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How the NYT and Rachel Zoll Turned Catholics Against Cardinal Law


Yes, this is yet another discussion of the Cardinal Law Incident which I have dubbed Lawgate. However I believe it is noteworthy in that it is fairly well researched. Over the last few days I have reviewed the 818 news stories on Cardinal Law in the Google news index (covering over 5,000 major outlets for the last 30 days), and have uncovered some interesting facts that will hopefully shed some light on the genesis of Lawgate.

A little background for those of you new to the conversation. Rob Vischer over at Mirror of Justice stirred the waters over here at The Seventh Age with his post on Cardinal Law and Common Sense.

Our esteemed author jaadkins added his two cents and drew our attention to the conversation raging over at Open Book.

I was struck by the uniformity in the outrage against Cardinal Law, even by fellow Catholics, for what I thought was a non-event, and decided to get to the bottom of this "story" and find out how it became "news."

A Plot Is Hatched

The foundation for Lawgate was already being laid on April 2nd, 2005 when Pam Belluck published an article in the New York Times headlined Abuse Scandal Gives Boston Mixed Feelings About Pope's Legacy. In the article she quoted Dr. James E. Post, a Boston University professor who is president of Voice of the Faithful. In discussing the legacy of John Paul II, Dr. Post said:

[H]is behavior in response to the sex abuse crisis disappointed many Catholics. He seemed very reluctant to remove Cardinal Law or accept Cardinal Law's resignation. His personal relationship with the cardinal seemed to stand in the way of his being willing to address the problems of the archdiocese.

Thus the stage was laid for what would later become Lawgate. The Times was carefully instructing people to think of the papacy of John Paul II, and his legacy, as one of clergy sexual abuse, and like any good play, the villain, Cardinal Law had already been introduced.

Meet The Villan

Taking his cue from Belluck at the Times, Michael Kunzelman of the Associated Press took up the story a few days later in an April 5th story headlined, Boston Catholics get complex view of pope. The Villain now moves up to the lead paragraph.

Living at the epicenter of the clergy sex abuse crisis has given Boston Roman Catholics a complicated view on Pope John Paul II's tenure. For many, however, the pope doesn't bear the brunt of their anger and disappointment.

That distinction belongs to Cardinal Bernard Law.

After 18 years at the helm of the Boston Archdiocese, Law stepped down in 2002 amid claims he protected priests who sexually abused children. Pope John Paul named him archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, a highly visible but largely ceremonial post.

Stephen Pope, a professor in Boston College's theology department, said many Boston Catholics wanted to see Law punished, not transferred. "A lot of people in Boston feel it was basically a reward for his loyalty, that he was never held accountable for the terrible decisions he made," he said.

Compounding their anger is the knowledge that Law will have a hand in electing John Paul's successor.

"People will look at it with a jaundiced eye. They're basically saying, 'If we can't trust him to assign priests to parishes, how can he be trusted to vote for the next pope?'"

And so the villain is explicitly declared such. His new position is described as highly visible, though I would be willing to bet most Catholics couldnt tell the difference between a Cardinal deacon, a Cardinal archpriest, and a Cardinal archbishop, much less name anyone who holds one of these positions, but thankfully it is largely ceremonial post (pay attention, this is a foreshadowing detail here).

Of course the worst part is that this terrible pedophile bishop (he has never been accused, but the guilt is by association here) who has so irrevocably betrayed the trust of his flock that he ought never to have any role in the Church again will have a role in electing the next pope. This must be fought at all costs, and so the central tension of the play emerges.

This AP story hits 36 online outlets according to Google (Im sure it ran in many more) and so the bad news on bad guy Law starts to make the rounds.

Enter the Hero
On April 7th, David Clohessy, National Director of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) snaps into action and releases a statement Regarding Cardinal Law's Leadership Role in Honoring the Pope. In that statement Clohessy notes:

"Cardinal Law is correct when he says this is the time to "focus" on Pope John Paul II. Thousands of caring Catholic and wounded victims, however, find it hard to keep that focus when Law is apparently exploiting this sad moment for his own hurtful rehabilitation attempt. Out of sensitivity and respect for those families who continue to suffer because of his cover ups, and in a spirit of genuine contrition, Law should avoid the public limelight.

If he genuinely wants to honor the Pope, he should avoid causing distractions to the solemn ceremonies and recuse himself from any other public role in the days and weeks again.

But there are other responsible parties here.

Vatican officials should prevail upon Law to stop rubbing salt into the already deep wounds of the American church and the hundreds of men and women whose faith has been stolen and whose pain still cripples them because of Law's abusive clerics.

Bishops and cardinals across the globe, especially in America, should forcefully speak out now on behalf of the wounded, and insist that Law put the memory of John Paul II and the needs of clergy abuse victims above his own self-aggrandizement.

The code of silence with which church officials shelter even the most egregious among themselves must be broken. Bishops and cardinals must find the strength and courage, as so many of us have found, to confront wrongdoing.

This is about preventing more preventable pain, not about punishing a man who has already caused or helped cause hundreds of shattered lives. We seek these things out of compassion for the victims of rape and sodomy by clergy, not out of anger toward the hierarchy of the church."

No matter how you read it, it seems pretty clear Clohessy has it in for Law. Exploiting this sad moment for his own hurtful rehabilitation attempt? Self-aggrandizement? You would think that Law went on a lengthy campaign to persuade members of the Curia to let him say this mass. No mention is made that he was most likely assigned the role by default because of his largely ceremonial position. I also find it interesting to note that few could probably list the other 8 Cardinals who are saying these high-profile masses. No, this isnt about the Mass, this is about Clohessy and his vendetta against Law.

Of course Clohessy cant do this alone. On the same day he releases his statement Charles Sennott over at the Boston Globe lends a hand with an article headlined, Mourning for pope brings Law into public eye.

In this article Sennott resumes the assault on Law, accusing him of reemerging into the public spotlight since the popes death:

Those feelings have been intensified by the fact that Law, who has studiously avoided the media since his resignation, has reemerged in the public eye during the mourning for the pope.

As news of the pope's death was carried live on television around the world Saturday, Law could be seen in the background on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica, joining a small group of clergy leading the saying of the rosary. On Sunday, Law gave a lengthy interview to ABC News in which he spoke eloquently about the pope's legacy, but refused to answer any questions about the abuse scandal. And for the last two days, television cameras have shown Law leaving a conference of the cardinals who now run the church in the interim period before they convene April 18 to elect a new pope.

One cant but help but wonder if it is Law who has been avoiding the media, or the media which just hasnt noticed him until their attention shifted across the Atlantic, but at any rate Law is apparently, as Clohessy accused him, seeking the spotlight again. Also note that it still hasn't been announced that Law will say "the Mass." This entire article preceeds that announcement. In fact this article describes Laws first special mass for the pope which drew little attention. As Sennott noted:

ROME -- Adorned with miter and crimson vestments, Cardinal Bernard F. Law led a special Mass and prayer vigil for Pope John Paul II at St. Mary Major basilica for his congregation of Italian churchgoers and a handful of American tourists and pilgrims from other countries.

Yet there were no protestors or media coverage of this event. No, that would come later.

Enter Rachel Zoll
Few who have been critical of Cardinal Law would recognize the name Rachel Zoll, but all are intimately familiar with her. She is the Religion Writer for the AP, and has written the majority of the articles dealing with this issue. Interestingly enough, Rachel is no stranger to Boston, she was full time on the priest abuse story in Boston:

Ostling said the APs coverage of the scandal has been a challenge. AP Religion Reporter Rachel Zoll has been covering it largely full-time since January, along with their supervising editor. Ostling has also given it a majority of his time, along with dozens of AP reporters across the country and overseas. Zolls widely used story with state-by-state breakdown of numbers of clergy accused in abuse cases relied on input from AP bureaus in 50 states.

And on April 7th, she picked up where she left off.


Vatican gives Cardinal Law role of honor proclaimed Zolls headline that ran on about 60 outlets according to Google. This was the first story that broke the news that Cardinal Law would be celebrating one of the nine masses during Novemdiales for Pope John Paul II, and is probably the story that first caught the attention of most Catholic bloggers.

Unfortuantely, the story was a little more sensational than it was accurate. The opening headline illustrated this quite clearly:

VATICAN CITY - Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in disgrace as archbishop of Boston over his role in the clergy sex abuse crisis, has been given a role of honor in the mourning for Pope John Paul II.

The Vatican announced Thursday he will lead one of the daily Masses celebrated in the pope's memory during the nine-day period that follows the funeral, called Novemdiales. The service will be held Monday at Rome's St. Mary Major Basilica, where Law was appointed archpriest after leaving Boston.

One would think that after many days of intense deliberation members of the Curia had decided Cardinal Law was deserving of a Cardinal of the Year Award for his failures in dealing with clergy abuse scandal back in Boston, at least thats how Zoll tells the story.

And not more than a few paragraphs later, our hero David Clohessy is back to reiterate his prior statement:

David Clohessy, national director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called it "terribly insensitive."

"It rubs salt into the already deep wounds of victims and it allows the best-documented complicit bishop to exploit the pope's death for his own selfish purposes," Clohessy said.

It isn't until one makes it through about 75% of the story that one discovers an interesting quote by Cardinal McCarrick:

Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said he did not know why Law was chosen, but said it was likely because the basilica is one of the great churches of Rome.

The New York Times follows Zoll's lead with the headline, "Cardinal Law, Ousted in U.S. Scandal, Is Given a Role in Rites" and crafts the language that Amy Welborn will later adopt:

But to Vatican officials, Cardinal Law is a powerful kingmaker who traveled internationally for the church and whose favorite priests were regularly appointed bishops by John Paul. After he stepped down in Boston in 2003, he was given a spacious apartment and a prestigious although honorary post in Rome as archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

To its credit, the Times does not in the 4th paragraph of the article that Law's position gave him the role, but it is still described as "high-profile" with Law being allowed to "take the limelight in Rome." What follows is an opportunity to recount the details of the Boston sex abuse scandal in great detail, and a lament of the power Law still exercises:

"He never lost power, even though he stepped down from Boston," Mr. McDaid said. "In any other corporation if you lost your rank and left, you'd lose your power and you'd be stripped of your title." But, "here he is in Rome, still as powerful as he was before."

The New York Daily News picks up the story as well, headlined, "Cardinal at center of priest sex abuse scandal to say mass for pope" (something incidentally Law had already done, as you recall if you have been reading carefully) and lands it in 25 outlets, complete with a quote from our hero:

Thursday's announcement enraged groups like Voice of the Faithful and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which formed as disclosures of church sex scandals started in Boston and spread across the country. "There are obviously thousands of people who could have been chosen for this Mass," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network. "It just reopens some very, very deep wounds."

And then, in fidelity to the New York Times article that started this whole thing, the Daily notes:

The pope was undeniably close to Law, which may have colored how he and the Vatican saw the American scandal and Law's role in it, said Voice of the Faithful spokeswoman Suzanne Morse.

"I think (the pope) perceived the gravity around some of the issues of clergy sexual abuse, but I do think he had a blind spot in understanding Cardinal Law's culpability," Morse said.

And there you have it, the legacy of John Paul II, as scripted by the New York Times almost a week earlier. Of course the story doesn't end there.

The Zoll Continues
Rachel Zoll over at the AP is working hard to keep this story fresh. On April 9th she catches up with, guess who, our hero, with the headline, "Abuse Victim Advocates Protest Law Role." Clohessy doesn't get a part in this act, but SNAP still makes the second paragraph:

"We certainly do not want to cause any additional pain or suffering to anyone attending the memorial service for the Holy Father," Barbara Blaine, the group's founder, said in a phone interview from the United States. "Our concern is that many Catholics going there don't know the history with Cardinal Law and that's why we want to inform them."

Zoll reports some Catholics have claimed Law got the role because he, "leads an important church, not to give him personal honor." but she makes it quite clear she is not conviced, claiming:

Still, the assignment gives Law a position of influence. In their homilies, cardinals usually indicate what they consider the key concerns for the church. Observers scour the speeches for clues to how a cardinal will vote.

Zoll's second installment hits 50 outlets. CNN follows suit, with the same story. Same SNAPers, with a Cardinal Mahoney spin, Boston sex scandal details redeux, etc.

The Snowball Effect
By this time the story is snowballing. April 10th unleashes a Knight Ridder article by Matthew Schofield and Patricia Montemurri with our hero quoted multiple times. It hits 50 outlets and repeats what you have already read (note there is really no "news" here, execpt that Law is saying Mass for John Paul II the next day).

On Monday, Zoll is back to her typewriter, trying to turn Law's Mass into a news event, and by 4:00 P.M. her story hits the wire. The headline is strong, "Police Stymie Vatican Protest Over Law" but the story is faltering before the end of the second paragraph:

VATICAN CITY (AP) - A small but symbolic protest by victims of sex abuse at the hands of American clergy was stymied Monday when police escorted one of the organizers off St. Peter's Square before she could distribute fliers.

Several uniformed officers walked Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, behind barricades set up at the entrance to the square. The officers did not explain why they escorted Blaine off the piazza, and she had no immediate comment.

The rest of the article is merely a rehashing of her previous works, with some new quotes from our hero's organization, but still makes it on 55 news outlets.

An hour later she has another report out, "Law Celebrates Mass Despite Protests." We find out there were only two protesters, and after the routine rehashing, we get a few insights into actions being taken to preapre for the upcoming conclave, actions that I contend are objectively far more newsworthy than a woman handing out flyers in a piazza in Rome before Cardinal Law's mass, but nonetheless this story runs on at least 117 news outlets, disinforming countless Catholics and secular observers alike.

The Assault Continues
After the non-event story on Monday, you would think Rachel would let this one go, but less than eight hours later, Tuesday morning at 12:31 AM to be exact, she's back at it, this time with, "Disgraced Cardinal Leads Mass for Pope." The protesters are gone, as that angle didn't go very far, by the Mass was celebrated "without disruption." By this time you already know the rest of this latest report. Same story, rehashing of the rehashing of the rehashing of the Times assault on Cardinal Law. Yet despite it's lack of anything newsworthy (except yet another new quote from our hero's organization), this account hits 74 outlets.

The Great Snubbing
The one spin that does emerge, though not from Zoll, is the notion that the American cardinals snubbed Law by not attending. KABC7 in Los Angeles pulls this one together in a story, "Cardinal's Miss Mass Led By Bernard Law." Of course no one is sure if it was a snub or not, as several aides indicate it wasn't:

LOS ANGELES Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and five other American cardinals skipped a Vatican Mass led by Boston's disgraced former archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, it was reported today. But in another report, aids of three of the cardinals, including Mahony, said attendance at the mass was not mandatory and no conclusion should be drawn by anyone's absence.

It's not until you get well into the story that you realize:

Most cardinals from other countries also skipped the Mass on a rainy afternoon, but their motives were unknown, The Times reported from Vatican City.

But hey, let's not miss another chance to beat up on Law. And the Los Angeles Times doesn't disappoint. Staff writers Larry Stammer and Richard Bourdeaux jump at the chance:

VATICAN CITY The scandal over sex abuse by American priests intruded on the mourning for Pope John Paul II here Monday as all but one U.S.-based cardinal avoided a Mass led by Boston's disgraced former archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law.

Three of the seven cardinals Edward M. Egan of New York, Francis George of Chicago and Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles snubbed the Mass in St. Peter's Basilica out of concern over Law's notoriety, three American church sources said.

Now I can appreciate the need for annonymous sources, but "American church sources" "a source farmiliar with one cardinal's thinking" "another source" and "a third source" makes you wonder who the true source of all this speculation is. But the truth comes out when we discover this article is not about the U.S. caridnals, it is about law:

The silent rebuke by some American cardinals was a new setback in the Vatican's effort to rehabilitate Law, once the most powerful U.S. cardinal and a favorite of John Paul for his steadfast defense of conservative church teachings.

Ahh, the Vatican itself is out to restore Law's reputation, but has been thwarted by the powerful U.S. hierarchy. Now it all makes sense. Thes rest of the story continues with quotes from the SNAP protest entourage of two, an account of the Mass, and "reactions" from those in attendance.


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Comments (1)


Is it possible that over 99% (99 out of 100) of the sexual-abuse claims against the Catholic church are lies to extract money in civil lawsuits?

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 13, 2005 9:55 PM.

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