Corrections & amplifications, Vatican edition (UPDATED)

Mass in memory of John Paul II at the Vatican

Holy Week is the most sacred part of the liturgical calendar for Christians. This year, Holy Week has coincided with some tough coverage of the Vatican's handling of sex abuse problems from decades ago. We've looked a bit at the coverage and complaints of the coverage. Most of the American kerfuffle revolves around a New York Times story written by Laurie Goodstein, which attempted to link Pope Benedict XVI to a particularly horrible tale from the 1970s of sexual abuse involving hundreds of deaf boys. One complaint was made by the judge who handled the priest's trial. He said he was not contacted by the New York Times or the Associated Press, even though he was quoted in their stories.

It turns out that was incorrect. He wasn't contacted by either media outlet, but he was only quoted by the Associated Press. That AP story ran on the New York Times web site, for what it's worth. I learned all that from reporter Laurie Goodstein who incorporated the charge and the correction in her most recent story. It's an excellent way to handle clarifications.

Most recently, the Vatican itself came down on the New York Times for the manner in which it has been covering the case. Hard. Cardinal William J. Levada, Cardinal Ratzinger's replacement at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, takes issue with various parts of the Times reportage:

As I write this response today (March 26, 2010) I have had to admit to them that I am not proud of America's newspaper of record, the New York Times, as a paragon of fairness.

I say this because today's Times presents both a lengthy article by Laurie Goodstein, a senior columnist, headlined "Warned About Abuse, Vatican Failed to Defrock Priest," and an accompanying editorial entitled "The Pope and the Pedophilia Scandal," in which the editors call the Goodstein article a disturbing report (emphasis in original) as a basis for their own charges against the Pope. Both the article and the editorial are deficient by any reasonable standards of fairness that Americans have every right and expectation to find in their major media reporting.

He goes through his specific complaints about the accuracy of the piece -- definitely more about the prose of the piece and the absence of key information, rather than what was included. Here's a sample:

Goodstein's account bounces back and forth as if there were not some 20 plus years intervening between reports in the 1960 and 70's to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and local police, and Archbishop Weakland's appeal for help to the Vatican in 1996. Why? Because the point of the article is not about failures on the part of church and civil authorities to act properly at the time. I, for one, looking back at this report agree that Fr. Murphy deserved to be dismissed from the clerical state for his egregious criminal behavior, which would normally have resulted from a canonical trial.

The point of Goodstein's article, however, is to attribute the failure to accomplish this dismissal to Pope Benedict, instead of to diocesan decisions at the time. She uses the technique of repeating the many escalating charges and accusations from various sources (not least from her own newspaper), and tries to use these "newly unearthed files" as the basis for accusing the pope of leniency and inaction in this case and presumably in others.

The 2,400-word article lists many complaints and he calls out Vatican reporter Rachel Donadio, religion reporter Laurie Goodstein and opinion writer Maureen Dowd by name. I imagine it's difficult to continue writing about a story when you've been called out like that. I really enjoyed how Goodstein handled the issue with Brundage, above.

Donadio took on the larger Vatican charge:

A top Vatican official issued a detailed defense of Pope Benedict XVI's handling of sexual abuse cases and extensively criticized The New York Times's coverage, both in its news and editorial pages, as unfair to the pope and the church.

In a rare interview and a 2,400-word statement posted Wednesday on the Vatican Web site, the official, Cardinal William J. Levada, an American who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, praised Pope Benedict for vigorously investigating and prosecuting sexual abuse cases. He said The Times's coverage had been "deficient by any reasonable standards of fairness."

Cardinal Levada singled out several Times reporters and columnists for criticism, focusing particularly on an article describing failed efforts by Wisconsin church officials to persuade the Vatican to defrock a priest who had abused as many as 200 deaf boys from 1950 to 1974.

I wonder if readers should be informed that the author of the piece was one of the individuals singled out for criticism. I actually don't know. But I do think that the article, while including interesting information about Levada's views on the case and his defense of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, did not do a good job of explaining what he felt the stories got wrong.

It seems to me that readers should be told why Levada felt the articles were unfair by any reasonable standard, even briefly. If the story is going to be "Vatican-said, reporter said" anyway, at least we deserve to know what the Vatican's original complaints were. Otherwise, it reads more like a political analysis than a discussion of the substance of the charges and the defense against same.

UPDATE: Father Brundage now says he was mistaken about whether or not he was asked to abate the trial.

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