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Tolerant of Libel? Turning the “Spotlight” on The Boston Globe

Veteran reporter Michael Rezendes makes several incorrect—even libelous—assertions in his recent remarks about the scandal of priests’ fathering children.

Left: Boston Globe journalist Michael Rezendes on "CBS This Morning". Rezendes is author of the August 16, 2017 report "Children of Catholic priests live with secrets and sorrow"(Screenshots)

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).

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About Thomas J. Nash 13 Articles
Thomas J. Nash is a Contributing Apologist and Speaker for Catholic Answers and a Contributing Blogger for the National Catholic Register. He is the author of What Did Jesus Do?: The Biblical Roots of the Catholic Church and The Biblical Roots of the Mass. He has served the Catholic Church professionally for more than 35 years, including as a Theology Advisor for the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN).


  1. One would think the Archbishop of Boston might write in defense of Church and priests in response to the Boston Globe article.
    Don’t hold your breath. The good Cardinal Sean wants friendship with the Globe and the Boston secular left.
    He carries little weight in city and unless it is against a conservative, he will never through his light weight around.

  2. While I agree with author Nash I disagree that back and forth with self convinced journalists will go anywhere except to reinforce either side of the issue. Unfortunately the scandal of priests fathering children however exaggerated by Rezendes is real and perhaps larger than perceived. This leads to a current issue I wish to address. Conscience. For example although Fr Vincent Twomey SVD received much criticism in his article on AL he nonetheless presents a comprehensive analysis of conscience, with reservations. “Conscience in the original sense of the term (rooted in our instinct to do good and avoid evil), is the measure of every motivation, action, and circumstance (including consequences). Enlightened by Revelation, Church teaching confirms and clarifies what we all know in our heart of hearts about the moral order written into our being by the Creator (cf. Rom 2:14-15)”. Expansion on “what we all know in our hearts” is necessary in the present clime of emphasis on conscientious decision making. Fast back to the priest fathering kids. Many known by word of mouth and first hand experience have lived with their housekeeper cook as husband and wife, frequently in Western remote areas. Conscience the determinant of good and evil is not always correct, although it may appear to be in our “heart of hearts”. They didn’t perceive themselves as sinful adulterers. Many were apparently successful pastors. Fast forward to knowledge that is the Natural law within, a prescient knowledge realized in practice. It isn’t always identified. Due to lack of scrutiny of Natural Law principles named Synderesis by St Gregory Nazianzen, St Jerome. St Thomas Aquinas agreed adding of all the diverse inclinations in Man that form conscience Synderesis, retention of the First Principles of the Natural Law are what give it its form (ST 1a 79, 13). First principles distinguished from secondary since the former are inherent, prescient knowledge whereas the latter are learned. Sentiment replaces that inherent knowledge as we find in AL. Responsibility needs clarification. If one ‘truly’ believes they are right how can they be judged responsible if conscience is inviolable? It’s evident if conscience were entirely inviolable and not conditionally so the evil that men perpetrate in the name of their god or some ideology or simply because they live in the bush as head hunters and cannibals absolves them. No need for missionaries or the Crucifixion. What of invincible ignorance, what of “absolute” [this adjective absolute applied to such knowledge is misleading] knowledge that their actions are grievously sinful? Or even partly? Aquinas in De Veritate 17, 4 Ad 3 comments that following such a conscience results in serious sin because it was knowledge they should have known. Invincible ignorance is knowledge beyond the possibility of our knowing (Pius IX Singulari Quidem A 7). This is the dilemma today affecting the entire Church, increasingly on all moral issues. That inherent knowledge often buried beneath sentiment can only be corrected and verified by the revealed Word of God.

    • Thanks, Thomas. I agree, as noted briefly, re: the Globe’s bias. But I also don’t think anyone can credibly deny that their reporting helped spur reform in the Church.

  3. It’s really a sad state of affairs when it takes news articles for the church to be forced to do the right thing. Please have the humility and the character to defer to the truth about the treatment of children born out of wedlock in the RCC. Aside from this particular “scandal”, let us never forget what was done to unwed mothers and their children by the RCC under the auspice of righteousness and holiness which we can look to Ireland as the poster child for it all.

    Yes the church seems to be shattering at each revelation and people can pick those revelations apart in an attempt to band aid the problems, but unless we all accept the truth of our church and its vowed members we move further away from God and His truth. God is telling us something important with each new and old scandal and it will continue until the church makes a commitment to live the life they freely chose in service to God. This does not mean they are not human and make mistakes, sometimes big ones, but never are we to shy away from acknowledging them and making things right.

  4. Father Peter Morello, Thank you for taking the time to respond, and I appreciate your affirmation. In your scenario, though, I think a priest would know better based on his God-given conscience (cf. Rom. 2:13-16). I think such a priest would know he’s rationalizing his misbehavior. Mitigating circumstances? Perhaps. Exonerating? No way. In my CWR piece, I recognize and affirm that Rezendes and his Globe colleagues have done. But I don’t let them off the hook either. He knows, and the Church’s misdeed don’t give him an excuse to misrepresent the truth.

    • Mr Nash I agree and confirmed in my exposition on conscience, perhaps not as clearly as I might have, when I said “They didn’t perceive themselves as sinful adulterers” that all priests who cohabitate, or commit any gravely sinful act are culpable. I go further to infer that all persons who commit a gravely sinful act are culpable. That is the point of my explanation of conscience and inherent knowledge of the first principles of natural law. We may gloss that knowledge over by sentiment but we are not “exonerated”. We may think we are not sinning convincing ourselves otherwise and forming a false conscience. And be still capable of performing apparent good like those pastors. That’s what Aquinas means when he says “because it was knowledge they should have known”. Conscience and the human intellect are complex and there are myriad subtleties regarding apprehension and acceptance of what we apprehend. Persons who argue against truth and those who refuse to acknowledge truth have denied the rational premises that lead to its acknowledgement. Apprehension by the intellect precedes judgment. And many make a false judgment of what is known but not acknowledged.

      • This addendum to my previous reply clarifies the process of making a moral decision. The apprehension of some external good or evil is followed by judgment of the intellect. That judgment is not a willed act but the interior response of the intellect to understand what is externally perceived. Aquinas adds the intellect in apprehending first principles such as a good or evil act is always unerring (ST 1a 17, 3 Ad 2). The “false judgment” I mention above is actually called Liberium Arbitrium, or free choice. After the intellect makes its judgment of the morality of something Man makes a willful decision, a free choice whether to abide to the judgment of the intellect. This means that we know by nature of the operation of the intellect the good or evil of something prior to our personal choice. The difficulty for many is precisely at the moment of free choice due to preconceptions. Nonetheless we are responsible for those preconceptions that may dispose us to refuse what is morally true.

  5. Thanks for this – I have the movie on my Netflix watch list.

    It is unfortunate that it took the Globe’s exposé to force the bishops to act, since Catholic papers had already been covering the abuse problems in details for well over a decade. Unfortunately they were ignored and even excoriated (and at least once, threatened) by the bishops involved… and then, after 2002, the bishops guilty of enabling and/or protecting abusers insisted on staying in office. Had they resigned, rather than lawyering up (+Mahony spent a billion $$ of the faithful’s funds to avoid testifying under oath in court), that scandal within the “scandals” could have been avoided. Alas, it persists, because that shoe is still waiting to drop.

  6. Priests are men who take the vow of celibacy. Nonetheless Priests are a part of the human condition. The Priesthood of the Roman Catholic has been under a severe magnifying scrutiny for wrong doings. Lets us put the human condition into proper perspective in the Church and out of the Church. Fathers do it, brothers do it, uncles do it, neighbors do it, even aunts do it, sisters do it in secret to one another. All leaving suffering victims. Is it just possible that there are even reporters at the Globe who do it in secret. to their shame. Mercy, Mercy, Lord……

  7. The Spotlight feature film and Boston globe leave their readers and audiences in a black hole…no hope or education about recovery healing or understanding . The film left us back 2002

  8. The Globe has been agenda (left) driven since the 1960s. Anyone who reads anything but the sports section is aware of this by now. Goes a long way to accounting for what passes for the thinking process in that city.

  9. It is a challenge for major media outlets to bring on board, or else “train up,” journalists who have an interest in understanding church operations, disciplines and expectations of their clergy “from the inside.” Typically journalists content themselves with bringing an outsider’s view to looking into untoward happenings in the church. This may be true even if a journalist happens to be “a person of faith,” but is more often the case if the journalist has no particular depth in a faith tradition.
    All that said I agree with the sentiment that The Globe did the church and society a great favor by exposing the epidemic of clerical sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese in its Pulitzer-prize winning series in 2002. That opened the door for the church to “clean house” and for many other dioceses to discover how bad things had become for their own clergy.
    A major misstep by Rezendes was his failure to know about, or credit, the strictures put in place by the Vatican and U.S. dioceses, post 2002, to nip clerical abuse in the bud, weed out the abusers, and prevent seminarians who showed any disposition to abuse from continuing on toward the priesthood.

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