In a 2002 series of articles, Michael Rezendes and his colleagues on The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team did the Catholic Church—and, by extension, society at large—a great service in bringing greater light to the problem of sexual abuse by some priests in the Church. The Globe’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning coverage ignited investigations that helped facilitate national and international reforms. Some Catholic would strongly reject any affirmation of the Globe, given the newspaper’s general bias against the Church. I recognize that bias, and yet I would argue there’s no doubt that God used the Globe’s talented journalists to help purify the Church, as surely as he employed in Old Testament times ancient Babylon to topple the corrupt Kingdom of Judah and thereby spur the reform of the Jewish people.
The Church in America, and elsewhere around the world, had various leaders who forget their primary role as shepherds—namely, to cherish and protect their flock, especially those most vulnerable—and instead moved offending clerics to other parishes. Miscreant lay employees never would’ve been given second and third chances, and so we see that radical trust in God supersedes maintaining problematic priests to preempt financial losses at the parish and diocesan level.
Indeed, as we have seen too many times, not radically trusting in God only makes the explosion that much worse, when the pressure cooker of scandal finally blows.
The Globe itself needs reform
In a new Spotlight investigation, lead reporter Rezendes brings important attention to the scandal of priests’ fathering children, although the Globe’s estimate of thousands of such children is not substantiated well. In addition, in an exclusive interview with “CBS This Morning,” Rezendes makes several important missteps, including not correcting CBS’ labeling of such children “illegitimate” (1:15ff.). As canonist Edward Peters notes well, the Church doesn’t teach these children are illegitimate, nor should anyone else label them as such. All children are created in the image and likeness of God. What is truly illegitimate—and indeed scandalous (cf. CCC 2284-87)—is when errant priests betray their obligation to “observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” father children and don’t take responsibility for them (CIC, canon 277.1).
In this light, we see that Rezendes does something unfortunately common among journalists: Failing to note that not simply celibacy (refraining from marriage) but also continence (abstaining from sex) are required of priests throughout the world. And these norms are well-known among priests and priestly candidates, contrary to what Rezendes conveys (4:42ff.), the cultural aberrations in some locales notwithstanding.
The only exceptions regard some married Protestant ministers who have become Catholic and seek to become priests, and also Eastern Rite Catholic priests who are permitted to marry before their ordination.
And both Rezendes in his Spotlight coverage, and both he and the CBS This Morning team in their exclusive interview with him, fail to explain—even briefly—that the Church’s discipline of clerical celibacy calls men to be “spiritual fathers” of many children (young and old), that this discipline was and is encouraged by both Jesus Christ (Matt 19:10-12) and St. Paul (1 Cor 7:25-40), and that, with God’s grace, celibacy is joyfully lived throughout the world by a multitude of priests.
“Reckless disregard of the truth”
Rezendes also seriously missteps in telling CBS that “after all these years of having to confront the problem, the Vatican has still not come up with a set of policies for dealing with the problem of clergy sexual abuse’” (5:22ff).
That’s simply not true. For example, per Church policy, the Vatican approved norms the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops first issued in 2002, and which have been implemented with increasing effectiveness. Also, in 2001, a half year before the original January 2002 Spotlight exposé, Pope St. John Paul II issued guidelines encompassing this grave wrongdoing, noting therein that the Church has long had such norms. (Obviously, enforcement must be vigilant worldwide.)
In addition, while Rezendes is definitely right in saying the Church must always help children fathered by priests, he is again seriously mistaken in claiming that the Vatican has failed to establish polices that “give some bishops a little bit of guidance on what to do when they learn one of their priests has fathered a child, because right now they have no guidance” (3:39ff).
Again, while enforcement of norms is paramount, what Rezendes asserts is simply not true and not befitting a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist. The Code of Canon Law, issued in 1983, and which continues longstanding Church policy, specifically addresses clerical sins regarding the Sixth Commandment, i.e., regarding sexual sins that encompass fathering a child, and conveys such a priest should be suspended from clerical ministry (CIC, canon 1395; cf. canon 277.3).
Further, like his claim regarding no Vatican guidelines for dealing with clerical sexual abuse,
Rezendes is guilty of libel, and as a journalist I don’t use the term lightly. The U.S. Supreme Court landmark’s decision in NY Times vs. Sullivan, issued in 1964, established the modern standard for libel of public figures: “knowing falsity” or “reckless disregard of the truth.” While Church leaders in Rome presumably won’t bring a lawsuit against Rezendes and the Globe, a case could be made.
Rezendes is a very talented and veteran journalist who has extensively covered the issue of clerical sex abuse, and so he is well aware of the Church’s reforms, particularly those that his Spotlight team coverage helped spur. In addition, it is at least reckless for Rezendes not to know about and report on canon 1395, given the extensive reporting he has also done on priests’ fathering children. For an accomplished investigative reporter, there’s simply no excuse for the statements Rezendes made to CBS.
Some might counter that Rezendes has mitigating circumstances in his reporting. Like other members of the Globe’s Spotlight team, the scandal that played out in the Archdiocese of Boston scandalized him (cf. CCC 2284-87), tragically leading Rezendes and other colleagues to stop practicing their Catholic Faith. Undoubtedly, Rezendes is wounded and understandably angry about grave wrongdoing done in the name of the Church Jesus founded.
And yet, Rezendes is still well aware of the journalistic principles that he should uphold. In that light, Rezendes and the Globe should issue a retraction. His libelous comments are also sadly a backhanded compliment toward the Church, an angry expression that if the Catholic Church is who says she is—the one Church founded by Christ and his Mystical Bride—she shouldn’t tolerate such egregious sins against God’s little ones. And let us pray for the healing and reconciliation of Rezendes and all those impacted by the sins of Church leaders, that they realize that they should never let the actions of any human person prevent them from encountering the eternal-life-giving Eucharistic Lord (cf. Jn 6:51-58).