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The media’s sins of omission Why are news outlets so reluctant to criticise Pope Francis?

Pope Francis surrounded by media. Credit: Pier Marco Tacca / Getty

Pope Francis surrounded by media. Credit: Pier Marco Tacca / Getty

September 11, 2018   5 mins

Imagine a political party with a billion members. Its leader is credibly accused of covering up the activities of a network of sexual predators holding high office in the party. He refuses to say anything.

The organisation could fall apart. This crisis will disturb the lives of the hundreds of millions of people who take their party membership seriously. Yet the international media are in no hurry to cover the story. And, when they do report it, they try to discredit the party members pointing their fingers at the leader.

I’m sure you’ve guessed the identity of this ‘political party’: the Catholic Church. The mainstream media, especially in the English-speaking world, have stifled and twisted the allegation that Pope Francis rehabilitated Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington DC, knowing that he was a serial sex predator. Worse still, Francis brought this dirty old man into his inner circle and appointed his protĂŠgĂŠs to top jobs in America and the Vatican.

The allegations come from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who served as Francis’s own nuncio (that is, ambassador) to the United States from 2011 to 2016. They’re incredibly detailed. The most startling revelation is that Francis lifted sanctions placed on McCarrick by Pope Benedict XVI, who – knowing that the American prelate was suspected of seducing young seminarians – tried to force him into silent retirement. Viganò thinks Francis’s actions are so disgraceful that he wants him to resign as Pope, and all McCarrick’s friends in the US hierarchy to follow suit.

The media immediately set about trying to find holes in Viganò’s 11-page testimony. Fair enough. If Viganò – a conservative who couldn’t stand Francis – was telling lies, then they should be exposed.

The biggest hole they could find involved Benedict’s sanctions against McCarrick. They barely existed. The Pope Emeritus can’t remember exactly what they were, and there’s lots of evidence that McCarrick ignored them, swanning around and basking in liberal flattery as if nothing had happened. On the other hand, it was confirmed that Benedict did remove him from the seminary where he was living in retirement. Also, Benedict had earlier ended McCarrick’s official career by retiring him as Archbishop of Washington at the first opportunity.

In short, Viganò’s testimony remains as credible as it was when he dropped his bombshell on August 25. More credible, in fact. Last weekend, his claim that Rome knew of McCarrick’s abuses as early as 2000 was backed up by the release of a 2006 letter from a top Vatican official confirming as much.

Fore more than two weeks, therefore, evidence that Pope Francis welcomed a privately disgraced predator into his inner circle has sat on the desks of every news editor in the free world. And what have they done with it?

The answer is almost nothing – or worse than nothing. Judging by most of their coverage, the real story is that Viganò is a “conservative” who conspired with “right-wing” opponents of Francis’s “reforms” to bring him down.

A headline in the New York Times captures the tone of these stories: “Vatican Power Struggle Bursts Into Open as Conservatives Pounce”. The report, by Jason Horowitz, says:

“Since the start of his papacy, Francis has infuriated Catholic traditionalists as he tries to nurture a more welcoming church and shift it away from culture war issues, whether abortion or homosexuality. ‘Who am I to judge?’ the pope famously said, when asked about gay priests.

Just how angry [Francis’s] political and doctrinal enemies are became clear this weekend, when a caustic letter published by the Vatican’s former top diplomat in the United States blamed a ‘homosexual current’ in the Vatican hierarchy for sexual abuse. It called for Francis’s resignation, accusing him of covering up for a disgraced cardinal, Theodore McCarrick.

With the letter – released in the middle of the Pope’s visit to Ireland — an ideologically motivated opposition has weaponised the church’s sex abuse crisis to threaten not only Francis’ agenda but his entire papacy.”

Look at the way the paragraphs are organised. First, the ludicrous claim that Francis is trying to move the Church away from the culture wars. In fact, he’s plunged it further into those wars – but he’s on the same side as the New York Times on these issues, so that’s OK.

Then, we’re told about the “caustic” tone of Viganò’s testimony, and its undoubted preoccupation with homosexuality, before a glancing reference to the most serious allegation made against a pope for decades, if not centuries. It’s true that this piece isn’t breaking the news of Viganò’s accusations – but at no point does Horowitz remind readers precisely what Francis is supposed to have done.

A contact of mine, a specialist commentator who writes for a Catholic news outlet, was rung by a reporter from the Washington Post. “There were a couple of questions about the scandal [of which he’d revealed important details],” he told me, “but then it became clear that the reporter was only interested in the supposedly ‘conservative’ allegiance of my employers.”

Conservative, conservative, conservative. The adjective crops up in references to Viganò as a sort of health warning, just as the BBC attaches the label ‘eurosceptic’ or ‘conservative’ to interviewees whose views it dislikes. Liberals escape such health warnings, because the Beeb thinks they’re the good guys.

Anyone who doubts that the BBC still buys into the cult of Francis should read a report by Jason Reynolds in Rome, dated August 30. It’s headed “Pope Francis faces twin battle in Church split over sexual abuse”. This “twin battle” is first with sex abuser survivors who accuse him of not doing enough to protect him, and secondly with conservatives – hiss! – out to get him.

Under the sub-heading,“A trap to catch the Pope”, we hear from “Vatican-watcher” Robert Mickens, whose ferociously partisan attacks on conservative Catholics naturally go unmentioned. Says Mickens: “Viganò is kind of a strange character in this case because it’s really a whole group of people. What is the motive behind this? To bring down Pope Francis in any way possible. They’re trying to catch him in a trap. And Francis is not falling for it.”

This is preposterous. Viganò is not a “strange character”. Yes, he associates with fellow conservatives, some of whom (by no means all) would like Francis to resign. But they won’t employ “any means possible” to force a resignation. They don’t need to. Pope set the trap himself and then walked into it. If he had been told about McCarrick’s crimes, it was madness to brush them aside and turn this monster into one of his consiglieri.

Why did he rehabilitate McCarrick? We can’t answer that question without examining Francis’s long record of moral indifference to allies accused of criminal wrongdoing. The Belgian Cardinal Danneels, who was caught pressuring an abuse victim into shutting up about being abused by his uncle, a bishop, was later invited to a synod on the family by Francis.

There are plenty of other examples, but you won’t read much about them in the British press. All I’ve seen are short news stories from Rome that could have been dictated by the Vatican press office.

Fleet Street long ago dispensed with specialist religion correspondents. In their absence, editors turn to ‘progressive’ Catholics who babble like Hillary Clinton about a vast right-wing conspiracy against cuddly Francis.

It remains to be seen how journalists will deal with further revelations about Francis that we can expect over the next few weeks. These may finally compel them to address the actual story rather than trying to shoot the messenger.

But by then it will be too late: the media will have become part of the cover-up.

Damian Thompson is a journalist and author


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