Walter Robinson on the latest church scandal

Here’s an inspired idea: ProPublica called up my Northeastern colleague Walter Robinson and asked him about the burgeoning pedophile-priest scandal in Europe, which is starting to rattle the papacy itself. Robinson, as I’m sure you know, headed the Boston Globe’s investigative team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for exposing Cardinal Bernard Law’s complicity in a similar scandal.

Of particular interest are Robinson’s comments about claims that Pope Benedict did not know about what was going on in Germany when he, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was the archbishop. Robinson says:

I don’t know of any archdiocese where the archbishop or the cardinal archbishop was not kept fully informed and in most cases was not heavily involved in decision-making involving any priest who was accused of abusing minors. In every diocese in the U.S.,  including those headed by cardinals, there was personal knowledge by the cardinal archbishop when news of abuse surfaced. It was true in Boston, it was true in L.A., it was true in Chicago.

The fact we have one archbishop in Munich that claims not to know anything is enough to make one suspicious.

And not just Europe. Today the New York Times reports that the future pope had a hand in enabling and covering up for an American priest “who molested as many as 200 deaf boys.”

To paraphrase a famous question from a different time and place: What did the pope know, and when did he know it?

Unwarranted speculation

Speculation, the bane of political journalism, is even more out of place when it comes to covering religion. For instance: a piece by Jeff Israely about the late Ted Kennedy and the Catholic Church, posted on Time.com last Friday and revised as events proved Israely’s sources to be misguided.

Israely reported that, during the summer, President Obama delivered a letter from Kennedy to Pope Benedict XVI, the contents of which were secret, but which likely made the case for a papal blessing. Quoting conservative sources, Israely suggested that such a blessing was unlikely, given Kennedy’s pro-choice stand on abortion rights. Israely wrote:

One veteran official at the Vatican, of U.S. nationality, expressed the view of many conservatives about the Kennedy clan’s rapport with the Catholic Church: “Why would he even write a letter to the Pope? The Kennedys have always been defiantly in opposition to the Roman Catholic magisterium.”

As it turned out, the contents of Kennedy’s letter were revealed at a graveside service, as was the Vatican’s response. According to the Boston Globe:

The Vatican reply came two weeks [after Obama delivered Kennedy’s letter]: “His Holiness prays that in the days ahead you may be sustained in faith and hope, and granted the precious grace of joyful surrender to the will of God our merciful Father.”…

The Vatican response was strikingly pastoral in tone, expressing the pope’s “concern and his spiritual closeness’’ to Kennedy, and bestowing on the senator an apostolic blessing from the pope. That the Vatican responded at all is news — conservative bloggers have for days been claiming that the alleged lack of a response was evidence of the Vatican’s antipathy to Kennedy.

Israely also indulged in speculation as to whether Cardinal Seán O’Malley would decline to preside over Kennedy’s funeral because of the late senator’s pro-choice policies. O’Malley didn’t preside — but the prominent role he nevertheless played would seem to prove that bit of speculation wrong as well.

To be sure, Israely wasn’t predicting the future so much as he was reporting the speculation of conservative church officials as to what might happen. But he still managed to leave the mistaken impression that the church would use Kennedy’s death to send a stern message to pro-choice politicians.

(Thanks to Steve Burgard, director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern, for helping me think this item through.)