Since its September 25th release of “What the Pope Knew”, CNN has taken strong criticism from several Catholic leaders. The documentary, which focuses on the role Pope Benedict XVI did or did not play in the sex abuse scandal, has struck a chord with Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, among others for its lack of evidence and misinformation.
Donohue’s main critique of the documentary, which he calls a “hatchet-job” was that it fails to bring up a factual argument. “It is simply not true that Ratzinger was in charge of this issue ‘for decades.’ In fact, he wasn’t given the authority to police the sexual abuse problem until 2001. What is truly astonishing is that Tuchman concedes as much later in the program. Tuchman was incorrect the first time when he said that ‘for decades’ Ratzinger could have taken decisive action.”
The documentary focuses on several church related child molestation cases that they believe can potentially be traced to the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. One case is that of Father Lawrence Murphy, a priest who is alleged to have molested several deaf children in Milwaukee in the 1950s and 1960s.
This case however, is a rehashed argument that was proven to not be connected to the then-Cardinal Ratzinger. According to Gregory Erlandson and Dr. Matthew Bunson, authors of Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal, CNN reused old charges already discredited by a variety of reports, including their own. “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 available?” Erlandson and Bunson asked.
According to Erlandson and Bunson, the Vatican had actually approved the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to investigate the charges and proceed with a church trial, rather than what the CNN documentary paints as neglect on behalf of the Church in not carrying out an investigation and ignoring the case. A Vatican official working for then-Cardinal Ratzinger even tried to expedite the process and strip Father Murphy from ministerial duties because quickly because the priest was seriously ill. Shortly after the recommendation was made, Murphy died.
“Nowhere in the [CNN] program is there any evidence that the pope was guilty of obstruction of justice,” Donohue continued. “This is a serious charge—the most serious made in the course of the documentary. Yet to throw this out, without ever producing evidence to substantiate it, is malicious. It won’t cut it to say that he was ‘perhaps’ guilty of obstruction.”
It is important to note that there have certainly been instances during the abuse scandals where individuals have acted inappropriately. However, while that reality means that the Church is not above criticism, it does not mean de facto that the pope, during his time as a cardinal, was in anyway tolerant or indifferent to the abuse scandal as the CNN documentary and others like it may portray.
Perhaps CNN and others who cover the Church abuse scandal, or any other Church story for that matter, would do well to listen to the advice of Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, delivered to the Religion Newswriters Association last week:
Know yourself and your prejudices. Acknowledge mistakes, and don’t make them a habit. Be as honest with yourself as you want your sources to be. Understand believers and their institutions as they understand themselves.
Perhaps then, if they do that with “integrity, fairness, and humility,” Archbishop Chaput says, they will “have the gratitude” of those that they cover, and “embody the best ideals” of journalism.
- Patrick Redding