A couple of years ago, I wrote a book called Smear Tactics and in the process developed a good nose for the ways by which certain members of the Fourth Estate mount spurious attacks against public figures. And here we go again . . .
The sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church took a wolfish turn for the worse this weekend when the media pounced on a story alleging that in 1979 the then Munich Archbishop, a great priest by the name of Joseph Ratzinger, transferred a sex-abusing priest to another assignment at which the priest in question subsequently abused more kids. This is breaking news, and we’ll need more time and more thorough reporting to sift through the facts. But the truth appears be rather different from the headlines, an example of which from the venerable London Times reads: Pope knew priest was paedophile but allowed him to continue with ministry
Yes, the future pope pulled the pedophile priest from his post, but he sent him into therapy, and it was the priest’s parochial vicar who later put the offender back into a pastoral setting. One Vatican official called the media’s association of Pope Benedict XVI with this case “false and calumnious.”
So, the story already has about it the characteristics of a classic smear campaign, and you can bet that for many readers of the Times – London or New York – there will never be any later correction of the facts, let alone a retraction, that will convince them that “God’s Rottweiler” wasn’t complicit in a cover-up. The media have a canine taste for what many have termed “the last acceptable prejudice,” which is to say: anti-Catholicism.
What’s peculiar in the instances in which this prejudice confronts the Church’s homosexual-abuse crisis is the way “gay activists” and their epigones in the media make much mischief simply by smearing public figures – alive or dead – as . . . yes, gay. Take the example of New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman (1889-1967) and his accuser, Michelangelo Signorile, a founder of the now-defunct magazine, OutWeek. Of Cardinal Spellman he wrote: “.the archconservative Spellman was the epitome of the self-loathing, closeted, evil queen, working with his good friend, the closeted gay [Joseph] McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn to undermine liberalism in America.”
As evidence of this nefarious plot, he cited an unpublished version of John Cooney’s biography of Spellman, The American Pope. Cooney’s draft included unsubstantiated rumors about the Cardinal’s sexuality. But when the book was actually published, Mr. Cooney “wisely abandoned his attempt to argue that Spellman was a homosexual,” as one reviewer noted. Cooney chose not to include in his book material he could not confirm and that, on reflection, he deemed specious. That didn’t stop Mr. Signorile from basing his smear of Spellman on that un-redacted material. He was content to employ whatever means he could to attack someone he considered the epitome of evil.
Whether any Churchman was or wasn’t (is or isn’t) homosexual may or may not matter very much, but, no matter what the case, any reasonable person must agree that, first, the facts have to support such a charge – facts not rumors –and, second, such facts as there are must not be distorted in service to some political agenda, which is what appears to be happening in the story now roiling about the Holy Father Benedict. The recent revelations about homosexuality in the Catholic priesthood do not currently provide evidence in the case of Cardinal Spellman, although they do add a note of caution to any reflexive defense of him (or any other priest) against claims they could not possibly have been gay. But Mr. Signorile’s assertions are a smear because they serve only his narrow interests and not the interests of historical truth, which in this case – as Mr. Cooney acknowledged – demand caution.
Mr. Signorile would doubtless argue that his distortions serve a “larger truth.” Smear merchants almost always do. And I’ll tell you what else they know: once the mud is slung, it stains. It just doesn’t matter what revelations may come about the falsity of their libel; smears stick.
The dictionary – the Shorter Oxford in this case – defines a smear as “a slanderous story . . . circulated to discredit a public figure,” but it can also be a libelous statement, the difference being between what is spoken and what is printed. It’s all the same to the person whose good name is being trashed. These days we seem not to appreciate the notion of a spotless reputation, but it was once thought to be essential – so important, in fact, that reasonably good men would fight duels over certain insults.
And if we imagine the somewhat antiquated idea of a “good name” or of a “faultless character” as literally a clean, white garment, we can understand the origin of the word “mudslinging.” And who wears a whiter garment than Pope Benedict XVI?
For those of us who love him, these latest libels are a cause for sorrow but not for anger at the pope or our Church. How we view the press is another matter.