It’s been quite some time since a story involving a major figure or incident in the Catholic Church was covered by both the mainstream and religious press.
Stop and think about that for a moment.
The story in question at the moment involves disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the most influential Catholic prelates of the past half century on both sides of the Atlantic.
Pope Francis, readers will recall, defrocked McCarrick — the press-friendly former cardinal of Washington, D.C. — in 2019 following a Vatican tribunal into allegations that he had molested a 16-year-old boy decades ago. McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals the prior year, but only after an accusation that he had molested the teenage altar boy while serving at the Archdiocese of New York was found to be credible. At that point, some newsrooms finally began covering years of off-the-record reports about McCarrick’s behavior with seminarians.
McCarrick, now 93, has gone into seclusion the past few years. He’s been largely forgotten by the mainstream press (with a few notable exceptions).
That all changed on Aug. 30, when the latest chapter in the McCarrick saga emerged in the form of a court hearing. A Massachusetts judge ruled that the former cardinal was not competent to stand trial in another sex abuse case. The 2021 case stems from a charge that “Uncle Ted” — as he was often called by seminarians — had sexually assaulted a teenage boy in Massachusetts.
The Associated Press covered the story this way, replete with a dateline. Here’s how the article opens:
DEDHAM, Mass. (AP) — The once-powerful Roman Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick will not stand trial on charges he sexually assaulted a teenage boy decades ago, as a Massachusetts judge dismissed the case against the 93-year-old on Wednesday because both prosecutors and defense attorneys agree he is experiencing dementia.
McCarrick, the ex-archbishop of Washington, D.C., was defrocked by Pope Francis in 2019 after an internal Vatican investigation determined he sexually molested adults as well as children. The McCarrick scandal created a crisis of credibility for the church, primarily because there was evidence Vatican and U.S. church leaders knew he slept with seminarians but turned a blind eye as McCarrick rose to the top of the U.S. church as an adept fundraiser who advised three popes.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Dr. Kerry Nelligan, a psychologist hired by the prosecution, said she found significant deficits in McCarrick’s memory during two interviews in June, and he was often unable to recall what they had discussed from one hour to the next. As with any form of dementia, she said there are no medications that could improve the symptoms.
The biggest takeaway from the coverage wasn’t the news of the day. That was straightforward, as you can see from the AP dispatch.
In fact, all the coverage was similar when it came to the facts of what happened in the courtroom and in this particular case. Where the coverage differed was the lack of proper background information regarding McCarrick’s past and his powerful influence on the church in this country and Rome, which he had discussed (included claims to have helped elect Pope Francis) in public remarks. The coverage also needed additional background information about the clergy sex-abuse scandal as a whole.
This is how CNN explained McCarrick’s past standing in two throwaway paragraphs at the end of its web story:
Raised to cardinal in 2001 by Pope John Paul II, a year after he became Archbishop of Washington, McCarrick went on to become a power player both in the Church and in Washington, DC, and was known for his fundraising and influence overseas.
He resigned from the College of Cardinals in 2018 and was defrocked by the Vatican in 2019 after a Church trial found him guilty of sexually abusing minors.
CNN wasn’t alone. NPR, also at the end of its story, did it this way:
Many victims of clergy sex abuse that took place during their childhoods have only been able to seek legal recourse through civil cases rather than criminal charges.
A number of states in recent years have opened special “look back” windows in their statutes of limitation for sexual assault and harassment. That move was prompted by the #MeToo movement, but it also benefited survivors of clergy sex abuse.
Not much there. No discussion of “Team Ted,” the circle of loyal mainstream news reporters who looked to McCarrick for inside information about Catholic life?
Let’s compare those two approaches with the offerings of some reporters in the Catholic press. Catholic News Agency, for example, published three stories about McCarrick last week. One of those stories — under the headline, “Theodore McCarrick: ‘I have trouble with words’” — delved into Uncle Ted’s current mental state.
In focusing a piece on McCarrick’s health now, CNA said this about who he used to be:
In 2000, when McCarrick was archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, and under investigation by the Vatican for occasionally sharing a bed with seminarians at a vacation home on the Jersey Shore owned by the archdiocese, McCarrick issued a comprehensive and apparently heartfelt denial of sexual misconduct with others.
“Your Excellency, sure I have made mistakes and may have sometimes lacked in prudence, but in the 70 years of my life, I have never had sexual relations with any person, male or female, young or old, cleric or lay, nor have I ever abused another person or treated them with disrespect,” McCarrick wrote to Pope John Paul II’s secretary, then-Bishop Stanislaw Dziwicz.
McCarrick’s letter seems to have gone right to John Paul’s heart.
“Tell McCarrick that I believe what he said and I am still a friend,” John Paul told Cardinal Angelo Sodano, his secretary of state, shortly before Sodano was to visit the United States, according to a 2020 report by the Vatican commissioned by Pope Francis.
“McCarrick’s denial was believed,” the Vatican report states, “and the view was held that, if allegations against McCarrick were made public, McCarrick would be able to refute them easily.”
Three months after McCarrick sent the letter, John Paul promoted McCarrick, appointing him archbishop of Washington. In February 2001, the pope made him a cardinal.
McCarrick served as archbishop of Washington until 2006, when he resigned at the canon-law retirement age for bishops, 75.
Notice a difference between the mainstream press’ background information versus what Catholic media provided to readers?
McCarrick’s past, in terms of mainstream press coverage, was much less detailed and gave little to no context to the ex-cardinal’s role and associations. CNA did the best work here.
It’s not a surprise. CNA, owned and operated by EWTN, is on the doctrinal right. McCarrick is automatically seen as an adversarial figure — and not just because he molested teenage boys. McCarrick was a powerbroker and hobnobbed with D.C. politicians as well Vatican cardinals. He was, he said, a kingmaker in terms of Americans given red hats as cardinals.
Also, he was the man behind the strategic “McCarrick Doctrine.” It was in June 2004 when then-Cardinal Benedict XVI sent a letter to then-Cardinal McCarrick and then-Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The instruction was in the context of dealing with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic whose public positions on abortion contradicted church teachings.
The key: The Ratzinger letter affirmed that denial of Communion is obligatory “regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia.”
But McCarrick misrepresented the Ratzinger letter, thus shaping mainstream press coverage for years to come: “The question for us is not simply whether denial of Communion is possible, but whether it is pastorally wise and prudent,” he said. As a result, during the meeting of the USCCB that year, the bishops voted 183-6 to approve a compromise statement allowing each bishop to decide whether to give Communion to “pro-choice” politicians.
Considering President Joe Biden’s position on abortion, many Catholics see this as a continuing scandal.
Why does this lack of information about McCarrick matter? Does it matter that men McCarrick claimed to have promoted remain powerful leaders in the Catholic Church, especially here in America?
It matters because background and context help readers understand stories better. In McCarrick’s case, context matters because the ex-cardinal hasn’t been in the news for some time. It also matters because McCarrick is a complicated figure who needs explaining.
What do I mean?
This is what I wrote in a March 2019 GetReligion post as the McCarrick scandal was still ongoing:
Lost in all the news barrage sometimes are pieces that make you sit up and ponder the ramifications of all these sordid revelations regarding the clerical sex abuse crisis. More importantly, what are the ramifications are for the church’s hierarchy.
The big story remains who knew what and when. Who’s implicated in potentially covering up the misdeeds of now-former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick over the years? The implication here is that the cover-up — if that’s the word you want to use — goes beyond Pope Francis, but back in time years to when Saint Pope John Paul II was the head of the Roman Catholic church.
Last August, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano released an 11-page letter describing a series of events in which the Vatican — and specifically Francis — had been made aware of McCarrick’s immoral behavior years ago. Vigano claimed Pope Benedict XVI had placed restrictions on McCarrick, including not allowing him to say Mass in public. Vigano alleged that Francis reversed those sanctions. In the letter, Vigano, a former papal ambassador to the United States, said Francis “knew from at least June 23, 2013, that McCarrick was a serial predator who attacked young men. He knew that he was a corrupt man, he covered for him to the bitter end.”
Over the past seven months, the allegations have yielded few answers. McCarrick was recently defrocked — the church’s version of the death penalty — but little else has been made public about the timeline. A news analysis piece by veteran Vatican journalist John Allen, writing in Crux, makes some wonderful points. His piece, under the headline “Vigano may have made it harder to get to the truth on McCarrick,” has a series of wonderful strands worth the time to read. It also gives a roadmap for reporters on the beat and editors to look at and track down.
A 449-page Vatican report issued a year after that post detailed McCarrick’s decades of sexual misconduct. The report largely exonerated Pope Francis when it came to McCarrick’s depravity. Instead, it placed much of the blame on Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. In other words, who knew what and when they knew it was something this report left open to interpretation.
Of course, it’s much more complicated than that. Nonetheless, some in the Catholic press managed to give context, while many in the mainstream press did not.
CNN and NPR weren’t alone. The AP story referenced at the start of this post makes no mention at all of McCarrick’s past or standing as the most influential, most media-friendly Catholic prelate in the United States. It also fails to distinguish between children who were molested and teenagers. It doesn’t appear that any of McCarrick’s victims were prepubescent, which is another topic the mainstream press has shied away from when covering any cases involving clerics and the sex abuse of seminarians.
It’s no surprise that, when it comes to most stories, the some in the Catholic press had an edge here. But when it comes to context and background (especially when it comes to doctrine), no one should have an edge.
In fact, asking the right questions and knowing where to look can provide all that. Like with everything involving McCarrick, it’s complicated. But making this less complicated and explaining it to readers is what journalism is all about.
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