that gave his office authority over sexual abuse by priests cases were "in force until now."

And then there are a bunch of quotes from people debating precisely what that meant and why he did it. I can actually think of a few reasons that aren't mentioned, too. No one is in agreement and there are a lot of quotes such as "There was confusion everywhere."

And. That. Is. It. So what's up with the incendiary lede and 4,000 words of conjecture? I honestly don't know.

It's really disappointing, actually. The language is just so loaded and while all the quotes seem generally supportive of Ratzinger, even if critical of the mess of the Vatican's legal system, the story relentlessly spins it against Ratzinger. For a random example of this, let's look first at the incredible language the Times uses to describe its own view of Ratzinger:

But the future pope, it is now clear, was also part of a culture of nonresponsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction

And yet look at how the views of Archbishop Wilson -- the hero of the previous excerpt -- are presented in their setup:

An exception to the prevailing attitude, several participants recalled, was Cardinal Ratzinger. He attended the sessions only intermittently and seldom spoke up. But in his only extended remarks, he made clear that he saw things differently from others in the Curia.

"The speech he gave was an analysis of the situation, the horrible nature of the crime, and that it had to be responded to promptly," recalled Archbishop Wilson of Australia, who was at the meeting in 2000. "I felt, this guy gets it, he's understanding the situation we're facing. At long last, we'll be able to move forward."

Even so, the meeting served as much to expose Cardinal Ratzinger's inattention to the problem as it did to showcase his new attitude.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, 72, is the vice-dean of the College of Cardinals and was once archbishop of Munich. Known as 'the Panzer Cardinal,' the conservative Ratzinger is powerful in the Vatican but may be too close to the pope for the cardinals' taste. While there is no official talk at the Vatican about who will succeed the ailing Pope John Paul II, several potential candidates have emerged--including Ratzinger. (Photo by Grzegorz Galazka/Getty Images)

It would be funny if the situation weren't so serious. At another point, the story tries to point out how Ratzinger cared more about doctrine than priest abuse by saying:

As Father Gauthe was being prosecuted in Louisiana, Cardinal Ratzinger was publicly disciplining priests in Brazil and Peru for preaching that the church should work to empower the poor and oppressed, which the cardinal saw as a Marxist-inspired distortion of church doctrine.

Ah yes, the whole Liberation Theology debacle really was about the Vatican hating poor and oppressed people, wasn't it? And how dare the head of the Vatican's doctrinal office be so concerned about doctrine?

It just reads like a hit piece and I'm truly disappointed in it. And not just because I so admire Goodstein's body of work. A piece of this length with that kind of absolutely inflammatory lede better back it up well. It doesn't even come close. In no way did the story live up to its big-talking promises at the beginning. And that's because the reporting didn't support those claims.

This could have been an illuminating story about how dysfunctional the Vatican is or how confusing it can be when you have competing statutes in canon law. All of that is newsworthy and valid. There are plenty of Catholic scandals to report on. And the desire to advance the story by connecting it to the Vatican is fine, even if the complete lack of context in these stories is unfortunate. But no matter how much you want to have a hot story, you can't let accurate reporting become a casualty.

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