Andrew Sullivan spins and spins

Andrew Sullivan spins and spins In yet another misleading and emotionally driven post, Andrew Sullivan attempts to spin the decision to suspend the canonical trial of Father Lawrence Murphy into a cover-up by then Cardinal Ratzinger. This despite the fact the trial was suspended only when it was learned that the priest was nearing death and that a trial would be cut short. Indeed, Murphy died shortly thereafter and will face, I am quite sure, his judgment elsewhere.

Notably, Sullivan uses an even more sinister looking picture of Pope Benedict in his post today, as if attempting to prove my point from yesterday – regarding people’s subconscious dislike of the pope for purely aesthetical reasons – even further. (Here are two more pictures Sullivan has used to cast the Pope in as sinister a light as possible.)

The rest of Sullivan’s post makes little sense. The Murphy case at this point was not a secret, nor was it in any way confined to the Church – as the New York Times has admitted. Police and other civil authorities had failed to act and the Church had begun its own proceedings, but then halted them when it became clear that Murphy was close to death. This was a poor decision, but it hardly amounts to a conspiracy.

After a number of meetings and correspondence between the Vatican and Archbishop Weakland, Weakland claims he sent Father Brundage, who was in charge of the trial, a letter on August 19th, 1998 telling him to halt the trial. On August 21st, 1998 Father Murphy died.

Whether the decision to halt the trial was Ratzinger’s or the decision of those serving under him is not clear (as it is unclear whether it was Ratzinger or his subordinates who approved the initial trial). Notes do indicate that the decision was made for a number of reasons, including the ‘increased scandal’ of a major trial, but the evidence aside from that one note points to the decision being made primarily because there was very little time left to actually carry out the trial – as made even more evident by the death of Father Murphy two days after the order to halt proceedings occurred. Indeed, as is made clear in the New York Times coverage of these events, Ratzinger’s office made the decision in 1997 to proceed with the trial and only later changed course when it was obvious that Murphy was approaching death.

Another interesting thing – if you read this ‘timeline’ of events surrounding Father Murphy you will notice that they are told quite in reverse. First you are given his last days and the events surrounding the decision not try him. Then, inexplicably you read:

Father Murphy not only was never tried or disciplined by the church’s own justice system, but also got a pass from the police and prosecutors who ignored reports from his victims, according to the documents and interviews with victims. Three successive archbishops in Wisconsin were told that Father Murphy was sexually abusing children, the documents show, but never reported it to criminal or civil authorities.

Instead of being disciplined, Father Murphy was quietly moved by Archbishop William E. Cousins of Milwaukee to the Diocese of Superior in northern Wisconsin in 1974, where he spent his last 24 years working freely with children in parishes, schools and, as one lawsuit charges, a juvenile detention center. He died in 1998, still a priest.

This is quite an odd way to structure a narrative. It’s almost as though the NY Times is implying that Benedict himself was responsible for the 24 years of cover-ups rather than the three Archbishops who kept Murhpy’s crimes a secret for so long.

After reading all of this, I am left to surmise that had Murphy not been on his death bed, the trial would have gone on accordingly. Had civil authorities not dropped the ball, he would have likely died in prison. A great many people are responsible for this horrible cover-up, and are directly complicit in the crimes of Father Murphy, but I fail to see how Pope Benedict is one of them.

Once again I am forced to conclude that the New York Times and Andrew Sullivan (et alia) are using this story as a political weapon against a Pope who they view as a cultural enemy. Sadly, this takes the focus off of the real tragedy and the past crimes and cover-ups in the Church which Benedict has worked hard to reverse.

Obviously the media needs to report on these stories, and the Church is the major guilty party in all of this – see James Martin for some compelling reasons why the secular media has indeed played a heroic role in the past – but scapegoating the pope is not the same thing as justice. Let’s support the media in its mission to unearth these scandals, and call them on it when they rush to judgment before all the facts are in.

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9 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan spins and spins

  1. “…call them on it when they rush to judgment before all the facts are in.”

    That’s not even what’s going on here. The facts are in. They’re either just beeing selectively presented by biased sources ( Weakland and the NYT) or completely misrepresented (Sullivan and his talk of a cover-up). Does anyone really think that Benedict’s deputy cancelling a trial for a guy who was about to die (and did die two days later) is a scandal? I don’t see it.

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  2. I understand your point about Sullivan using sinister looking pictures. But, aren’t you using favorable looking pictures for similar reasons (to cast the Pope in a more favorable light)? Or, at least, aren’t you avoiding using pictures of the Pope that you think look sinister for similar reasons?

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  3. Sullivan has been a lost cause for some time now. He clearly lacks the proper disposition – thoughtful, reflective, resistant to the onrush of heated emotions – to be a good blogger. He’s basically everything that someone like Douthat isn’t. Sullivan needs to get away from blogging and write a book (maybe he’s working on something and I’m just unaware).

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  4. Yeah, I’ve been frustrated by Sullivan–who is engaging in person even if still prone to derangement on certain issues–for years now. He seems incapable of forming a dispassionate argument about almost anything anymore.

    Sometimes, when he’s talking about friendship, for example, this is a good thing, because it’s an inherently emotional issue which treating without personal engagement would be unsatisfying. But politics–and this is a political issue–is not one of those times. Sullivan hasn’t been a credible voice about Catholicism for a while now.

    Oddly enough, I’m also finding that he isn’t a terribly compelling voice about homosexuality, either. He didn’t always accuse everyone who disagrees with him of homophobia, and time and again he’ll bring up that canard when there are far more obvious and relevant explanations ready to hand.

    It’s disappointing, really. I love his prose, and his earlier work manifests the possibility of careful, deeply human thought. I wish that Sullivan would resurface.

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  5. E.D., you have the core of a strong case here: that the evidence is not all in and the Benedicts role in scandals present and past is far from clear or proven malevolent. I disagree about where the presumption should lie in this kind of case, but that is neither here nor there.

    I also understand why you respond directly to Sullivan as he is a high-profile and leading accuser of the Pope. What I don’t understand is how it is you think imputing particular motives for his accusations, or the reporting of the paper of record for that matter helps your case at all.

    “Once again I am forced to conclude that the New York Times and Andrew Sullivan (et alia) are using this story as a political weapon against a Pope who they view as a cultural enemy.”

    You think this is about the culture wars? You think Andrew Sullivan, a vocal and committed Catholic by all accounts who struggles with the difficult place his identity puts him in within that church openly nearly daily, is not giving us his views on this matter straight but rather is just using this as a political weapon? Get a hold of yourself. As far as I can judge based on these blogs, on the topic of commitment to faith and Catholicism, which you have now made a very public and open question here, he puts you to shame as a Catholic, sir, if you even are one. On top of all of this, you think it matters what kinds of photos are used, and go so far as to say that the Pope’s accusers have a problem with his appearance that leads them to their position, and then complain when this mind-boggling accusation becomes the focus of their responses. Perhaps it’s manipulative to use unflattering pictures, but the power of this institution to manipulate images to its advantage is probably unparalleled in history. I think they can take whatever Sullivan has got on the images front. Get a hold of yourself.

    You do hold the reasoned side on the narrow question of this argument for now, I have come to believe. I cannot understand why you so undermine your case by trivializing and personalizing as you have your approach to a matter as serious as this. You, and the arguments available to you, are better than this. If you want to look down your nose at Andrew Sullivan, then you need to get yourself on a higher plane than him. Right now, you are not there.

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  6. This was a poor decision, but it hardly amounts to a conspiracy.

    This statement seems completely at odds with the rest of the evidence you present. At this point it’s clear (I hope) that the trial should not have been halted because:

    (i) The purpose of this kind of investigation is not just to punish a single guilty party but to make sure that everyone involved is brought to justice and the victims compensated.
    (ii) Punishment is not biased in favor of the infirm; Murphy’s status as a priest should have been revoked regardless of his physical condition. The fact that this decision, at least in part, was made to avoid scandal is even more damning.

    As it stands, several of Ratzinger’s subordinates were involved in unethical decisions and a cover-up – that’s about as text-book definition of conspiracy as you can get. While it’s unclear how involved Ratzinger was himself (and Sullivan is clearly emphasizing that possibility) I think it’s quite fair to say, as Sullivan has, that Ratzinger was either involved or had completely abdicated responsibility of his position. In either case his role cannot be dismissed.

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  7. Corrections of fact in your story, FWIW:

    1) “Police and other civil authorities had failed to act”

    The district attorney was prohibited from indicting Murphy because of the statute of limitations. The lack of action had nothing to do with any belief in Murphy’s innocence. Another good reason to eliminate criminal statutes of limitation for sexual offenses.

    2) “Weakland claims he sent Father Brundage, who was in charge of the trial, a letter on August 19th, 1998 telling him to halt the trial.”

    Weakland made no such claim. The August 19 letter was to Tarcisio Bertone, Ratzinger’s assistant at the CDF, reporting back what had been done on Murphy’s case to implement Bertone’s directive to halt the trial and set up a “pastoral” approach to deal with Murphy’s case.

    Brundage was not a recipient, and acknowledged today in the NYTimes that Weakland probably did not tell him of the Vatican directive because of the pain it would cause Brundage. Weakland knew how much Brundage was committed to a trial.

    My accurate analysis of the actual minutes of that CDF meeting are available of all places on Andrew Sullivan’s blog at

    Hearty congratulations to the NYTimes for its coverage, and to Andrew Sullivan.

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