Check, recheck and triple check (UPDATED)

Messy check on chalkboard

It appears that ace Vatican reporter John Allen isn't the only person who noted problems with the New York Times' recent attempt to link Pope Benedict XVI to a particularly sickening story of priest abuse. We looked at Allen's critique already. The Times said the fact that only 20 percent of abuse cases went to trial was a mark of "inaction" by the office Benedict oversaw when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. But Allen said that most Vatican observers would say that allowing bishops to handle cases instead of sending them all to trial was much more favorable to the victims. Allen summed up his take on the situation in a new op-ed for the Times:

After being elected pope, Benedict made the abuse cases a priority. One of his first acts was to discipline two high-profile clerics against whom sex abuse allegations had been hanging around for decades, but had previously been protected at the highest levels.

He is also the first pope ever to meet with victims of abuse, which he did in the United States and Australia in 2008. He spoke openly about the crisis some five times during his 2008 visit to the United States. And he became the first pope to devote an entire document to the sex-abuse crisis, his pastoral letter to Ireland.

What we are left with are two distinct views of the scandal. The outside world is outraged, rightly, at the church's decades of ignoring the problem. But those who understand the glacial pace at which change occurs in the Vatican understand that Benedict, admittedly late in the game but more than any other high-ranking official, saw the gravity of the situation and tried to steer a new course.

When I read the original Times story by Laurie Goodstein, it struck me as an attempt to latch onto the European media's current feeding frenzy on the Pope. The story was about Father Lawrence Murphy's sexual abuse against deaf children in Wisconsin and all hinged on supposed inaction by then-Cardinal Ratzinger's office. And many critics are saying it wasn't well researched. Over at First Things, George Weigel says that the sources used for the story were tainted:

Rembert Weakland is the emeritus archbishop of Milwaukee, notorious for having paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to satisfy the demands of his former male lover. Jeff Anderson is a Minnesota-based attorney who has made a substantial amount of money out of sex abuse "settlements," and who is party to ongoing litigation intended to bring the resources of the Vatican within the reach of contingency-fee lawyers in the United States. Yet these two utterly implausible--and, in any serious journalistic sense, disqualified--sources were those the Times cited in a story claiming that, as cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [CDF], Joseph Ratzinger, later Benedict XVI, had prevented sanctions against Father Lawrence Murphy, a diabolical Milwaukee priest who, decades before, had abused some 200 deaf children in his pastoral care. This was simply not true, as the legal papers from the Murphy case the Times provided on its Web site demonstrated (see here for a demolition of the Times' case based on the documentary evidence it made available). The facts, alas, seem to be of little interest to those whose primary concern is to nail down the narrative of global Catholic criminality, centered in the Vatican.

I disagree that the sources are disqualified. However, Weakland's resignation under scandal probably should have been disclosed more prominently. And I think his own involvement in a sex scandal means he shouldn't be relied on so much. As for the attorney, perhaps it would help to discuss his financial interest in the matter but I tend to think that people understand how lawyers are compensated.

But there's another criticism of the story's sourcing. Father Thomas Brundage, then-presiding judge for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, presided over the canonical criminal cases involving Father Murphy. You can read his entire statement here but he takes issue with part of the reporting:

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. Almost all of my quotes are from a document that can be found online with the correspondence between the Holy See and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. In an October 31, 1997 handwritten document, I am quoted as saying 'odds are that this situation may very well be the most horrendous, number wise, and especially because these are physically challenged, vulnerable people." Also quoted is this: "Children were approached within the confessional where the question of circumcision began the solicitation."

The problem with these statements attributed to me is that they were handwritten. The documents were not written by me and do not resemble my handwriting. The syntax is similar to what I might have said but I have no idea who wrote these statements, yet I am credited as stating them. As a college freshman at the Marquette University School of Journalism, we were told to check, recheck, and triple check our quotes if necessary. 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.

Additionally, in the documentation in a letter from Archbishop Weakland to then-secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone on August 19, 1998, Archbishop Weakland stated that he had instructed me to abate the proceedings against Father Murphy. Father Murphy, however, died two days later and the fact is that on the day that Father Murphy died, he was still the defendant in a church criminal trial. No one seems to be aware of this. Had I been asked to abate this trial, I most certainly would have insisted that an appeal be made to the supreme court of the church, or Pope John Paul II if necessary. That process would have taken months if not longer.

Well that's an even more effective argument against using Weakland as a source, I guess. (To abate means "to end.") He goes on to say that he has no reason to believe that Ratzinger was involved "at all" and that the changes made by Ratzinger's office meant that sexual abuse cases began to be handled "expeditiously, fairly, and with due regard to the rights of all the parties involved." He notes, like Allen, that Benedict has repeatedly apologized to the victims and instead of blaming him for inaction, he should be credited for being a strong and effective leader.

It sounds like some of the more informed voices on this matter are saying the same thing about then-Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict. That their view is in such contrast to the narrative the Times story promoted does point to problems.

And it's not just the Times. The Associated Press ran a story about how the mentally unstable man who shot Pope John Paul II believes that Benedict should resign. I'm not entirely certain why that's newsworthy.

To their credit, sort of, the Associated Press put up an article noting a few of Brundage's claims. To me, it reads somewhat defensive. And it ignores Brundage's claims that he wasn't interviewed in stories that quoted him. Instead, it says he merely "disputed" the attribution of "quotes from documents with his name handwritten at the top":

He said he didn't know who wrote those documents or under what context, but he didn't disagree with any of the information in them.

See! No problem! I always find it interesting how reporters can sort of get whipped up into a frenzy when investigating certain people or organizations but get downright nuanced and meek when looking at problems with journalism.

UPDATE: Father Brundage now says he must have been mistaken about whether or not he was asked to abate.

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