Monday, April 19, 2010

Conduct unbecoming a journalist

As covered by Life-after-RC and other sites, Father Owen Kearns issued an apology that will appear in the April 25 print edition of the National Catholic Register. You can read the whole thing here; I'd like to focus on this part:

I publicly defended our founder as spokesman for the Legion of Christ in early 1997 and as publisher in the National Catholic Register in November 2001 and May 2006. On each of these occasions I believed completely that the allegations against Father Maciel were false. I trusted him and his profession of innocence. I know now that I was wrong.

The 1997 allegations of Father Maciel’s sexual abuse came as a complete shock to the Legionaries of Christ. We couldn’t believe that the allegations against our founder were true, because they were so incompatible with our experience of him. We tended to interpret them as one more attack — something normal in the life of many founders.

Even when the Vatican invited Father Maciel in 2006 to a retired life of prayer and penance, and it was obvious to many that he was considered guilty, the absence of a public explanation for the move allowed me to hope against hope that he was innocent.

Nothing in my experience of our founder prepared me to believe his victims — nothing, that is, until I learned that he had fathered a daughter. The conclusive evidence that he had done things incompatible with religious and priestly life made me rethink everything.

In February 2009, in the edition that covered the news, I wrote that I was saddened first of all for all those hurt by his misdeeds, and I asked Register readers to pray for his victims.

Since then, other shameful and reprehensible facts we never imagined about our founder have come to light. All of these revelations have been extraordinarily difficult for me to comprehend, let alone assimilate. To avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, the Register recused itself from further reporting of the events. We adopted the objective policy of covering the scandal by using reliable news reports produced independently of the Register and of the Legionaries.

Father Kearns goes on to apologize to the late Gerald Renner and to Jason Berry by name, and to Father Maciel's victims.

Now, I'd like to begin by saying that I don't think much of the modern habit of parsing apologies to a minute degree. If someone is saying he is sorry, I think civility, let alone Christianity, demands that we take the person at his word.

However, taking someone at his word does mean being aware of his words. As the recent case of Father Pfleger illustrates, while we should be willing to accept someone's apology we can only accept what they've actually apologized for, and we can further come to some understanding of where they are by being aware of what they chose to say, and how they choose to say it. Far from "parsing" an apology, such a reading is being careful to listen to what the person is actually saying, neither to put words in his mouth nor to take away from what he has said. In Father Pfleger's case, it is not being harshly judgmental at all to say that Father Pfleger essentially apologized for being caught saying what he said, and for offending people. He did not apologize for his heterodox opinions, and indeed such an apology would be unbearably facile, when evidence indicates that he still holds those opinions, and is not even willing to admit that they are heterodox.

Thus, when reading Father Kearns's apology, I can say without any fear of being accused of rash judgment or jumping to conclusions that Father Kearns's apology is, at its core, an admission of Father Kearns's utter and abject failure--not as a Catholic priest, which is, of course, not my business to judge, but as a journalist.

Father Kearns says, in the paragraphs I quoted, that he trusted Maciel and believed in the latter's innocence at the time of the 1997 reports. Any halfway-decent journalist, however, would have spent some considerable time tracking down the allegations Berry and Renner made, and would, even in early-Internet days, have seen the disquieting similarities between what Berry and Renner were alleging and the whispered reports of problems dating back to before the foundation of the Legion, including the investigation that took place in the late 1950s. Any tenacity at all in trying to come up with evidence that would either support or deny the allegations would have led to some hard questions, even back in 1997.

But suppose we accept that Father Kearns had no reason to believe the allegations were more than malicious lies, and that Maciel's denials were convincing. We are left with the disquieting admission by Father Kearns that he continued to defend Maciel in 2001 and 2006 specifically--with, perhaps, implicit defense in the years stretching between and beyond those two points. We are further left with Father Kearns's own words that he was continuing " hope against hope..." in Maciel's innocence, even after Maciel was "invited" to retire to a life of prayer and penance.

As actions consistent with a member of a religious order and, in particular, a member of the Legion of Christ, Father Kearns's actions here are understandable--deplorable, perhaps, but understandable. But as actions consistent with those of a journalist Father Kearns's actions, or more specifically his long-continued lack of any journalistic action whatsoever, are so below the very barest minimum standard of what ought to be expected from an honest member of any branch of media as to defy description.

One might object that this is unfair, that we ought not hold Father Kearns to a journalistic standard. Consider this line, though, from Father Kearns's biography at the National Catholic Register's site: "Father Owen Kearns, a Legionary of Christ, Publisher and Editor in Chief since the Fall of 1996 of the National Catholic Register, a weekly newspaper reporting on the Catholic views of cutting edge issues." If the Register is a newspaper which reports on Catholic views of cutting edge issues, as is stated, and Father Kearns is the Publisher and Editor in Chief, then Father Kearns is a journalist, and has been one for at least fourteen years now (give or take).

Father Kearns seems to be aware of journalistic standards himself: witness that last paragraph I quoted, in which Father Kearns says that in the present time the Register has recused itself from reporting on the developing Maciel scandal to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest. But there was a conflict, and that conflict was never more apparent than when Father Kearns was defending Maciel from all charges in earlier years--even if that defense gave the implication that the journalists in question were either lying or misled, and that the allegations were false and unfounded. One can't, as a journalist, have it both ways, and maintain silence once accusations have been found to be credible--but be only too willing to denounce those accusations at first reading, and while any sort of proof of the truth of those allegations is thought to be impossible, or at least highly unlikely to manifest itself.

Plenty of Catholic writers, bloggers, and commenters have been accused recently of attacking the media on the Scandal rather than dealing with the allegations. This, however, is a false charge for the most part. As a tiny and insignificant opinion blogger I have no delusions of journalism--yet common sense has led me to evaluate each new "smoking gun" pointed at the pope based on the evidence at hand. In each case the "smoking gun" has turned out to be the phantasmagorical reflection of a dripping water pistol, brought on by rich food, East Coast cocktail parties, and newsprint-fumes; but if some "bombshell" revelation really did exist independently of someone's fertile imagination, the only thing to do would be to deal with it honestly, to investigate it thoroughly and to go wherever the truth led--a job that would involve the Catholic press much more so than mere Catholic Internet commenters.

Is the National Catholic Register up to that job? By Father Kearns's extraordinary apology, it would seem that it is not. There was plenty of time between 1997 and 2006 for a Catholic newspaper to investigate the growing allegations against Maciel, the striking similarity of so many of the allegations, the mysterious travels and expenses of the founder, or so many other clues that all was not rosy in the Legion garden. The paper's Editor-in-Chief admits that he did no such thing--he simply defended "Nuestro Padre" against all such allegations, based only on his own experience with and knowledge of the man, though both led him woefully astray. Again, this may be perfectly understandable behavior for a Legion priest at that time--and it is utterly unacceptable conduct on the part of a journalist. There were too many jarring inconsistencies between the Legion founder's facade and his reality for any journalist worth his salt to ignore them all from 1997 to 2009, the year when the news of Maciel's daughter finally caused Father Kearns to begin, as he admits, to grapple with the truth.


Susan said...

I agree with this analysis. Can we parse this with regard to a priest in an order that claims to be loyal to the Magisterium? I, along with Fr. Kearns, and all of the LC and RC refused to truly READ the Vatican communique of 2006:

Since 1998, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has received accusations, which were already made public in part, against Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ, for offenses reserved to the exclusive competency of the dicastery. In 2002, Father Maciel published a statement to deny the accusations and to express his astonishment at the offenses against him by former Legionaries of Christ. In 2005, for reasons of advanced age, Father Maciel retired from the office of superior general of the Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ.

All these elements have been the object of mature examination by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and, in virtue of the "motu proprio" "Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela," promulgated on April 30, 2001 [emphasis mine], by the Servant of God John Paul II, the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, His Eminence Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, authorized an investigation into the accusations. Meanwhile, the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as the new Pontiff took place.

After submitting the results of the investigation to careful study, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the guidance of the new prefect, His Eminence Cardinal William Levada, has decided -- taking into account both the advanced age of Father Maciel as well as his poor health -- to drop the canonical process and invite him to a reserved life of prayer and penance, renouncing all public ministry. The Holy Father has approved these decisions.

Irrespective of the person of the founder, the distinguished apostolate of the Legionaries of Christ and of Regnum Christi is acknowledged with gratitude.

The "already public in part" sticks out to me. I just find it hard to believe that the LC didn't know everything that Maciel was accused of in 2006. They finally admitted to the mistress in 2009. They finally admitted to the abuse 50 years ago in 2010. In my opinion, Fr. Kearns has much more to apologize for. He misled the faithful, turning us AGAINST the wisdom of the Church. If he didn't do this purposefully, he needs to recognize the problem in his formation that caused him to doubt the Church, to "hope against hope."

Furthermore, since the Vatican last week published these norms of 2001, we see that a life of prayer and penance is certainly left for the guilty, and it also implies that there is admission of guilt when this punishment is extended. The LC, including Fr. Kearns, in their communique, basically told us that the Church was wrong. They also claimed that the canonical process had never begun, when indeed it was dropped. This is something else he needs to apologize for, IMO, or at least recognize publicly his failure to see the truth and to deny the Church's conclusion.

LarryD said...

Good going, Erin. Keep these types of posts coming, and you'll never get invited to write a column for the Register!


eulogos said...

I am sure you are right, but I couldn't help feeling pain for people who had such a large part of the foundation of their lives kicked out from under them.

They are also Maciel's victims.
Susan Peterson

Faithemmanuel said...

Back in 1992, my husband and his brother attended an LC school. After three months, their parents pulled them out, sensing it was cult-like.
Interesting little story: they learned Spanish right away. The instructor asked the class "Why Spanish?" After many (wrong) answers, he banged his desk with his fist and yelled, "Because it is the language of our founder!" It was ALL about the founder.
Interesting about Fr. Kearns-- so did he see Fr. Maciel in deep meditative prayer? Did he see him deny himself in any way? From where did Fr. Maciel's holiness emanate? Quick answer: brainwashing.

Jonathan Carpenter said...

Speaking of conduct "unbecoming a journalist"; What do you think of this?