That strange AP story about a fired Slovak bishop

So what's up with the Associated Press, all of a sudden? It used to be rare to read an AP report that totally needed an "analysis" label, but now it seems that these stories pop up all of the time. This time around, we're talking about a report on Pope Benedict XVI's unusual decision to dismiss one of his European bishops outright -- just like that. No ifs, ands or buts. The bishop was simply shown the door.

Now, this is the kind of inside-baseball stuff that canon lawyers and church activists simply live to talk about. So what's up with the top of this AP opinion essay? Note how quickly the piece moves from facts into straight out, connect-the-dots speculation -- with no attribution clauses whatsoever.

As you read, keep asking yourself this simple, journalistic question: Who is talking?

VATICAN CITY -- The pope fired a 52-year-old Slovak bishop on Monday for apparently mismanaging his diocese in a rare show of papal power over his bishops.

Usually when bishops run into trouble -- either for alleged moral lapses or management problems -- they are persuaded by the Vatican to resign. But Pope Benedict XVI has become increasingly willing to forcibly remove bishops who refuse to step down, sacking three others in the last year alone.

His willingness to do so raises questions about whether he would take the same measures against bishops who covered up for sexually abusive priests. So far he has not.

"Apparently." "Usually." "Raises questions."

In this case, the subject of the story isn't really what the pope has or has not done with this bishop's job. In fact, in the world of who, what, when, where, why and how, this AP report doesn't even serve up the name of the fired bishop until the fifth paragraph.

Oh, and the first clear attribution in this story is a reference to "Italian news reports" that "suggested" Bishop Robert Bezak of Slovakia was sent backing because he was a bad administrator. There is a dash of secondhand Slovak news information in there, too.

So who is the key voice in the story, the person who seems to have helped establish the template that shaped its content? It's remarkable how far readers have to go to hear that voice, to find the first actual human source for the key information in this AP news report. Ready to wade through some additional unattributed material?

The exercise of the pope’s ability to fire a bishop has important implications, particularly concerning bishops who mishandle pedophile priests.

In the face of U.S. lawsuits seeking to hold the pope ultimately responsible for abusive priests, the Holy See has argued that bishops are largely masters of their dioceses and that the pope doesn’t really control them. The Vatican has thus sought to limit its own liability, arguing that the pope doesn’t exercise sufficient control over the bishops to be held responsible for their bungled response to priests who rape children.

The ability of the pope to actively fire bishops, and not just passively accept their resignations, would seem to undercut the Vatican’s argument of a hands-off pope.

Jeffrey Anderson, who is seeking to hold the Holy See liable for a case of an abusive priest in Oregon, said the Vatican was trying to have it both ways.

So what does the pope's decision to fire the Slovak bishop have to do with the clergy sex scandals in Europe and North America (let alone Oregon)? Why is this lawyer the first authoritative voice on a story in Eastern Europe?

In fact, what happened to the story about the firing of Bishop Bezak? Where are the canon lawyers and church insiders who could help readers understand why the pope took this particular course of action in this particular case? Also, note that the dateline is Vatican City, which means the story was reported and written at the bureau assigned to cover the Vatican.

Are we to assume that there are no canon lawyers who are available to talk to the press -- IN ROME?

Most strange. Most, most strange.

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