Last month Cardinal William Levada, Pope Benedict XVI’s successor as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote a lengthy screed attacking the New York Times, and particularly reporters Laurie Goodstein, Rachel Donadio, and columnist Maureen Dowd. He accused them of biased, sloppy, and unfair reporting in their recently intense coverage of Vatican abuse scandals past and present. Today the Times unveils a report on Levada that the paper has clearly been prepping for weeks. When it came to abuse scandals, which Levada handles in his current position and oversaw more locally as a bishop and archbishop, “an examination of his record, pieced together from interviews and a review of thousands of pages of court documents, show that he generally followed the prevailing practice of the church hierarchy, often giving accused priests the benefit of the doubt and being reluctant to remove them from ministry.”
The paper has indeed done its research, explaining what happened in a number of abuse cases under Levada’s jurisdiction when he oversaw the diocese in Portland, Oregon, and in San Francisco. In some of their accounts, Levada seems to have aggressively pursued justice. In more, though, he seems to have held a sort of mysterious ambivalence. One story particularly gets at the dynamic between Levada’s own stated desire to help and clear pressure from the Church infrastructure:
In the spring of 1985, the alarm was sounded by an unlikely trio of concerned Catholics, the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a Vatican canon lawyer; Raymond Mouton Jr., a Louisiana criminal lawyer who defended the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, a notorious pedophile priest; and the Rev. Michael Peterson, a psychiatrist. In the wake of the Gauthe case, the three men produced a strongly worded 92-page report that argued for immediate action to deal with sexual molestation in the church. In May 1985, Cardinal Levada, then a young auxiliary bishop from Los Angeles, was sent by church leaders to meet with the men. The meeting at a Chicago airport hotel went on all day, Father Doyle and Mr. Mouton said recently, with Bishop Levada going through their report almost line by line. They said he seemed enthusiastic about their proposals. Two weeks later, however, the bishop called Father Doyle and told him that their report was being shelved and that the bishops would convene their own committee to examine the issue. But no such group materialized.
Still, the article features a couple of vague sentences coming from the Times (and not sources) like this: “Cardinal Levada often did not act as assertively as he could have on abuse cases.” That sounds like an editorial value judgment (in addition to being a meaningless sentence — Marines at war could be described as “not acting as assertively as they could have”). It’s a sense that is heightened by bitchy asides like this: “Cardinal Levada did not respond to requests for comment. Jeffrey Lena, a lawyer in Berkeley, Calif., who is representing the Holy See in lawsuits, said the cardinal had not been given enough time to respond to a list of questions submitted to him 10 days ago.” And that’s on top of the “What, me worry?” candid picture of Levada that the paper is running on their website. When the Times has been repeatedly accused of bias by the Vatican, it might be better to take extra care to avoid little indulgences like these.