Monday, March 29, 2010

The Munich allegations against Pope Benedict: unproven and poorly reported

The NY Times' recent story about Pope Benedict focused on records indicating that a sex abuser priest named Fr. Hullermann was transferred while the Pope was Archbishop of Munich 30 years ago. That monstrous cleric abused again and again.

As the allegations of oversight mount, some editorialists see a death knell for Benedict's papacy. But as with Reuters' claims that the Pope is "not intimidated by petty gossip", we see an article with a few facts clothed in uncertainty.

The NY Times article's second paragraph shows only that the then-Archbishop Ratzinger was "copied on a memo" that informed him the priest would be returning to pastoral work. (Of course, before e-mail and digital records, being CC'd meant something very different than today.)

The article continues:
An initial statement on the matter issued earlier this month by the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising placed full responsibility for the decision to allow the priest to resume his duties on Cardinal Ratzinger’s deputy, the Rev. Gerhard Gruber. But the memo, whose existence was confirmed by two church officials, shows that the future pope not only led a meeting on Jan. 15, 1980, approving the transfer of the priest, but was also kept informed about the priest’s reassignment.

Sounds pretty damning. But then the NY Times takes away that certainty:

"What part he played in the decision making, and how much interest he showed in the case of the troubled priest, who had molested multiple boys in his previous job, remains unclear."

The fateful diocesan council meeting is also described as "a busy day" and its minutes "include no references to the actual discussion that day, simply stating that a priest from Essen in need of psychiatric treatment required room and board in a Munich congregation."

To the claim that the relevant memo was unlikely to have ended up on the archbishop's desk, the NYTimes said the judicial vicar of Munich "could not rule out that Cardinal Ratzinger had read it."

The paper adds:

"Father Gruber, the former vicar general, said that he could not remember a detailed conversation with Cardinal Ratzinger about Father Hullermann, but that Father Gruber refused to rule out that 'the name had come up.'"

So we repeatedly hear that it is unclear whether the Pope was informed, but that very uncertainty is being presented as evidence he was in fact informed, especially in sensationalistic rewrites of the NY Times story.

One letter cited by the Times supposedly has a "clear subtext" about the pedophiliac priest's problems and a "clear hint" about this unnatural lusts for boys. But the clarity is only obvious in retrospect, and subtext is precisely what got the Reuters writer in trouble.

It is obvious that damaging circumlocution and "protocol-speak" can infect a chancery, confusing the unwary and providing maneuvering room for a guilty party to cover great flaws. But this does not excuse a journalist's inability to nail down the facts.

The worst story would be that the Pope was informed and was inclined to incompetence, indifference or cover-up.

The Times doesn't show evidence of that, yet it chose to run the damaging story anyway.

The story may have been intended to flush out more sources or to provoke a response from the Vatican. (Or to sell papers, of course.)

Yet it's doubtful the NY Times would have run this story ten years ago. Casting doubt on the actions of a high profile figure requires very good reasons and very solid facts. Since these facts are still in doubt, the best the NY Times can do is hope that an unknown source steps forward or the media firestorm rages on to protect their shoddy reporting from close examination.

Public outrage is often a dial that can be turned up and down. When writers aren't clear about both the facts and their presentation of the facts, that outrage serves neither truth nor justice.

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