Media Matters

The Curious Incident at the New York Times

The missing word in the paper's obsessive coverage of the pedophile priest scandal.

By 4.13.10

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Europe and America have been rocked in recent weeks by the scandal of a Roman Catholic priest in Germany who molested children several decades ago and escaped serious punishment. But one detail has been missing.

The New York Times has run more than a dozen articles on the issue since the story first broke on March 12, under such headlines as "Memo to Pope Described Transfer of Pedophile Priest."

The most salacious part of the story has not been details of the sexual abuse (there have been few, there being, after all, only so many ways to molest) but the posited lack of interest of the miscreant priest's superior, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. The gravamen of the story is becoming "what did the cardinal know and when did he know it." Fair enough, perhaps. But we've been down this cover-up story line before, when the Times went after President Nixon. It now appears the Times is trying to pin the Watergate cover-up tail on the Vatican donkey.

The real issue is limned not only by the Times's headline, "Memo to Pope Described Transfer of Pedophile Priest," but also by a remark the Rev. Klaus Malangré, the Catholic Church's personnel chief in Essen, Germany, made to the Rev. Friedrich Fahr, his counterpart in the diocese of Munich to which the offending priest, Fr. Hullermann, was being transferred. Malangré suggested to Fahr that Hullermann could be allowed to teach religion "at a girls' school."

At a girls' school? Why would that be safe? Look up "pedophile" in the dictionary and you will find that it means an adult who is sexually attracted to young children. Wouldn't the pedophile Hullermann be sexually attracted to young girl children too?

Well, he might be, if he were only a pedophile. But then what would have been the point of Malangré's suggestion to Fahr?

Clearly, Malangré was warning Fahr that Hullermann was a homosexual.

Of course, you knew that already, somehow. But that somehow was not because the New York Times told you. The word "homosexual" does not appear a single time in all the articles the Times has run since the story first broke.

That is the curious incident in this story.

Scotland Yard detective Gregory asks Sherlock Holmes, "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?" Holmes replies, "To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime." Gregory responds, "The dog did nothing in the nighttime."

Holmes: "That was the curious incident."

Here are four possible interpretations of the Times's curious omission of Hullermann's homosexuality. One, that the Times reporter didn't know that Hullermann was a homosexual -- and wasn't curious enough to find out. Two, the editors of the Times assumed all its readers would assume Hullermann was a homosexual. Three, the people at the New York Times thought the fact irrelevant. And four, the people at the Times are in thrall to the homosexual community and didn't want to disparage it.

One and two are implausible. If you could figure out Hullermann was a homosexual, so could a reporter for the New York Times. And since when did the newspaper of record omit an important fact just because many readers would know it anyway? Three is absurd: clearly the homosexuality of the offender would be one of the most important parts of the story.

Leaving the fourth reason: the Times made a choice to speak no ill of homosexuals.

But in fact, the third reason would probably be the one given by the Times. The people at the Times think -- or say they think -- that homosexuality is irrelevant to pedophilia. Bill Keller, the Executive Editor of the Times, wrote in March 2002 that "there is no known connection between homosexuality and pedophilia."

The Times may believe that, but other experts --and probably most Americans -- would disagree. Besides, that's not exactly the issue. The issue is whether there's a connection between the homosexuality of the priests and the molestation of the boys.

The pedophilia story really begins more than forty years ago, when the Roman Catholic Church began accepting known homosexuals into the priesthood. The traditionalists objected, but the sixties were when enlightened, progressive, sophisticated life began. Like children who think they are the very first to discover sex, the sixties' liberals thought that any restrictions on what homosexuals could do must be wrongly discriminatory. For a liberal, everything goes. So, everything went, including homosexuals to seminaries.

In the years since then, we -- the Catholic Church in particular, but all of us, really -- have reaped the fruits of what was sown in those turbulent years.

There are, in fact, at least three scandals here. One, that a priest molested boys thirty years ago, is scandal to be sure, but alas, hardly news now, given the number of such stories over the past decade -- including one in California that came to light only this past week.

The second, and underlying, scandal is that it's the homosexuals allowed into the priesthood in the sixties who have been causing most of the trouble.

Are all homosexuals child molesters? Certainly not.

Are most child molesters in the Catholic Church homosexuals? Almost certainly.

But try finding that story in the New York Times.

Isn't this the key question: Are homosexual priests more likely to molest children than non-homosexual priests? If we don't know, shouldn't we find out? Because if they are, wouldn't it make sense to pay special attention to the assignments given to homosexual priests?

In fact, wouldn't it make sense to pay special attention to the assignments given to homosexual priests until it was certain that they were not more likely to molest children than normal priests?

Not, apparently, to the New York Times. That would require it to be critical of supervisors who failed to identify priests who were homosexual and who assigned them to positions where they could abuse children. It's much easier for the Times simply to pile on after the abuses have happened, and write about a cover-up.

What is the primary public-policy goal of a news story that exposes a cover-up? Presumably, to put future offenders (or their superiors) on notice that eventually they are likely to be detected and perhaps punished. The hope is that that knowledge might make those in positions of authority more vigilant in assigning, supervising, and punishing priests who might abuse children.

But wouldn't identifying the likely perpetrators, or a class of people likely to be perpetrators, and supervising them more carefully before they perpetrate be even more likely to serve the public policy of preventing abuse of children?

Again, surely yes.

And that is the third, and most serious, scandal. There is almost surely a cover-up here. But it's a cover-up by the New York Times of a group of people whose lifestyle the Times celebrates. The Times seems to be more interested in protecting its friends in the homosexual community than the youngsters in churches -- and in any other institutions where they might fall victim to predatory homosexuals.

One part of the "crisis" in the Roman Catholic Church is probably over. Abuses have declined since 1980, and the church has stopped letting known homosexuals into the priesthood. Scandals of this particular type won't be happening in the future, certainly not on the scale they have been. That is good news, though because of its cause -- fewer, or no, homosexuals in the priesthood -- you may not find it highlighted in the trendy papers.

But we shouldn't expect that the decline in scandals will persuade the Times to admit it was wrong. When the Times is asked in years to come why the abuse of children declined so precipitously in the Catholic Church, it will be all set with the perfect explanation.

Climate change.

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About the Author

Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. He served as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan.