Using the journalism TARDIS: Why was Cardinal McCarrick such a crucial news source?

When a big news story gets rolling -- like the fall of Cardinal Theodore "Uncle Ted" McCarrick -- the digital waves keep crashing in day after, even if there are no new developments in the mainstream press.

Here at GetReligion, it's hard to know what is worth an update or a critique. We will err on the side of keeping readers connected to some of the discussions that are taking place in serious blogging and social media.

Some of the most important issues in this case are linked to journalism questions in the past. If you have followed the must-read posts of GetReligionista Julia Duin (start here and here) and others (Rod "Benedict Option" Dreher, for example), then you know that news organizations had pieces of this puzzle years ago, but could not land the on-the-record interviews needed to satisfy lawyers and editors. One of the big questions: What happened to the New York Times Sunday Magazine story in 2012 that almost made it to print?

There are many "what ifs" to consider. Old-timers like me -- people who covered events in which Cardinal McCarrick was a player and watched journalists encircle him -- may also want to pause and consider why this man was such a prominent news source, in front of cameras and behind the scenes.

The bottom line: The Catholic hierarchy chose to put him in Washington, D.C.

So with that reality in mind, let's do something that your GetReligionistas hardly ever do (with good cause), which is jump in a journalism TARDIS (a Doctor Who reference, of course) and travel back in time. In this case, it's quite educational to pause and examine a glowing 2004 Washingtonian profile of Cardinal McCarrick. Here is the epic double-decker headline: 

The Man In The Red Hat
With a Controversial Catholic in the Presidential Race, the Cardinal Is Seen by Many as the Vatican's Man in Washington -- and He May Play a Big Role in the Selection of the Next Pope

Here is the overture. Pay close attention to the information about this cardinal's clout with journalists:

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick would never hint at a preference in the presidential race, but if John Kerry wins in November, he will be the first Catholic in the White House in four decades–and part of McCarrick's flock.
That the President would be a controversial Catholic doesn't faze McCarrick. In the nearly four years that he has headed the Archdiocese of Washington, McCarrick has become the nation's most interviewed and quoted cardinal. Whether Kerry becomes president or not, the battles within the Catholic Church are likely only to intensify. As one longtime observer says of McCarrick, "He's between the rock of Peter and a hard place."
If it's a hard place, it is also a high one. McCarrick is a significant force in the Church. He has been close to Pope John Paul II for many years and has served as his emissary on international issues. The Pontiff assigned him to the Washington Archdiocese four years ago to put him at the center of national and world politics. Because of his stature in the College of Cardinals, Vatican watchers believe McCarrick will be a dominant force in the election of the next pope.

What, pray tell, were these Catholic battles about? 

If the rock of St. Peter was on one side, and McCarrick was stuck in the middle, what was the nature of the forces representing the "hard place" on the other side? 

The issues were doctrinal, of course, but for journalists they were primarily political. At the heart of it all was a basic question: What does it mean to be a faithful Catholic and to participate in the sacramental life of the church?

 

 

Thus, the Washingtonian profile noted:

McCarrick, who has appeared on Meet the Press and been quoted extensively in the media, has angered some conservative Catholic groups who feel he is publicly too tolerant of politicians like Kerry. When some conservative church leaders said that Kerry, because of his pro-choice position, should not present himself at the altar rail for Communion, which Catholics believe is the body and blood of Christ, McCarrick responded, "I do not favor a confrontation at the altar rail with the Sacred Body of the Lord Jesus in my hand. There are apparently those who would welcome such a conflict, for good reasons I am sure, or for political ones, but I would not."
McCarrick says his position is in line with Catholic teachings: "The individual should be the one who decides whether he is in communion with the church, and if you are in communion with what the church teaches, then you have the right to receive Holy Communion."

So the bottom line is this: It is the individual Catholic who decides if he or she is "in communion with what the church teaches" on a controversial issue such as abortion. Not the church's bishops, acting as guardians of centuries of church doctrine, or even the contents of the Catholic Catechism?

As always, journalists do NOT have to agree with what the church teaches on issues such as abortion or the moral status of sex outside of marriage. The issue, in this case, is whether critics of McCarrick's stance were allowed to ask hard questions, on the record.

But the key, during this TARDIS trip, is to focus on this cardinal's unique role with the press.

Let us attend: 

David Gibson, author of The Coming Catholic Church and a religion reporter who has covered the Vatican and knew McCarrick for the 18 years he was Archbishop of Newark, describes him as a "pope maker." ... 
Much of McCarrick's work for the Vatican has taken place behind the scenes, but not all of it. Shortly after being elevated to cardinal, he was in Rome with other American cardinals discussing the sex-abuse crisis that was roiling the Church. It was McCarrick who emerged from the meetings to face the media in St. Peter's Square. McCarrick says that he got the job because the other cardinals "can run faster than I do."
Actually, he was asked to talk because of his experience, ease, and rapport with the media. Some reporters who covered him in Rome became such fans that they were known as "Team Ted."

"Team Ted"? 

Yes, it's hard not to read this 2004 profile and look for signs of the current crisis. This lengthy passage, in particular, is hard to avoid -- since it focuses on McCarrick's private life.

Instead of residing in the Pastoral Center -- where an apartment was available to him but which has all the charm of a Best Western hotel -- McCarrick lives on the edge of Kalorama near Adams Morgan. He wanted a more urban environment, he says, and "being cheap," he found that a former high school and orphanage on California Street, now Our Lady, Queen of the Americas Church parish building, had a fourth floor that was being used for storage. Cleaned out, it made a nice apartment.
The red-brick, four-story building has a daycare center on the first floor, parish offices and the church on the second and third. The top floor has been configured with four bedrooms, a chapel, an office, kitchen, living room, and dining room. McCarrick shares the apartment with auxiliary bishop Kevin Farrell and two priest secretaries.

People who know D.C. may have a few comments to make about Adams Morgan and the Dupont Circle area, in general.

A few lines later there is this:

McCarrick isn't seen much at the Kennedy Center, social events, or restaurants. ... When he gets a day off, McCarrick heads for a marina on St. Patrick's Creek in southern Maryland, where he keeps a 20-foot fishing boat that was given to him. He usually invites a few priests along, and they fish for striped bass, croakers, and flounder.
For the past 20 years he has vacationed for a week every year on the New Jersey shore, where a friend loans him a house. He usually takes along a group of priests and seminarians. The only requirement for guests is that someone be able to cook.

We will stop right there.

The key, once again, is to read this piece and look for two things: (1) The roots of Cardinal McCarrick's status as a superstar source for mainstream news coverage and (2) any evidence that the Washingtonian (or other "Team Ted" players) were listening to the urgent voices of this cardinal's critics (not all of them conservatives), some of whom were offering files of troubling evidence about personal and doctrinal issues.

Cardinal McCarrick was already a controversial man, back in 2004. Where are the voices of his critics in this profile?

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