St. Louis Archdiocese Brawls with Catholic Newspaper

By Tim Townsend
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
July 11, 2008 st-louis-archdiocese-brawls-with-catholic-newspaper/

The St. Louis Archdiocese is in a brawl with a national Catholic newspaper.

Earlier this week, the National Catholic Reporter posted an article on its website written by its executive editor, Tom Fox. The story cited anonymous sources who said an affidavit in the archdiocese's file for Sr. Louise Lears suggested the archdiocese had sanctioned a secret video taping of a women's ordination ceremony last fall.

NCR said the affidavit gave "permission to an individual to attend the ceremony in order to record it." According to the story:

The archdiocese authorized someone to record the rite and then used the recording, along with photographs apparently taken from the video, as evidence to punish a Catholic nun who attended the liturgy, according to several people familiar with the case.

The paper subsequently updated its story with quotes from Rabbi Susan Talve, whose Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis was the site of the ordinations, and who told the paper she would not have allowed video taping of the event had she been asked.

The two women were ordained as priests of an organization called Roman Catholic Womenpriests, and they - along with the woman who ordained them - were declared excommunicated by St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke. Lears was placed under the canonical penalty of interdict by Burke, and she resigned her position as a member of the pastoral team at St. Cronan's Church in St. Louis. Another pastoral team member, Seán Collins resigned last week.

Burke was recently promoted to head the Vatican's highest court and is no longer the archbishop of St. Louis. But the archdiocese, nevertheless, was not happy with NCR's story.

On Thursday, the archdiocese issued a statement saying it "never asked anyone to conduct 'surveillance video-taping' as written in the article," and that "the affidavit, which NCR maintains gave permission for such a taping, is actually a witness statement from someone who witnessed the attempted ordination…"

It said the video evidence in Lears's file came from images widely available on the Internet after the ordinations, including those on TV news stations' websites.

The archdiocese also sent NCR a letter to Fox, signed by Bishop Robert Hermann, the archdiocese's administrator until Pope Benedict names Burke's successor, and Msgr. John Shamleffer, the archdiocese's judicial vicar, citing a dozen complaints of either factual error or journalistic malfeasance in his story.

"We have several concerns regarding the way you obtained your information, and the fact errors included in the story," it reads.

1.It seems you received much of your information from other sources well before the time that you called/e-mailed the Archdiocese of St. Louis. We would think that in fairness, and given the accusations made in the article, you would have allowed us time to respond to your questions, rather than try to contact us a few hours before deadline.

2.The sentence "The archdiocese of St. Louis authorized the video recording of a Catholic women's ordination…." is untrue.

First, the sentence is not attributed to anyone. We would expect that, as a journalist, you would want to verify that information with the Archdiocese of St. Louis before publishing it, which you did not. Instead, you printed it without attribution or verification. In fact, the Archdiocese of St. Louis did not ask anyone to record the attempted ordination. The attempted ordination was public, recorded by local and statewide media and placed on the internet. The video was easily accessible from a variety of mediums without us having to record it ourselves.

Also, in the apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed that the Catholic Church has no authority to confer priestly ordination on women. This teaching is to be held definitively by all the faithful as belonging to the deposit of faith. Therefore, a Catholic women's ordination doesn't exist in the Catholic Church.

3.The phrase "as evidence to punish a Catholic nun" is also incorrect. The Archdiocese of St. Louis was obliged to use the footage in order to disprove Sister Lears' Advocate's initial denial of Sister's presence at the ceremony. By law, evidence used in a penal process is to ascertain the truth, not to punish.

In addition, an interdict is not a punishment. An interdict is really an urgent call to reform one's conduct in the future. It is classified as "medicinal" by the Church precisely because its main purpose is to bring about reform in the individual. Information regarding the interdict against Sister Louise Lears has been posted on our website .

4.To write about the announcement of the interdict as the sentence before the Archbishop's appointment to Rome implies the two are connected. They are not. The interdict was part of a process that began six months before the announcement of the Archbishop's appointment. Again, the background information is on our website

5.The "affidavit giving permission to an individual to attend the ceremony in order to record it" does not exist. What is troubling is that you quote someone whom you write "did not see the document firsthand".

6.The statement "Only Lears was singled out by Burke" is incorrect. The statement implies that Sister Lears was the only person who received a canonical penalty regarding the attempted female ordination. Ms. McGrath, Ms. Hudson and Father Bozek all received canonical penalties.

7.To write that Archbishop Burke "was unavailable" is also inaccurate. We can only speak for your attempts to reach the Archdiocese of St. Louis through our Office of Communications, and we did not return your call by deadline. We did not say, nor do we know anyone else who told you, that Archbishop Burke was not available.

8.You wrote "There is no evidence that Burke knew about or ordered the taping", but then proceed to cite unnamed Catholics "familiar with the workings of the Archdiocese" who claim Archbishop Burke had to authorize the taping. Journalistically, the evidence should outweigh assumptions, but you chose assumptions. The fact remains that there was no authorized taping.

9.The phrase "outrage from archdiocesan officials" is also untrue and unsubstantiated. We have not seen the Archbishop angry about the attempted ordination, nor have we been angry about it. The only emotions that have been conveyed through interviews with the Archbishop or through statements from other leaders in the Archdiocese are sadness that the attempted ordination occurred and hope that the women involved will reconcile themselves with the Church. You can find information we released on the attempted female ordination on

10.The sentence "That threat is the apparent reason an archdiocesan affidavit was required to permit someone to attend and video the liturgy" is incorrect. As stated above, there is no affidavit of the Archdiocese requesting videotaping of the event, and no request was made on behalf of the Archdiocese of St. Louis to videotape the event.

11.The sentence "Burke excommunicated the women" is also incorrect. By participating in an attempted ordination, Ms. McGrath and Ms. Hudson excommunicated themselves. The Archbishop's responsibility is to declare the excommunication.

12.Finally, we received a copy of the fax you sent to the Signatura. Your questions to the Archbishop were as follows: Do you feel it was ethical to do this surveillance without the knowledge or permission of the synagogue? Do you feel that this surreptitious taping was a proper use of your authority as Archbishop of St. Louis?

You assume the answer to what should have been your first question: Did the Archdiocese authorize videotaping of the ceremony? The assumptions, and the way the questions were worded, indicate a bias against the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and quite frankly a relinquishment of your journalistic obligation to verify information before publishing it.

We believe the assumptions that were printed were not accurate. We ask that you please publish more accurate information to your readers with the admittance that you did not verify the original information before printing it. In addition, the NCR recently published stories about Sister Louise Lears and Rev. Marek Bozek and again, did not verify information with us before publication. We ask that, in the future, you please check with us regarding stories that involve us before publications.

Finally, in an editorial dated Friday the National Catholic Reporter editors compared Burke to "Bull" Connor, the Birmingham, Ala. public safety commissioner and Ku Klux Klan member who became famous in the 1963 for using fire hoses and attack dogs against civil rights protestors.


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