Cnn's Appalling Attack on the Pope

By Phil Lawler
Catholic Culture
September 24, 2010

This weekend the CNN television network will air a special report, “What the Pope Knew.” The goal of the show, apparently, is to persuade viewers the Pope Benedict XVI bears much of the blame for the sex-abuse scandal. If that requires massaging the facts and covering up inconvenient evidence, CNN is prepared to take those steps.

The CNN special concentrates on the case of the late Father Lawrence Murphy, a Milwaukee priest who was the target of multiple abuse complaints. In March of this year the New York Times gave the Murphy case front-page treatment, and charged that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had stymied a bid by the Milwaukee archdiocese to laicize the accused priest. That charge was based on a series of misunderstandings: about the case, about the duty of the Milwaukee archdiocese, about the Vatican’s authority, and about the priest’s due-process rights under the Code of Canon Law. As I wrote at the time, a proper understanding of the story would have led the Times to understand that Cardinal Ratzinger was not at fault:

This is a story about the abject failure of the Milwaukee archdiocese to discipline a dangerous priest, and the tardy effort by Archbishop Weakland--who would soon become the subject of a major scandal himself--to shift responsibility to Rome.

Eventually the misunderstandings in the Times story were cleared up, objective reporters recognized that the Murphy case was in no way a “smoking gun” demonstrating the Pope’s culpability, and the story slipped into the background. But now, six months later, CNN is resurrecting the same charges that the Times story made—without bothering to mention that the charges have been discredited.

The CNN report not only repeats the errors of the Times story, but ignores the powerful rebuttals that followed. Is this a question of journalistic incompetence, or something worse? Matthew Balan of Newsbusters inclines to the latter explanation, charging that the CNN show “left out key information in order to paint Benedict XVI in the worst possible light.”

"How exactly does CNN have so little journalistic integrity that it can repeat inaccuracies that were widely debunked seven months ago, and for which there is clear, incontrovertible documentary evidence?” ask Greg Erlandson and Matthew Bunson, the co-authors of Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis. It’s an unanswerable question.

In addition to the Murphy case, CNN has also unearthed the similar case of an Illinois priest who was convicted of sexual abuse. CNN contacted one of the priest’s victims, and “told him about a letter signed by the pontiff—then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—refusing to defrock the pedophile priest.”

What Cardinal Ratzinger actually said, in a letter to the bishop responsible for the case, was that the abusive priest could not be laicized without a trial. Under the terms of canon law, the accused priest had the right to defend himself against the charges. The Springfield diocese could bring charges against him, just as the Milwaukee archdiocese could have brought charges against Murphy. But the bishops supervising these cases should have handled the matters themselves, rather than shuffling the cases off to Rome for a solution.

Ironically these two cases cited by CNN —one from Milwaukee, one from Springfield-- have something else in common. Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee and Bishop Daniel Ryan of Springfield both resigned after having been credibly accused of sexual abuse. In the headlong effort to indict the Pope, CNN is in effect relying on the testimony of two bishops whose own credibility has been gravely damaged by the sex-abuse crisis.


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