Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Goodstein's "smoking gun" a water pistol


Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times is apparently determined to be the Bob Woodward of her generation. She’s picked an issue about which she will seemingly never suffer a loss of credibility no matter how blatantly she distorts her source materials, and a home in which she is free to indulge her journalistic excesses in the name of muck-raking. Moreover, she’s found a devoted audience, the equivalent of Rush Limbaugh’s “dittoheads”, who are ever ready to hail her prophetic wisdom so long as she feeds their sense of righteous indignation.

I need to make it clear right from the start that media investigation of the abuse scandals per se is not a bad thing. We Catholics owe a lot to the many honest journalists who have covered these stories, as painful and embarrassing as they’ve been. It should also be understood that I am not, not, NOT defending the bishops who deliberately paid off victims for their silence, who shuffled predator priests around, who dithered and dallied about removing known ephebophiles from the priesthood until it was too late. No, I’m merely dealing with Goodstein’s ongoing attempts to implicate the Vatican in every sexual-abuse scandal, and the meretricious journalism with which she’s pursuing her goal.

I’m speaking, of course, of Goodstein’s article yesterday (1/19/11) about a 1997 letter from the apostolic nuncio of Ireland, the late Abp. Luciano Storero, to the Irish bishops concerning a working document on child sexual abuse policy. The letter expressed some reservations of the Congregation for the Clergy about the committee’s proposition, which recommended that even suspicions should be reported to secular authorities, and that confidentiality should not be offered even if the lack of confidentiality were a deterrent to someone coming forward with a report (Section 2.2). In the second paragraph, Goodstein immediately signaled where she was heading: “The [letter] appears to contradict Vatican claims that church leaders in Rome never sought to control the actions of local bishops in abuse cases, and that the Roman Catholic Church did not impede criminal investigations of child abuse suspects.”


Where, I wonder, is the line between zealous respect for the law and witch-hunting? A requirement for mandatory reporting sounds eminently reasonable until it includes reporting suspicions, which opens the door for all sorts of abuses. It’s not so long ago that people were having “recovered memories” of child sexual abuse which later turned out to be suggestions implanted in their minds by hypnotists. It’s not so long ago that the late Cdl. Joseph Bernardin of Chicago had to spend quite a bit of time and money defending himself against a false accusation.

Zero tolerance isn’t incompatible with presumption of innocence and respect for due process … unless, of course, you’re a member of SNAP.


Goodstein isn’t simply being remiss in her homework; she is actively—even deliberately—misleading her audience. Even in the bad old days of the Inquisition, the Church never prosecuted suspected heretics merely on unfounded rumor or speculation. The Congregation’s concern was that a priest punished under the proposed policy could presumably win an appeal at the Vatican level; “… the results,” +Storero pointed out, “could be highly embarrassing and detrimental to [the] Diocesan authorities.” So it would, if it turned out that a priest was removed from the canonical state due to a false accusation. The letter merely noted that the Congregation was working on “concrete directives”, and reminded the bishops to stick to canonical procedures.


(And, as it turned out, the “concrete directives” appeared four years later in John Paul II’s motu proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, which gave jurisdiction over a more streamlined procedure to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the urging of the CDF’s prefect, Cdl. Joseph Ratzinger.)

The pinch seems to come when +Storero quotes the CC as saying, “In particular, the situation of ‘mandatory reporting’ gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and canonical nature”. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get more specific than that.


At this point, had Goodstein been acting as an investigative reporter rather than a conspiracy theorist, she would have asked herself, “What moral and canonical reservations did the Congregation have about the mandatory reporting requirement?” The next step would have been looking up the original document and seeing how mandatory reporting was defined, and contacting the Congregation for further information.

Instead, she drew a black-and-white fallacy—either mandatory reporting or active cover-up—and concluded that the Vatican was requiring obstruction of justice. Moreover, she claimed, “[The letter] said that for both ‘moral and canonical’ reasons, the bishops must handle all accusations through internal church channels. Bishops who disobeyed, the letter said, may face repercussions when their abuse cases were heard in Rome.”

This is as close to a flat-out lie as makes little difference: Canonical procedures, which deal only with ecclesial trials (e.g., removing a priest from the clerical state), did not preclude reporting credible cases of sexual abuse by priests to civil authorities. +Storero’s instruction was clearly a reminder to adhere to the norms outlined in canon law for trying and convicting accused priests, not a command to cover abuses up. Goodstein’s “smoking gun” turns out to be an empty water pistol.

I hate to use the term “bully”, because right now “bullying” is being pushed beyond the sense that people of my generation are used to thinking of it, to cover everything from casual derogation to assault with intent. I’m thinking precisely of the schoolyard jerk who picks on the fat, wimpy kid precisely because he either won’t fight back or will do so ineffectually. I’m thinking of the middle-school monster who targets the kid nobody likes precisely because nobody likes him, because he presents little risk of gaining sympathetic protectors. The bully I’m thinking of is really a coward; he chooses low-risk targets to create the illusion of toughness while minimizing the potential of getting beaten silly by a strong, skilled fighter; at the same time, he presents the façade of being someone likeable himself because he satisfies the other kids’ Schadenfreude, as well as representing their disapproval of his victims.


In this restricted, old-school sense, Goodstein is a bully.

It’s easy for Goodstein to pick on the Catholic hierarchy because very few journalists with her exposure and media presence are sympathetic to the Church to begin with. America has a long history of anti-Catholic prejudice which has never gained the attention given to discrimination against women, against racial, ethnic and religious minorities or against homosexuals. Add to that the Church’s very public and prominent stance against certain liberal shibboleths,[1] juxtapose it against the pronounced bias in the MSM towards these same shibboleths, and you have a recipe for alienation if not downright hostility.

What makes it even easier for Goodstein is that, while one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole barrel, five or six do … at least where public perception is concerned. Some people operate on the principle that one is an exception, two is a suspicious coincidence, and three is a system-wide conspiracy. The conspiracy theory is easier to maintain where the Catholic Church is concerned, because the Church is spread out all over the world, while school districts aren’t.

Again, though, no one goes looking for a pattern of abuses even in a single public school district [HT to Alessandra of Making Sense for the WaPo link], whereas a relative handful of bishops scattered throughout the Western world constitute a global conspiracy. Thus, predatory teachers remain a silent epidemic as long as Goodstein and her enablers in the MSM remain focused on the hierarchy; that is, so long as the sexual abuse of teenagers is presented as only a “Catholic problem”.

As I said at the top, this is to defend neither the culpable priests nor the cowardly bishops. But nothing and nobody is helped by tarring all the bishops and clergy with the same brush; nothing and nobody is helped by wild, irresponsible accusations made in the name of investigative reporting. Goodstein’s obsession with hanging a conspiracy charge on the Vatican—preferably Pope Benedict, but anyone will do—is ultimately the measure of how far the Times’ standards have fallen in forty years, as well as an enormous misdirection of her talent, her energy and the public’s attention.

Back in November, Ted Koppel wrote a guest editorial in the Washington Post, a eulogy for the death of objectivity in broadcast journalism. Considering some of the newspaper stories I’ve read from the last two hundred years, it’s tough to maintain that the press has ever been objective. The New York Times has already demonstrated its loss of integrity once this year, with its opportunistic editorial on the Tucson shootings. How many more times do they need to prove it?

According to Greg Erlandson, co-author (with Matthew Bunson) of Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal (Huntington, Ind.: OSV Press, 2010), the Storero letter confirms that there was some divisions among Vatican officials wanted to treat clerical sex abuse.

The prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy at the time, Cdl. Dario Castríllon Hoyos, believed that "the relationship between a bishop and his priests is that of a father to his sons; he shouldn't turn them over to the police no matter what they've done." On the other hand, "... it was precisely this sort of mixed message on clerical sex abuse crisis that drove Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—now Pope Benedict—to successfully petition Pope John Paul II to grant in 2001 his Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith jurisdiction over all cases of clerical sex abuse of minors. That decision began the process of unifying the Vatican’s response and sidelined officials like Cardinal Castrillon who were pursuing divergent policies."

The substance of my argument above is that Laurie Goodson follows a black-and-white fallacy by implying that there are only two possible options: mandatory reporting or mandatory obstruction. But obstruction of justice, in legal terminology, only applies to deliberate efforts to frustrate ongoing investigations, such as by destroying evidence or hiding suspects; failure to start an investigation, however imprudent or immoral it may be in a particular situation (do you report rumors? whispers in the dark?), don't fall within that category. And reporting a crime isn't always mandatory. For instance, in most states you're required to file an accident report within 48 hours of the collision; you are not, however, required to file a report if your neighbor's house—or even your own house—has been burgled. It's a good idea, but it's not required by law; failure to do so doesn't constitute obstruction.

The key, though, is the adjective "mandatory": what's not required is not by that fact alone forbidden. Section 2.2.1 of the referenced document suggested reporting not only first-hand accusations but also suspicions. Since neither Goodstein nor I have the CC's deliberations on hand, neither one of us know what the "serious reservations of both a moral and canonical nature" were. Erlandsen may be correct in suggesting Castríllon's problem may have been with bishops reporting priests at all, but a qualm about reporting something about which you're not morally certain is taking place is defensible.

If you were going to tell the cops that your next-door neighbor might be a drug dealer, you'd make darn sure you knew what you were talking about. For that reason, I'd want to be sure I had all my facts straight before I subjected anyone—priest, rabbi, minister or rabid atheist—to the humiliation of a criminal investigation for child sexual abuse or statutory rape. I'd need more than just the sight of him looking at a 14-year-old boy with what I perceive to be lust ... I'd want either an eyewitness account, or a tacit admission from the boy himself, that something inappropriate happened.

At the same time, if I were a bishop, I would want to know if there were suspicious behavior, and I wouldn't want my hands tied because I couldn't offer or guarantee confidentiality. One of the problems inherent in removing a priest from the clerical state is that it also puts him outside the supervision of the bishop. And there's the other horn of "mandatory reporting": Section 2.2.5 suggests that the bishops not offer absolute confidentiality, but rather "the information should be expressly received within the terms of this reporting policy and on the basis that only those who need to know will be told." In other words, the informant will be involved in a criminal investigation whether he wants to be or not, and regardless of any repercussions.

Section 2.2.6 concludes: "In making its recommendations in regard to reporting, the Advisory Committee considers to be paramount the safety and protection of children and the need to prevent, where possible, further abuse." The question then becomes: Does the safety and protection of children trump even the most elementary concerns about false accusations of the innocent? Does it require us to surrender all attempts at prudential judgment and treat every rumor as prima faciae evidence? That's how witch hunts begin; alas, that's not how they end.


[1] It may be argued that I’m misusing this word, which is generally held to mean an old-fashioned, shopworn idea. But as one author pointed out, we got the word from Judges 12:5-6, where the Gileadites used it to test a suspected Ephraimite fugitive from battle; if he mispronounced it, they slew him. In this sense, then, a shibboleth is a “litmus test”, a dogmatic belief one must hold without deviation or variation.