Step into the journalism Wayback Machine for a moment, please.
So how did this wild game of Vatican news, commentary and rumors get started? While reporters continue to jump up and down on Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano (his infamous letter is here), U.S. papal nuncio from 2011-2016, it may help to look back at the first card that was played in this poker match.
Well, let's say that this was the first card played in public.
I am referring, of course, to the New York Times piece that ran on July 16 under this headline: "He Preyed on Men Who Wanted to Be Priests. Then He Became a Cardinal."
I realize that there were stories in June, when McCarrick -- one of the most powerful Catholic media figures for decades -- was hit with charges that he abused a male teen-ager. Our own Julia Duin began writing posts about McCarrick's shady reputation and how reporters had never been able to get the right sources, on the record, that would allow them to nail down reports about McCarrick that had circulated for many years.
But the Times report on "Uncle Ted" and his years of abuse and sexual harassment raised haunting questions: Who had protected McCarrick and promoted him throughout his career? How many men in red hats were loyal to him, because he helped them? How high did these connections go, in the Catholic hierarchy in America and in Rome?
This is the deeper background behind this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which focuses on what I believe is the core story linked to the Vigano letter. Yes, Vigano said that media superstar Pope Francis should resign -- a sure headline maker under any circumstances. But the real story here remains McCarrick and the network that surrounded him.
Was Francis part of that network, in recent years or in the past? If Vigano is telling the truth, then the odds are very good that all the details will be in church files in Washington, D.C., and Rome. Vigano is saying what a five-star source would say, as a story like this unfolds: Open the files. Prove me wrong. Make my day, pope.
Meanwhile, what about the news media? It the Times -- the ultimate game changer -- played a key card in this game, what will the media do next?
At the moment, it appears that most of the journalistic energy is being dedicated to taking down Vigano and conservative Catholics who are cheering him on. A former GetReligionista had this to say about that:
Let's put this in "Spotlight" movie terms. Let's say that the Boston Globe team, back in 2001, received a call from one of the top clerics in the office of the Boston cardinal -- an auxiliary bishop, even. This man says: I was in the right position to see all the church documents. I know the facts and I have put them in a letter. I know where the documents are, or should be. Let me tell you how this system works.
Would the journalists at the Globe respond by doing everything they could to cut this auxiliary bishop down to size and to smear his motives? I don't think so. Would they protect the people fighting to protect the system?
Of course, journalists would have to learn about this source's mixed motives and factor that into the equation, in terms of trusting his account. All whistleblowers have motives.
But, clearly, Job 1 would be setting out to find out if his testimony is true -- especially since it's clear that the McCarrick story is at the heart of this narrative.
In other words, the Times dug out a big, big story, a key card in this McCarrick poker game. In terms of basic news research, will the world's top journalists focus on nailing down the details of the giant McCarrick puzzle, or will they continue to focus on Vigano?
That brings me to this amazing piece -- "Catholics face a painful question: Is it true?" -- that ran the other day in The Washington Post. This piece raises the right questions about Vigano. But then there is this long, but essential, passage:
We could know the truth. So why don’t we?
In his statements on Viganò’s testimony last Sunday, Francis invited journalists to use their skills and capacities to draw conclusions about the matter. And so, on Monday morning, I began to try.
When Francis recently sanctioned McCarrick because of new allegations of sexual assault, McCarrick essentially went into hiding, disappearing from public life, per papal orders, and adopting a low profile. I was tipped off, however, about where he has apparently been living and reasoned that if anyone would know whether Benedict handed down sanctions against McCarrick, it would be the man himself.
So a little before 9:30 on Monday evening -- likely a little later than is fair to an elderly man, I admit -- I knocked on his door. I was dismissed by another person, via a muted conversation through a windowpane, but left a note and a business card. Hearing no word, I returned Tuesday afternoon and found my card still on the windowsill where I had left it. I suspected my efforts to contact the former cardinal might not be getting through, and so resolved to try a little more persistence this time, waiting on his doorstep for roughly an hour, with a letter I had brought.
But it seems my contact information had made it to authorities: After I left, a representative from the Washington archdiocese called my editor to complain about my presence. I was surprised to learn I had caused sincere alarm -- I don’t present an imposing figure, and nobody ever so much as opened the door to ask me to go away -- but my insistence, the ringing and knocking, had clearly inspired fear.
I regret that. I don’t ever want to cause anyone any fear. Yet I can’t ignore the emails and calls and letters I receive daily from vulnerable, shaken Catholics asking: Is this true?
Now, here is the strange part. This piece was written by Elizabeth Bruenig, a Post opinion writer.
An opinion writer knocked on the ex-cardinal's door?
A power player at the archdiocese called a Post editor to protest someone trying to interview the person at the heart of the story?
So here is the question I keep hearing, via emails and other social media: What are hard-news, mainstream journalists doing, behind the scenes, to dig deeper on the McCarrick story?
The bottom line: We don't know.
Have powerful Catholics in D.C., New York City and elsewhere called editors and asked them not to ask scary questions? We don't know.