Media Bias Over Papal Canonizations

The satisfaction and indeed joy that Catholics can derive from the double canonization of Pope-Saints John XXIII and John Paul II cannot be significantly compromised by the objections that some have raised with respect to the Church’s action elevating the two of them to the honor of her altars. Still, it was disconcerting, for example, to learn of the opposition of some traditionalists to the canonization of “Good Pope John” because he had convoked the Second Vatican Council, which the traditionalists think harmed the Church. But to instance a particular official action as a reason for disbarring this pope of such manifest personal goodness and kindliness is to forget that sanctity pertains to one’s personal life and behavior, not to one’s official actions in office or to the effects of those actions.

Then there was the vulgar piece by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd about John Paul II opining that because “he presided over the Catholic Church during three decades of a gruesome pedophilia scandal and grotesque cover-up, he ain’t no saint.”

The president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Bill Donohue, immediately and properly responded to this charge in a press release entitled “Maureen Dowd Lacks Guts,” pointing out that Dowd herself works for the current president and CEO of the New York Times company, who was himself silent in a notorious pedophilia case at the BBC where he formerly worked, and about which he had to have been privy long before the case was ever finally exposed. And yet he has remained silent to this day. Dowd pointedly does not apply to him the standard she requires of John Paul II.

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Bill Donohue also correctly pointed out that the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church was never, in fact, a “pedophilia scandal” in the first place. 81 percent of the verified cases involved Catholic priests engaged in homosexual relations with older boys, not younger children. To be sure, these cases were no less immoral, according to Church teaching, but they were precisely not “pedophilia,” as critics such as Dowd obstinately continue to claim.

Ironically, in view of the knee-jerk support typically given to “gay rights,” even by many of those otherwise so quick to condemn the Church in the case of her alleged “pedophilia scandal,” it is not entirely clear what the moral basis might be for their condemnation of the Church’s clerical sex-abuse cases. These cases obviously are morally wrong and deplorable, but how can this be so for someone who accepts and even celebrates homosexual behavior?

Actually, as documented in the Winter, 2014, issue of the journal, The Family in America, there is definite a new movement afoot within the broader culture to legalize and normalize pedophilia itself, as has already been the case with homosexuality. Thus, it is not clear how much longer pedophilia can be used as a club with which to beat the Catholic Church. No doubt it will continue to be used as a club until it suddenly becomes recognized and even celebrated as the latest instance of human liberation from hidebound and outmoded sexual morality and mores.

In the meantime, though, the denial by a Maureen Dowd of the sanctity of a St. John Paul II can presumably seem not just possible and plausible but true and right. The same thing is true of a vile Washington Post cartoon that appeared a few days after Dowd’s Times column. This cartoon prominently featured a poster proclaiming, “Prevent Child Abuse”—to which a smaller cartoon figure standing by asks, “What do you call somebody who drags his feet on identifying and punishing abusers”? To this question, another small cartoon figure holding a leaflet titled “John Paul II” replies: “Saint.” In small letters at the bottom, no doubt making reference to the Vatican’s longtime reputation for dragging things out endlessly, it is further asserted: “They can move fast when they want to.”

Cartoons, notoriously, simplify things. Even well-established and indisputable facts can get lost. One salient fact that has gotten lost today is that the clerical sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, along with the disgraceful record of episcopal cover-ups which accompanied it, was primarily a phenomenon of the 1960s through the 1980s, that is, at the height of the sexual revolution. And then there is the further fact that, after the media exposés of the cases of abuses and cover-ups from 2002 on, when the U.S. bishops, in panic mode, adopted their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the clerical sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church very soon became “history” in the true sense of the word. For effective safeguards were instituted and put in place.

Today the Catholic Church in the United States has one of the best records of child protection of any major social institution, especially by comparison with, e.g., the U.S. public school system—and, apparently, the orthodox Jewish rabbinate. As the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue, again, has reported, in 2013, in a population of more than 40,000 Catholic priests, there was a grand total of “credible accusations”—not convictions!—adding up to the massive number of only—ten!

And this record has been consistent. In the past five years, in fact, there has been a yearly average of only about eight credible accusations made annually against Catholic priests in America, all 40,000 of them. There is no factual basis upon which the Catholic Church in this country can continue to be depicted as in the throes of a “pedophilia scandal.”

However, the fact remains that Maureen-Dowd-type columns and Washington-Post-type cartoons unfortunately do continue to be common, indeed pretty much the norm. This is the same false basis on which the UN Committee on Torture, for example, recently faulted the Church as somehow guilty of “torture” in implementing her teachings—as, earlier, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child had also severely criticized Church teachings. As long as the lies continue to be believed about the Church, similar attacks on her—as on the newly canonized St. John Paul II!—will no doubt continue to be made both self-righteously and with impunity.

Still, the public vilification of Pope Saint John Paul II at the time of his canonization surely marked some kind of low point in journalistic ethics. That the head of a 1.2 billion-member organization would—or could—know the details of crimes committed by a tiny minority of his clergy in more than 5000 dioceses around the world would be the remarkable thing. It is true that the Polish pope was at first reluctant to credit accusations of the kind of clerical sex abuse that the Communists under whom he had had to function for so many years in Poland had been so adept at manufacturing.

No doubt too a man of his acknowledged personal holiness found it hard to believe that ordained Catholic priests could be capable of acting against chastity in the way that the priest-abusers were reported to have done (though it might have occurred to him that some of those tempted and prone to engage in this kind of abuse might well have deliberately chosen the clerical state as a cover). However that may be, nothing that the pope ever did or did not do added up even remotely to what Maureen Dowd felt able to style as “presiding” over “nearly three decades of a gruesome pedophilia scandal”—which she thought meant that he “ain’t no saint.” But this is just slander.

It was never in any case the pope’s personal responsibility to monitor the behavior of everybody down the line in his worldwide organization. This would have been a sheer impossibility—unlike being necessarily aware of the notorious predations of a criminal pedophile in one’s own immediate organization, as apparently was the case for Maureen Dowd’s boss when he was at the BBC. The double standard of judgment here leaps to the eye.

The cases of clerical sex abuse that occurred in the Catholic Church during the pontificate of Pope Saint John Paul II were always the responsibility of the bishop in each of the dioceses where they occurred; and it is quite true that many of these bishops did indeed let the pope down badly; but that in no way reflected upon his own personal sanctity, nor on the Church’s judgment that this sanctity was in fact nothing less than heroic and thus definitely merited the canonization that has now happily taken place.

Catholics can affirm and rejoice in the manifest holiness of this successor of Peter, who in so many other ways was such an outstanding leader as to be called by many “the Great.” We too can now honor him as John Paul II the Great, the Saint!


  • Kenneth D. Whitehead

    Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

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