Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano

Vatican ‘wags the dog’ on McCarrick and the American press is powerless against it

Vatican ‘wags the dog’ on McCarrick and the American press is powerless against it

Journalism isn’t what it used to be.

You hear a lot of people in the business — most of them over 40 — say things like that either in a newsroom or afterwards at the nearest bar at the end of a very busy day. The internet and layoffs are the two biggest culprits. The internet radically altered newsgathering methods and distribution of information. That “disruption” — as some have called it — led to financial loses and smaller staffs. That and digital advertising that drives many news consumers crazy.

Smaller newsrooms and dwindling budgets means fewer journalists. More importantly, it means fewer of them can travel. The ability to actually be in the place where something is taking place — rather than thousands of miles away in an office — does make a major difference. It’s why The New York Times and Washington Post produce such quality work from foreign correspondents.

This leaves most U.S. newsrooms reliant on wire services, most notably The Associated Press and Reuters, for international coverage. This brings us to the Vatican, which is located across the Atlantic from most newsrooms and Pope Francis, like pontiffs before him, has a penchant for traveling, it means having to rely on these news organizations for what’s going on/being said so far away.

Pope Francis is a great example of an international leader whose handlers like to control the message. Not too different from the White House press office, where access can often be very limited. That makes the papal news conference, the one that takes place aboard the pope’s flight on the way to Rome at the end of very trip, very important. President Donald Trump and his press shop get plenty of heat, and deservingly so, for sparring with reporters. He isn’t alone. Sadly, the slow death of local journalism in many once-thriving market across the United States has made it easier for town boards, mayors and even governors to get away with more.

Covering the pope is on a global scale, but some of the same problems afflicting local journalism can also be found here. The papal news conference, it turns out, isn’t what it used to be. What is it like these days? Here’s one recent observation from John Allen, a veteran Vatican reporter, in a piece for Crux. He noted that the most-recent news conference on June 2 after the pope’s return from Romania, was an example of how these gatherings “have been considerably less spicy, often serving up little more than reiterations of things Francis already has said, or excuses to allow the pope to say things that he or his advisers want on the record for one reason or another.” Here’s what Allen’s piece is about:

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This week's podcast: What's better for Catholic leaders, silence or hanging your own lantern?

This week's podcast: What's better for Catholic leaders, silence or hanging your own lantern?

The body blows just keep coming.

That’s how many Catholics — on both left and right — have to feel right now, after the daily meteor shower of news about falling stars in their church. All of this was, logically enough, the backdrop to the very open-ended, wide-ranging discussions in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast” (click here to tune that in).

One minute, and it’s new revelations linked to the wide, wide world of ex-cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. In the latest chapter of this drama, there were revelations at the Catholic News Agency and in the Washington Post that — forget all of his previous denials — Washington, D.C., Cardinal Donald Wuerl did know about the rumors swirling around McCarrick and his abusive relationships with boys and seminarians.

Want to guess which of these newsrooms dared to note that this fact was a key element of the infamous expose letters released by the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano? You got it. It was a branch of the alternative Catholic press (must-read Clemente Lisi post here) connecting those controversial dots — again.

Then, on the other doctrinal side of the fence, there were the revelations about Father C.J. McCloskey, a popular conservative apologist from Opus Dei. Here’s how Phil Lawler of CatholicCulture.org opened a post entitled “A bad day’s lament.”

Yesterday was “one of those days” — a day that found me hating my work, wishing I had some other sort of job.

The first blow, and by far the worst, came with the news, released by the Washington PostMonday evening, that an old friend, Father C. J. McCloskey, had been disciplined for sexual misconduct involving a married woman, and that Opus Dei, of which I was once a member, had (not to put too fine a point on it) botched the handling of his case. Father McCloskey has done great things for the Catholic Church, drawing many converts to the faith and encouraging many cradle Catholics like myself to deepen their spiritual lives. The charges against him, however, reinforce my fear that every “celebrity priest” is vulnerable to special temptations, and just one misstep away from scandal. …

But long ago I resolved that I want to hear all the truth, good and bad. It will be a painful process, exposing all the rot within our Church. But it’s the only way to begin the necessary process of reform.

All of this left me thinking about a question that I hear — year after year, decade after decade — whenever I have private meetings with clergy and religious leaders.

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Friday Five: What Wuerl knew, Opus Dei, Tim Tebow fiancee, Cyntoia Brown, Knights of Columbus

Friday Five: What Wuerl knew, Opus Dei, Tim Tebow fiancee, Cyntoia Brown, Knights of Columbus

Once again, the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal dominates the headlines.

From the Washington Post to the New York Times to Commonwealth, the story that won't go away keeps making mainstream news.

And yes, various angles show up in this week's Friday Five.

Let's dive right in:

1. Religion story of the week: The Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein reported Thursday that despite past denials, D.C. Cardinal Donald Wuerl knew of sexual misconduct allegations against ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick and reported them to the Vatican.

Catholic News Agency, which broke the news, includes a name that is crucial to the wider story: Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.

Look for more GetReligion analysis of this important development in the coming days.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: Yet another Washington Post story on a major angle in the scandal was the focus of our No. 1 most-clicked commentary of the week.

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Attention all newsroom managers: There will also be non-political news in 2019  

Attention all newsroom managers: There will also be non-political news in 2019  

We already know that in 2019 the news biz will be as consumed by All Things Trump as during the prior three and a half years. The media must also monitor countless maneuvers by countless Democratic presidential hopefuls. And there will be those ongoing eruptions in global politics.

If any column inches and air time are left over for our beat, the temptation will be to do those “religion and” stories, oh you know like predictable Donald Trump accolades from the media’s favorite evangelicals. On the big 2019 theme of whether the President can win a second term, The Guy reminds pundits for the umpteenth time that white Catholics outside the  Bible Belt will decide that.  

Most important, The Guy advises editors that audiences will welcome a bit of a break from political news. How about covering the more religious aspects of the religion beat like these three major 2019 stories?  

First, the top story of 2018, as the Dec. 5 Guy Memo proposed, is reports that the “CRISR” technique in November successfully produced the first newborns with engineered genes that  will be inherited by future generations. Biologists “playing God” to create human “designer babies” is an ethical quagmire that demands 2019 folo-ups.

Then, two vital and nearly simultaneous church events, one dealing with moral performance and the other with moral doctrine, will reverberate throughout the year.

Ready to mark those calendars?

Feb. 21-24 — Pope Francis has summoned the 135 heads of national  bishops’ conferences and comparable officers for a Vatican summit to cope with the disgusting and ceaseless cascade of priests who sexually molested underaged boys and girls (and the bishops and cardinals who hid them). The stakes could not be higher for the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.

This brings fierce memories of Pope John Paul II’s 2002 Vatican abuse confab with U.S. Catholic leaders (which The Guy covered for The AP alongside Rome Bureau legend Victor Simpson). Shortly thereafter, several hundred reporters (including The Guy alongside award-winning AP virtuoso Rachel Zoll) swamped the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Dallas that devised a cleanup plan.  

U.S. scandals then dominated the news. Since, it’s become obvious this is no “American crisis” but a worldwide one. The fact that victims’ suffering, scandals, cover-ups, malfeasance, investigations, lawsuits and bankruptcies persist 16 years later shows how intractable the moral rot has proven to be, with Cardinal Pell’s conviction the latest instance. 

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Ken Woodward, former Newsweek scribe: The 'double lives' elephant in the Catholic sex crisis

Ken Woodward, former Newsweek scribe: The 'double lives' elephant in the Catholic sex crisis

If you are a religion-beat professional of a certain age, or a religion-news consumer with a solid memory, then you absolutely know this name — Kenneth L. Woodard.

Woodward’s byline at Newsweek — like that of our GetReligion colleague Richard Ostling, of Time — was a key part of the news environment when I broke into religion-beat work in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Religion-beat pros looked forward to seeing the cover stories by these two men, because — to be blunt — they helped us lobby our own editors for serious coverage of certain subjects.

At the same time, Woodward has a feisty style all his own. He was, and this is a compliment where I come from, “a piece of work.” His writing had attitude. And he has also written a memoir entitled “Getting Religion.” So there.

The bottom line: If you see a Kenneth L. Woodward byline on a Commonweal Magazine essay under this headline — “Double Lives” — it’s pretty easy to figure out that this veteran scribe has taken a deep dive into the recent flood of news about his home territory, which is life in American Catholicism.

This is a must-read weekend think piece, to say the least. Woodward starts with some thoughts on that hellish Pennsylvania grand-jury report. But then he makes a statement about an “elephant” in this Catholic “living room” that many editors need to take seriously:

Such reports remind us of something we cannot afford to forget about the U.S. church’s recent history, but they should no longer surprise us.

The unmasking of ex-Cardinal McCarrick as a sexual predator is a far more consequential event.  I say this for several reasons.

First, his outing was the result of a church investigation, instead of a journalistic exposé.

Second, the McCarrick case has prompted demands that cardinals and bishops who are sexually abusive, or who cover up for any other cleric guilty of such crimes, be subject to automatic procedures similar to those the American hierarchy has already imposed on abusive priests, including dismissal from the ministry. The creation of such procedures would necessarily involve decisive action by the pope and require changes in canon law. Any outcome short of this would be a huge betrayal of the people of God, not to mention an invitation to civil authorities everywhere to press for further investigations into possible cover-ups by bishops past and present.

Third, McCarrick’s history of sexual abuse raises in a very concrete way the issue of homosexuality within the Catholic priesthood — although not in the way that many conservative Catholic writers suggest.

As your GetReligionistas have been saying for years, one of the key facts about this issue is that very few crimes and sins reporting during this multi-decade Catholic scandal can accurately be described with the word “pedophilia.”

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Washington Post sees big McCarrick picture: Why are broken celibacy vows no big deal?

Washington Post sees big McCarrick picture: Why are broken celibacy vows no big deal?

For weeks now, your GetReligionistas have carefully followed news coverage of the spectacular fall of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a key player for decades in countless trends and media storms in American Catholic life. His media-friendly career began in the New York City area and he ended up as a cardinal in Washington, D.C.

Most of the coverage of the “Uncle Ted” scandals this summer focused on his links to the latest developments in decades of horror stories about priests abusing young boys and teens. Also, efforts to promote and protect him was a major plot point in the blunt late-August document released by the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.

But those two themes tended to mask, in lots of stories (click here for background), two other crucial parts of the McCarrick drama. For example, most of his abuse focused on young men, seminarians to be specific. Also, the former D.C. cardinal has emerged as the iconic symbol of a larger problem — bishops and cardinals hiding the sins of their colleagues.

These latter elements of the McCarrick story seemed, for weeks, to have slipped onto a back burner in many crucial newsrooms. However, it was hard to know what has happening — behind the scenes — since even elite newsrooms are not as well staffed as they used to be and, well, there simply aren’t enough religion-beat pros out there (since many editors just don’t “get” the importance of this topic).

Now, there’s a feature at The Washington Post worthy of a strong spotlight: “Vatican’s handling of sexual misconduct complaints about ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick reveals a lot about the Catholic Church.”

That’s a rather bland headline, in my opinion. There needed to be something in there about broken celibacy vows and clergy getting busy with adults, including men wearing clerical collars and other ecclesiastical garb.

This story by religion-beat veteran Michelle Boorstein tells a complicated tale, focusing on a timeline of the evidence that is now available showing what key Vatican and U.S. officials had to have known about McCarrick, for the past quarter century or more.

Some of this information was already on blogs by activists such as the late Richard Sipe. Some of the information had been shared, privately, by priests and even bishops and is now emerging. Lots of crucial facts, obviously, remain locked in Vatican-controlled files.

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CNN thinks about some of the strategic silences in comments by the two popes in Rome

CNN thinks about some of the strategic silences in comments by the two popes in Rome

Here is an understatement: Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have certainly given journalists a lot to think about in the past year or so.

They have both made news with what they have said or written.

Both have also made headlines with what they have declined to say, with the questions they have refused to answer. Pope Francis? Click here. Pope Emeritus Benedict? Click here. Yes, a lot of this has to do with the life and affairs of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Now, Daniel Burke of CNN has taken those silences into think piece land: “The silent Popes: Why Francis and Benedict won't answer the accusations dividing their church.”

The overture is long, long, long and opens up all kinds of doors that journalists are thinking about right now:

(CNN) One rarely leaves his monastery high on a hill in Vatican City. The other speaks freely -- too freely, critics say -- but has vowed silence on this matter, for now.

Two men, both clad in white, both called Holy Father, and now, both facing questions about a crucial facet of the Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis: What did they know, and when?

Amid the onslaught of news about the scandal, it can be easy to overlook the historical novelty and high drama of this moment in the life of the church: For the first time in 600 years, there are two living popes, one retired and one active, whose fates may be intertwined, even as many of their followers are at odds.

It has been nearly a month since a former papal diplomat published a dramatic letter asserting a "homosexual networks" and widespread cover-ups within the highest levels of the Catholic Church.

The diplomat, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, demanded that Pope Francis resign for allegedly lifting sanctions that his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, had placed on an American cardinal accused of sexual misconduct.

Whether those sanctions actually existed is a question that Francis and Benedict seem uniquely qualified to answer. But neither the 91-year-old German scholar, nor the 81-year-old Argentine Jesuit has said a word about them.

Supporters of both popes cast their silence in spiritual terms, forms of discipline and faith that truth will be revealed, eventually. Others say Benedict and Francis are loath to descend into a mudslinging fight with a former employee. Some wonder if more mundane strategies may be at work, too, such as self-preservation.

Yes, this piece mentions McCarrick. It also contains the word “seminarians,” a subject that has been avoided by many mainstream reporters.

Burke makes it clear that some Catholics are mad at Francis. Some are mad at Benedict. Some are mad at both popes, for different reasons.

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Yo, scribes: During this papal in-flight presser, the news was what Francis refused to discuss

Yo, scribes: During this papal in-flight presser, the news was what Francis refused to discuss

Want to take a wild guess what Pope Francis wanted to talk about during the informal press conference during his latest flight back to Rome?

Yes, he wanted to talk about his trip to the Baltics. It appears that he also wanted to talk about other issues linked to foreign diplomacy — like the Vatican’s stunning deal to cooperate with the Powers That be in China when choosing Catholic bishops.

Now, want to take a guess what the pope did not what to talk about?

If you guessed that papal press aides basically banned questions about the life and times of Theodore McCarrick — including questions about the searing document (full text here) released by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador — then you’re a winner.

Think like a journalist for a moment. One would assume that this “please don’t ask The Question” rule would have, in its own way, been a newsworthy topic. Imagine the pope declining to answer questions about the Pennsylvania grand jury document, in what is usually an informal meeting with reporters.

This raises a familiar question: What is different about the #ChurchToo sins and crime child-abuse cases linked to McCarrick?

Try to find a reference to the “no McCarrick questions” ground rules in this Associated Press story, which clearly is about the in-flight presser:

(ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE) — Pope Francis acknowledged Tuesday that his landmark deal with China over bishop nominations will cause suffering among the underground faithful. But he said that he takes full responsibility and that he — and not Beijing — will have the ultimate say over naming new bishops.

Francis provided the first details of the weekend agreement signed during an in-flight news conference coming home from the Baltics. The deal aims to end decades of tensions over bishop nominations that had contributed to dividing the Chinese church and hampered efforts at improving bilateral relations.

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New York Times offers bizarre twist on Benedict XVI letters, while Crux sticks to the facts

New York Times offers bizarre twist on Benedict XVI letters, while Crux sticks to the facts

So here is the journalism question I offer to you today: What does a letter from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI written on Nov. 23, 2017, have to do with the written testimony of Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, which exploded into public view at the end of August, 2018?

If you look at this as a matter of logic, the answer is clear: Nothing.

Well, I guess one could argue that Benedict could have had a prophetic vision of what Vigano was going to do. But I think that’s a bit of a stretch. How about you?

Anyway, in this case it really helps to report the contents of the Benedict letter and look for the news contained therein.

That’s what the team at Crux did, under this recent headline: “Benedict XVI hits back at critics in leaked letters.” Note: The retired pope is speaking to his own critics.

Now hold that thought, while we look at the amazing and bizarre New York Times report about the same Benedict letters. The headline proclaimed: “In Private Letters, Benedict Rebukes Critics of Pope Francis.”

You see, everything has to be about conservative Catholics attacking Pope Francis. Got that? Here is the overture, which opens with — you got it — the Vigano letter:

ROME — The remarkable letter last month calling on Pope Francis to resign for allegedly shielding an abusive American cardinal also served as a public call to arms for some conservative Catholics who pine for the pontificate of the previous pope, Benedict XVI. For years now, they have carried his name like a battle standard into the ideological trenches.

Benedict apparently would like them to knock it off.

In private letters published on Thursday by the German newspaper Bild, Benedict, who in retirement has remained studiously quiet through the controversies over Francis’ fitness to lead the church, says that the “anger” expressed by some of his staunchest defenders risks tarnishing his own pontificate.

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