Law professor John Coverdale wrote this letter to the New York Times. It has not been published.
many other people, I have felt in recent weeks that some news outlets have
unfairly targeted Pope Benedict XVI in connection with sexual abuse by priests.
part this is a question of emphasis, with daily coverage of what may or may not
have been minor mistakes in judgment decades ago and almost no attention to the
major efforts Pope Benedict has made to remedy what is undeniably a horrible
some frequency, however, I have observed what strikes me as deliberate
distortion of the facts in order to put Pope Benedict in a bad light. I would
like to call your attention to what seems to me a clear example of this sort of
partisan journalism: Laurie Goodstein and Michael Luo’s article “Pope Put Off
Move to Punish Abusive Priest” published on the front page of the New York
Times on April 10, 2010. The story is so wrong that it is hard to believe it is
not animated by the anti-Catholic animus that the New York Times and other
media outlets deny harboring.
procedure punishes priests who have violated Church law in serious ways by
“suspending” them from exercising their ministry. This is sometimes referred to
as “defrocking.” (According to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary to “defrock”
is to deprive of the right to exercise the functions of an office. )
priest who has been suspended may request that he be released from his vows of
celibacy and other obligations as a priest. If granted, this petition to be
“laicized” would leave the former priest free to marry. Laicization (which is
altogether different from defrocking and which may apply to a priest who has
committed no crime but simply wishes to leave the priesthood) is not further
punishment. It is something a priest who has already been punished by being
suspended might well desire, as do some priests who have committed no crime and
who have not been suspended..
priest who is the subject of the article had already been punished by being
suspended long before his case reached Rome. He asked to be laicized. Cardinal
Ratzinger delayed his laicization not his “defrocking” as the article
incorrectly says. He had been defrocked years earlier when he was suspended
from the ministry. All of this is clear without reference to outside sources to
anyone who knows something about Church procedure and reads the article with sufficient
care. It is anything but clear, however, to a normal reader.
My complaint here is not that the
article misuses the word “defrock” but rather that by so doing it strongly
suggests to readers that Cardinal Ratzinger delayed the priest’s removal from
the ministry. Delaying laicization had nothing to do with allowing him to
continue exercising the ministry, from which he had already been suspended.
only does the article fail to make these distinctions, it positively misstate
the facts. Its title is “Pope Put off Move to Punish Abusive Priest.” [italics
added] It describes Cardinal Ratzinger’s decision as involving whether the
abusive priest “should be forced from the priesthood” [italics added]. Even a
moderately careful journalist would have to notice that all of this is
incompatible with the fact (reported in the second paragraph of the article)
that the priest himself had asked for what Cardinal Ratziner delayed.
the facts been reported accurately, the article would have said that the priest
was promptly punished by being removed from the ministry for his crimes, but
that when he asked to be reduced to the lay state, which would have given him
the right to marry within the Church, Cardinal Ratzinger delayed granting the
petition. That, of course, would hardly have merited front page treatment, much
less a headline accusing the Pope of “Putt[ing] off Move to Punish Abusive
second half of the article reports that the priest later worked as a volunteer
in the youth ministry of his former parish. This is obviously regrettable and
should not have happened, but he was not acting as a priest (youth ministers
are laymen, not priests).
A careful reader who was not misled by
the inaccuracies in the first part of the article would, of course, realize
that his volunteering as a youth minister had no factual or legal connection with
Cardinal Ratzinger’s delaying the grant of laicization. The article does not
say in so many words that it did, but an average reader might well conclude
that there was some connection when he is told that “while the bishop was
pressing Cardinal Ratzinger to defrock Mr. Kiesle, the priest began
volunteering in the youth ministry of one of his former parishes.”
one of these errors might be due to carelessness, but their cumulative effect,
coupled with the decision to make this front page news accompanied by a two
column photo of Cardinal Raztinger’s signature, strongly suggests to me that
something worse than carelessness is involved. I urge you to look into whether
some major news outlets have indeed been engaged in a campaign to vilify the
Pope and into whether their desire to do so has caused them to slip below
minimum standards of professional journalism"
Coverdale is Professor of Law at Seton Hall University School of Law