You will not find me writing about religion very often on this blog (or in National Underwriter, for that matter). But seeing as that it is Ash Wednesday – that day when Catholics mark the beginning of Lent by receiving upon their foreheads an ashen cross – and that I recently had a run in with what amounts to the Catholic anti-defamation league over something that appeared in National Underwriter, I thought I’d share it with you. I think there is a lesson to be applied to the life and health industry here. Others do not. I invite you to be the judge.
Our story begins with the 2010 Year in Review we published back in December. If you read it, you might recall I wrote and ran a several-page timeline of the major news events of the year, splitting them between items of interest specific to the life and health insurance industry, and items of interest to a wider audience. The general interest items were chosen by me owing to a subjective interpretation of thee vent’s overall magnitude and the degree to which my audience might possibly care about them. The item on the church – which was me trying to provide a secondary summation of the year’s news on this topic, ran as follows:
“As the Catholic church’s sex abuse scandal continues, POPE BENEDICT XVI’s former arch-diocese of Munich-Freising reveals he transferred a suspected pedophile priest to another post, thereby allowing the priest to continue abusing children. The Vatican continues to decry these criticisms.”
I received no feedback on the item whatsoever. Until a letter from the Catholic League arrived on my desk on Feb. 22. I was sick that day, so I didn’t get to it until the next day. The letter reads:
February 17, 2011
Dear Mr. Coffin:
On p.17 of the December 20 edition of National Underwriter, in a section titled, “2010 Year in Review,” there is a picture of the pope with the following statement: “As the Catholic church’s sex abuse scandal continues, POPE BENEDICT XVI’s former arch-diocese of Munich-Freising reveals he transferred a suspected pedophile priest to another post, thereby allowing the priest to continue abusing children. The Vatican continues to decry these criticisms.”
This characterization is grossly unfair on several counts. The newspaper that broke this story, the New York Times, admitted that it had no proof that Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger (now the pope) knew anything about the transfer of the priest, Peter Hullermann. Yes, Ratzinger sent Hullermann to therapy—that was the way all religious and secular instutitions handled cases of employee sexual misconduct at the time—but to say that he approved his transfer is without evidence. In fact, the Times said that Ratzinger’s office was “copied on a memo” about the transfer. It further admitted that the memo was routine and was “unlikely to have landed on the archibishop’s desk.” Please note, too, that Hullermann was not a pedophile—he was a homosexual (his victims were post-pubescent males).
That’s quite different from what the article alleges. Readers come away from reading the story thinking the pop only knew about the transfer, but that he aided and abetted further abuse: the words “thereby allowing the priest to continue abusing children” means just that. Moreover, it is unseemly to say that the sex scandal “continues” when, in fact, this story was about a case that took place in the 1980s. The data show that the timeline when most of the abuse cases took place was the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, and indeed the average number of credible accusations made against a priest (there are more than 40,000 of them in the U.S.) in the past five years has averaged 8.6 a year. In the last year we have data for, 2009, the number was six. In short, there is no secular or religious institution in the nation that has less of a problem today with the sexual abuse of minors than the Catholic Church, owing, in part, to the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI.
In March of last year, President Obama signed the health care bill; 300 Christians were murdered by Muslims in Nigeria; and 14 people were killed in Baghdad on the first day of voting in Iraq’s parliamentary elections. Yet none merited inclusion in the big events of March 2010. But a distorted story about the pope did.
I would like to hear from you about this issue. More important, it would only be fair to notify your readers of this misrepresentation.
William A. Donohue, Ph.D.
The Catholic League
I take letters like this seriously, but I also strongly disagreed with Donohue’s take on things, so I responded that day with a letter that reads:
February 23, 2011
Dear Mr. Donohue:
Thank you for writing, and for voicing your concerns over our content in the December 20 edition of National Underwriter Life & Health. The content you quoted was written and researched by myself, and I take sole responsibility for it.
That said, I will not apologize for what I wrote, as my text was based off of a wide reading of news stories regarding the degree to which Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger was involved in the handling of Peter Hullermann’s numerous instances of sexual misconduct. You mentioned the March 25 New York Times article (“Memo to Pope Described Transfer of Pedophile Priest”) merely noted that Ratzinger was copied on a memo that was unlikely to have landed on his desk. Indeed, the story says just that. It also says there is no proof that Ratzinger didn’t read it, however, so the article hardly clears him. Now, to go on that alone as an indictment would presume Ratzinger guilty until proven innocent, but the article further states that at a later meeting that Ratzinger did attend, the matter of Hullermann was brought up and action was intiated. In Ratzinger’s presence, such a thing bears the future pope’s approval, either tacit or implicit.
Regardless, the fact remains that under Ratzinger’s watch, Hullermann was able to continue serving the Church despite his misconduct, and as a result, further misconduct occurred in settings that would have been impossible had Hullermann not be associated with the Church. Despite lower functionaries taking the blame for the handling of the Hullermann case, Archibishop Ratzinger ultimately shares that blame for the results of his actions and/or those of his subordinates.
It bears noting that National Underwriter is hardly the only media outlet carrying this story and in the manner in which we carried it. Media brands from across the world have drawn the same conclusions as National Underwriter – that a scandal did involve the Church in 2010, that it did involve Ratzinger’s handling of Hullermann’s alleged sexual misconduct, that because of how that was all handled Hullermann continued his work with the Church and continued to execute sexual misconduct with minors, and because of that, the Pope drew considerable scrutiny and criticism. It leads to an ugly conclusion, but then again, it is an ugly story.
I say these things having been an altar boy myself. My brothers and I serves St. Jane Frances De Chantal in Easton, Pa. for the lengths of our childhoods. The priests we worked with were fine, honorable, moral individuals who never once even suggested anything improper to myself or my brothers despite myriad opportunities to do so. I have no axe to grind against the Church or Pope Benedict XVI. But as a journalist, I must report what I see. And what I see is a failure of Ratzinger to act decisively at a time when he could have prevented future harm, choosing instead to rely on a bureaucracy that led to further personal tragedy.
In closing, I have a few notes about the details of your letter itself. I do not know the precise ages of the boys Hullermann molested, save that they are repeatedly referred to as boys, and as minors. Sexual misconduct with such qualifies as pedophilia, if not in a court of law then certainly in the court of common parlance. Let us not split hairs over the nature of what Hullermann did so as to defend the Church. It looks bad. Moreover, if Hullermann was merely a homosexual and not a pedophile, as you contend, then why do you refer to his partners as “victims?”
As for the “continuing” nature of the sex scandal, while the majority of Hullermann’s misconduct indeed took place in the 1960s to mid-1980s, allegations of additional misconduct emerged as late as 1998. Given the truly long-term way in which allegations of this sort tend to arise in this and in other sexual misconduct cases, it is fair to say that the scandal will continue until such time as it is definitively closed in the eyes of a skeptical public. At present, the case is far from considered closed by the Church’s detractors, and thus, the scandal continues. Such is the nature of reputational risk.
Finally, you noted that last March, Obama signed the healthcare bill, Muslims killed Christians in Nigeria, and violence marred Iraq’s parliamentary elections, and yet, “…none merited inclusion in the big events of March 2010. But a distorted story about the pope did.” That is not true. We covered Obama’s signing of the healthcare bill on the same page as the bit about the Pope. In fact, the healthcare bit appeared directly underneath the bit about the Pope. It was impossible to miss, unless the Pope mention came to you by way of a clipping service, or you were only given that single piece of content. Regardless, when I compiled that timeline, I tried to include items that were of specific importance to the life and health insurance industry, items of wider importance to the general public (as many of our readers elect to read National Underwriter and few, if any, other news sources) and items that touched both industry and wider interest. The note about the Pope falls in the last category.