The Seattle P-I Inaccurately Reports Findings in Deposition

By Canda Harbaugh
The Spectator [Washington]
January 11, 2006

Calls and emails poured into the administration office last month in response to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article that President Stephen Sundborg regarded as "inaccurate" and "inflammatory" and the P-I's managing editor labeled "incomplete."

The article, written by Claudia Rowe, was titled "Jesuit defends secrecy in priest sex case" and subtitled "In a previous post, SU leader didn't report abuse." It ran on Dec. 14, and spawned Internet blogs and a discussion on KIRO radio's Dave Ross Show.

Even after the P-I published a 15-sentence correction, admitting the story contained "inaccuracies and an omission," and Sundborg sent an e-mail to students, staff, faculty, alumni and SU friends, Internet bloggers continued to comment on the article, unaware of the corrections made.

Similar stories ran in the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, but Catherine Walker SU's official counsel, said they wrote their stories more responsibly.

"The Times waited because they wanted to give Fr. Sundborg a better opportunity to explain his situation," said Walker. "Yes, the P-I got the scoop, but the P-I didn't get it right."

At the time, Sundborg was fundraising and visiting alumni in Hawaii, and talked to Rowe by phone.

"We talked to Claudia [Rowe], and she acknowledged that if she had had more time and better access to Fr. Sundborg she could have made it more accurate," Walker said.

While Walker speculates the reason for the inaccuracies in the P-I story stemmed from time constraints - and the wish to "scoop" the Seattle Times - P-I Managing Editor David McCumber is not so sure.

"I don't know if the time constraints had anything to do with it," McCumber said. "I think that the story was not complete and we tried to fix that."

The article was based on a deposition Sundborg gave involving a lawsuit where an Alaskan priest, James Poole, was accused of child molestation.

The P-I strayed from the facts by implying that while Sundborg served from 1990-1996 as Oregon Provincial, the top Jesuit in the Northwest, he knew about sexual abuse of minors and refused to report it. There is no evidence to prove or disprove that claim.

"In the article, [The P-I] implicated, they suggested, that Fr. Sundborg failed to report criminal activity of which he had knowledge - and that's absolutely false," said Walker.

Part of Sundborg's duties as provincial were to hold private conversations with Jesuit priests, such as Poole, in what has been referred to as "accounts of conscience" or "manifestation of conscience."

Sundborg maintains that these conversations hold the same privilege as confession, while the plaintiff's council asserted in the P-I story that it is more of an "employment review."

The P-I, Seattle Weekly and Seattle Times all described part of Sundborg's deposition in their article - a part in which the plaintiff's council, John Manly, described a grotesque scenario that involved a priest killing a child and telling Sunborg about it during the "manifestation of conscience." When Manly asked if Sunborg would tell police about it, Sundborg answered, "No, I would not."

The P-I omitted one important factor that the other newspapers did not.

"While I could never reveal anything said to me by a Jesuit in a ‘manifestation of conscience,' I could have and would have acted to guarantee that young persons were protected, if ever sexual abuse of children were mentioned," Sundborg stated in the e-mail, a statement that McCumber admitted should have been included.

"I believe that that sentence was inadvertently cut out of the story in the editing process. It was in the story when [Rowe] wrote it," said McCumber. "I think that it is very unfortunate that that particular sentence was taken out."

Walker and Barbara Nombalais, SU director of communication, worked with the P-I to correct the misunderstanding, and agreed that Rowe and McCumber took care of the problem in a professional manner.

"We were able to walk them through the P-I article, paragraph-by-paragraph to point out the inaccuracies and the erroneous implications and suggestions raised from the way they worded the article," said Walker.

Although the P-I article initially produced unwarranted negative attention, it seems to have tapered off since classes resumed this quarter.

"[The effects] are hard to gauge," said Nombalais. "The president has a good reputation in this town, so when a news story comes out that is so out of character about what they know about him, they tend to give him the benefit of the doubt."

When asked if SU had even considered suing the P-I for libel, Nombalais laughed.

"The P-I ran an extensive and fairly unusual correction to set the record straight and we are just happy with that," she said.


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