Covering Cardinal Law's death: Is it possible for reporters to be even-handed?

When it comes to obituaries of famous conservative religious figures, the question often is how far one should stick the knife in. This blog saw examples of sheer spite on the part of several media when Phyllis Schlafly died. Ditto for Tim LaHay.

Early coverage of the death of Cardinal Law on Tuesday shows a lot of knife activity on the part of the Boston Globe and New York Times and gentler judgment from some other quarters.

The key: Pay attention to how much information journalists provided about Law's work as a social activist in the 1960s.

We’ll start with how the Globe covered it:

Cardinal Bernard F. Law, whose 19-year tenure as head of the Archdiocese of Boston ended in his resignation after it was revealed he had failed to remove sexually abusive priests from the ministry, setting off a scandal that reached around the world, died Tuesday, according to an official with the Catholic Church. He was 86.
Boston’s eighth bishop and fourth archbishop, Cardinal Law was the highest-ranking official in the history of the US church to leave office in public disgrace. Although he had not broken any laws in the Commonwealth -- clergy were not required to report child sex abuse until 2002 -- his actions led to a sense of betrayal among many Boston Catholics that the church is still dealing with today…
In 2004, after Cardinal Law’s resignation, Pope John Paul II appointed him archpriest of the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary Major, and he moved to Rome. The controversial appointment was a reminder of the regard in which the Vatican held Cardinal Law.

It’s a well-rounded obit, albeit a pastiche of previous articles on the cardinal, who got massive coverage from the Globe.

Of course, the newspaper's reporting in 2002 ultimately led to a Pulitzer prize. Later, the Oscar-award-winning film, “Spotlight,” told of how the newspaper investigated the massive amount of child sexual abuse cases by local priests. At the end:

The attorney general’s office said the abuse extended over six decades and involved at least 237 priests and 789 children; of those, 48 priests and other archdiocesan employees were alleged to have abused children while Law was leader of the Boston archdiocese.

Law looked like someone from Central Casting assigned to play an august role.

As a young man, he had thought of the Foreign Service as a career; and with his thatch of white hair, thick build, square jaw, and deliberate speech, he had the distinguished appearance and demeanor of a banker or diplomat. More than that, Cardinal Law conveyed the sense of being someone conscious of having such an appearance and manner.

While the article heavily deals with Law’s role in the scandal, it does tell of other ways he made history, such as proposing, in 1985, the creation of the first revised Catholic catechism since the Council of Trent (1545-1563); how he was seen as almost a liberal in the 1980s when he favored lifting the Cuban embargo, opposed the death penalty and reached out to immigrants years before it was fashionable.

It even injects some humor by relating how Law called out the wrath of God on his tormenters in the media.

Cardinal Law decried press attention to (abusive priest Rev. James R.) Porter. “The papers like to focus on the faults of a few,” he said. “We deplore that. ... By all means, we call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe."

The headline to the main piece was “Cardinal left Boston in disgrace;” two sidebars on the cardinal’s job history and a third with the head: “I hope the gates of hell are swinging wide open” come with quotes from priestly sex abuse survivors. Seems that Law got a worse send-off than Charles Manson of whom I don't remember newspapers consigning to hell. 

In the news dump of pieces from the Globe, I checked the archdiocese's web site Tuesday night my time and Law's death had still not been announced on it. Which is odd, in that Law's impending death has been whispered about for days.

The New York Times didn't even try to hide its distaste not only for the cardinal but for the church he represented.

His popularity was hardly universal. Some of his own clergymen called him arrogant and autocratic. To critics, and even to many Catholics who questioned church doctrines, he embodied the patriarchal, authoritarian ideologies of a hierarchy that rigidly opposed abortion, birth control, the ordination of women and changes in the traditional celibacy of an all-male priesthood.

What does opposition to abortion, birth control and priestly celibacy (which are core Catholic doctrines) have to do with Law? All cardinals tend to oppose that triad, so taking a slap at Catholicism in general is pure spite. There’s lots to criticize about Law without trashing his church.

As the Times relates, Law was the first high-ranking prelate to lose his job over the scandal and bishops elsewhere took note of his reaction and planned accordingly.

As the scandal widened, demands for his resignation grew. They peaked in December 2002, when church documents released by plaintiffs’ lawyers showed that Cardinal Law for years had transferred abusive priests without telling parishioners or law-enforcement officials, and that he had been more protective of the priests, and less of their victims, than he had allowed.
Nearly 60 priests signed a letter asking him to resign. Polls showed that three-quarters of the churchgoers in an archdiocese of millions believed that cases of pedophile priests had been covered up. Cardinal Law, his credibility in tatters, flew to Rome, and on Dec. 13 the pope accepted his resignation.

As always, the blog “Whispers in the Loggia” has details no one else has about the deceased cardinal, including how his death will play out in Rome.

Whenever it does, much as the moment is bound to bring a “media circus” to the American city Law bestrode as a colossus for close to two decades, according to long-determined plans, none of the eventual sendoff will take place in Boston. Instead, the cardinal’s farewell is expected to follow the customary ritual for a top-level hierarch resident in Rome -- one which would take place within hours of his passing, and will inevitably involve the presence of the Pope, who traditionally enters St Peter’s Basilica at the close of a Mass to lead the Final Commendation at the Altar of the Chair. (In addition, as with the death of every cardinal, Francis will issue a telegram of condolence, the wording of which will prove especially sensitive -- not to mention closely watched -- in this case.)

Though the venue would reflect the cardinal’s radioactive standing in the US’ public eye, it nonetheless serves to underscore the equally heated reaction to John Paul II’s 2004 appointment of Law as archpriest of St Mary Major, a sinecure which made him the pontiff’s delegate to one of Rome’s four principal basilicas. In light of that role (from which he was retired by then-Pope Benedict XVI within days of turning 80 in 2011), Law will be buried in the crypt beneath the Liberian Basilica -- Christendom’s oldest church dedicated to the Mother of God, the gold adorning its ceilings said to have been brought back by Christopher Columbus from his journeys to the “new world.”

Crux ran a standard obit, reminding readers of the cardinal’s many accomplishments before the devastation of 2002.

However, it matters when a reporter as prominent as John L. Allen, Jr., writes this kind of summary statement:

From the beginning, Law was at the center of virtually every major development in both the society and the Church of his time.
As a Catholic priest in Mississippi during the 1960s, he was an early proponent of the civil rights movement. Under his leadership, the diocesan newspaper in Natchez-Jackson adopted a strong stand in favor of civil rights and the emancipation of African-Americans, which earned him death threats.

Then, more information about Law's work in the public square:

Despite his reputation as a staunch conservative, Law continued to fight aggressively on behalf of the church’s social justice agenda as well. He became known as one of the bishops’ most effective emissaries on capital hill, once engaging in a celebrated behind-the-scenes showdown with the Bush administration over tax relief for the working poor, which ended with a personal intervention by Law with senior Bush adviser Karl Rove.
By 2001, Law was considered the most powerful cardinal in perhaps the most powerful country in the world, celebrated wherever he went in Catholic circles as a living legend.

The bottom line: Read the Crux obit, then read the obit in the Times. Compare the two.

The obituary is the last place for a person to get a hearing in this world.

A note to journalists: Spare readers the guesses on that person's eternal destiny or on what he or she deserves. There's a greater judge who rules on that, so keep the editorializing down and give us the facts, and only that, about the person's legacy and life.

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