Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Problems at The Courant

It's been a long time since I've posted anything here and I doubt that what I post now will get any attention. But I came across an article in the Hartford Courant that I had to respond to. I sent in a column, but they never published it -- probably because I wasn't local enough. But here's the full version of that column (I sent in a considerably reduced version to keep in their word count guideline):

The August 4th story, “Vatican's Decision Not To Remove Connecticut Priest May Play Role In Abuse Trial,” was another exercise in the game of “pin the tail on the Pope.” Whether the blindfold was completely over The Courant’s eyes or whether the reporter and editors were peeking, the result is the same – the tail wrongly ended up in the Pope’s eye.

There are numerous problems with this piece. First, there's no indication given by the reporter of when Father Thomas Shea’s last days of active ministry were. All we’re told is he was removed from ministry “years ago.” So readers have no clue what the timeline of the story actually is.

However, we get this quote from a letter written in 2005 to Bishop Michael Cote by the then-Secretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Angelo Amato: “This case falls into prescription as it involves incidents which, while serious in nature, occurred over 35 years ago...” Over 35 years ago? So was Father Shea’s last incident of abuse back in 1969 or 1970? The reporter doesn't tell us, which is confusing because there’s talk later in the story about him being reassigned in 1975.

Nor does the reporter tell us what “prescription” means. For the record, that’s the Catholic Church’s equivalent of a statute of limitations under the Code of Canon Law, though that’s something the reporter should have told the readers after consulting with a canon lawyer.

But then five paragraphs after that statement taken from the letter written by Archbishop Amato, we read, “Superior Court Judge Marshall Berger ruled against the church, and many of the documents including the letter from the Pope will become evidence at the upcoming trial, according to Reardon” (my emphasis). What letter from the Pope? The letter did not come from the Pope, but from Archbishop Amato. Were the reporter and editors blindfolded, or did they peek and hope the five paragraph distance would make readers not see them lifting it up?

But there’s even more blindfolding or peeking. The story states that Bishop Cote wrote to the CDF on April 8, 2005. That was six days after Pope John Paul II had died. Did no one at The Courant have the sense to contact any knowledgeable source about what happens inside the Vatican during the period between popes, called the interregnum? After a pope dies, all cardinals in charge of curial offices no longer operate in those functions until the next pope is elected and he reappoints them to their posts, if he chooses to do that. So at the time Bishop Cote’s letter was written, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was not the prefect of the CDF, even though the letter may have been addressed to him as such. Besides that, since Cardinal Ratzinger was the Dean of the College of Cardinals (which is not a curial office), he was, to say the least, rather busy helping to put a conclave together.

Everyone knows the result of that conclave: Cardinal Ratzinger was elected as Pope Benedict XVI. Thus, attorney Richard Reardon's assertion that “Amato was considered Ratzinger’s ‘right hand man’ at that time and would not have sent the letter without Ratzinger's approval,” is at least questionable, but The Courant takes it without question. Archbishop Amato’s letter was dated May 12, 2005, only a couple of weeks after Cardinal Ratzinger became pope. When he wrote it, Archbishop Amato was no more his “right hand man” than I was. That task fell to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who was then the Holy See’s Secretary of State.

So the CDF was operating without a prefect from April 2, 2005 until August 17, 2005 when then-Archbishop William Levada assumed command of the office. That left Archbishop Amato in charge for that five-month period. And without going into the boring details of why, not laicizing Father Shea was a routine decision that did not require approval from a prefect, never mind the Pope.

Then there’s this paragraph: “Pope Benedict has come under criticism for similar actions in other cases.” Actions similar to what? To not being in charge of a case that was someone else’s responsibility? “Last year in Wisconsin, documents surfaced showing that a bishop sent him a letter seeking to have a priest accused of molesting deaf children defrocked. But a church trial never occurred after the accused priest wrote a letter to the Pope asking him not to go forward with the trial.” Wow, do you have that story wrong. Laurie Goodstein at The New York Times put that assassination piece together and it has been devastatingly critiqued in numerous places, especially by National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen.

Two more points of fact this story glosses over: 1) While Bishop Cote’s letter to the CDF was startlingly blunt, it came (apparently) some 35 years after the fact and it seems that Father Shea had been effectively removed from active ministry “years ago.” So what difference would it have made if he had been laicized? And what difference does it make to the present lawsuit if he had been laicized or not? Absolutely none. 2) Father Shea died in a nursing home the year after the letters in question were written. Like the horrendous case of Father Lawrence Murphy who died a mere two months after the Vatican’s decision not to laicize him, any action the Vatican would have taken would have had no practical effect on the case at all.

Finally, we only hear from the plaintiff’s attorney and David Clohessy of the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests. So it’s apparent that The Courant made no attempt to contact anyone outside of the Diocese of Norwich, like a canon lawyer, who could explain what was going on inside the Vatican during the time between when Bishop Cote wrote his letter and when Archbishop Amato replied. Or what “prescription” means. Nor did anyone attempt to contact a supporter of Pope Benedict, someone like George Weigel or Philip Lawler, to get commentary, or even the diocese’s attorney. That’s bias, plain and simple.

With all of this, I can’t help but think that The Courant newsroom was playing the game of “pin the tail on the Pope” while peeking from underneath the blindfold.

Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz is a writer and radio producer in Catholic media living in southern Minnesota. He is not connected in any way to the Diocese of Norwich.

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