On March 25, the Times set off a worldwide firestorm with a front page story that made an incendiary accusation: "Top Vatican officials -- including the future Pope Benedict XVI--did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned them that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church, according to church files newly unearthed as part of a lawsuit."
Falsehood upon falsehood -- four errors in the first paragraph. First, the case to defrock Father Lawrence Murphy was approved by the "top Vatican officials," was never stopped by anyone in Rome and was ongoing when Murphy died. Second, Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, is not shown in the documents to have taken any decisions in this case. Third, the real villain, aside from Murphy himself, was the compromised former Archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, who had sat on the case for 20 years. Fourth, the files were not "newly unearthed"; a general chronology had been released by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee years ago, and the documents were released by the archdiocese itself.
The New York Times was guilty of egregiously shoddy reporting -- or worse -- on a story of global implications.
While the case was not new -- the priest died in 1998 -- the charge landed on front pages around the world, including the National Post, because the Pope was supposedly involved. Within days we learned that the Times was false on the facts, suspect in the sources and reckless in the reporting. All of which the paper had to implicitly concede a week later in an extraordinary rewrite by the same author. So what happened? Were the reporter, Laurie Goodstein, and her editors merely careless, genuinely duped or willing collaborators in an orchestrated smear?
For those who knew this file, the sources used screamed out for greater scrutiny. The first was Jeffrey Anderson, who gave the documents to Goodstein, a longtime reporter on Vatican affairs who covers the religion beat. Anderson is the most prolific contingency-fee lawyer in suing the Church, from which he has made tens of millions. He has current civil suits pending against the Vatican. It is in his direct financial interest to promote the public perception of complicity by the Pope. That alone should have prompted Goodstein to examine what the documents showed and to inquire of others whether there were other relevant documents that he did not give her. Instead, her story accepted fully the Anderson spin.