I am reliably informed that the word has gone out at EWTN that the network’s leadership is under attack by me and others in the blogosphere for the way it handled the Benedict Groeschel matter, including the firing of the National Catholic Register‘s news editor, John Burger. Well, too bad. It was disgraceful what EWTN did to John Burger, for simply doing his job, and its leadership ought to be feeling the heat.
If you haven’t been following this, Register news editor John Burger allegedly lost his job because he failed to challenged Fr. Benedict Groeschel when Groeschel made a statement about sex abuse that indicated victims were sometimes to blame for seducing priests. The editor in chief of the Register replaced that interview with this statement:
Child sexual abuse is never excusable. The editors of the National Catholic Register apologize for publishing without clarification or challenge Father Benedict Groeschel’s comments that seem to suggest that the child is somehow responsible for abuse. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our publication of that comment was an editorial mistake, for which we sincerely apologize. Given Father Benedict’s stellar history over many years, we released his interview without our usual screening and oversight. We have removed the story. We have sought clarification from Father Benedict.
Jeanette R. De Melo
Editor in Chief
Michael P. Warsaw, the head of EWTN, the parent organization of the Register, issued this statement in the wake of the controversy. The relevant excerpt:
The recent comments regarding clerical sexual abuse of minors made by Father Benedict Groeschel to a news editor of the National Catholic Register should never have been published. In no way do those comments reflect the views of the Register or EWTN. It should have been obvious to the editor that Father Benedict’s physical condition and mental clarity have deteriorated and that the comments were completely inconsistent with his life’s work and witness. We apologize that these remarks were published and ask for forgiveness for this error.
The recent comments regarding clerical sexual abuse of minors made by Father Benedict Groeschel to a news editor of the National Catholic Register should never have been published. In no way do those comments reflect the views of the Register or EWTN. It should have been obvious to the editor that Father Benedict’s physical condition and mental clarity have deteriorated and that the comments were completely inconsistent with his life’s work and witness. [Emphasis mine -- RD] We apologize that these remarks were published and ask for forgiveness for this error.
You see what’s going on here, I hope. This statement is designed to put all the blame on John Burger for supposedly failing to recognize that poor elderly Fr. Groeschel wasn’t in his right mind. But here’s the lie: what Fr. Groeschel said to Burger in that interview is consistent with what he has said all along about the scandal! Read my post about Fr. Groeschel’s 2002 talk about the scandal and its roots, and listen to the talk for yourself if you like. There is nothing that Fr. Groeschel said to John Burger that is substantially new or different from the line he has taken all along.
Besides which, from my examination of the National Catholic Register masthead, there are four other editors besides Burger who were responsible for that text. Did none of them read it before it was published? If they did, why are they not being held responsible? Did any of them flag Fr. Groeschel’s comments as potentially problematic? Was he or she overruled or ignored?
What about the other writers, editors, and presenters at the Register and EWTN media? How are they supposed to know how to do their jobs now? If a man like Burger, who spent 11 years working for the paper, can get fired for quoting an interview subject accurately, and for reporting words said by the interview subject that are by no means out of character for that subject, then there’s really no way to know where the land mines are. Who can possibly feel confident in doing his or her job as a journalist or host in a situation like that? Who wants to work under those conditions?
I don’t know what’s going on at that newspaper, but the firing of Burger under this utterly unbelievable pretense makes it seem that under EWTN’s stewardship, the most important thing is preserving the image of a beloved priest, not honoring the truth, not practicing basic journalism, and not treating fairly an employee who faithfully served the newspaper for 11 years.
It is unprofessional. It is un-Christian. It is wrong.
I don’t know why this bothers me so much. I don’t know Burger at all, and I thought he softballed Benedict Groeschel in that infamous interview. It sticks in my craw, I think, because a journalist has had his job taken away from him unjustly, and at a time of great economic hardship, especially for men and women in his field. That journalist is being scapegoated and bullied by EWTN’s leadership, and I cannot stand it when an innocent person is being bullied — especially when the bullies shroud themselves in a mantle of godliness.
UPDATE: Deacon Greg Kandra, who was a professional secular journalist at CBS News for 26 years, and who is now working in the Catholic media, sticks up for John Burger, and says there is plenty of blame to go around. Excerpt:
Did no one in the editorial hierarchy read the interview and say, “Wait a minute. He said WHAT?” Did no one pick up the phone and call the publisher (which happens to be Groeschel’s boss, EWTN) and say, “We have a problem.” Did no one think for a moment that having a popular and widely revered figure like Fr. Groeschel say those things might stir up trouble? Did no one consider that they should get some clarification on those comments — or, to protect the old man’s reputation, just remove them? (The interview, an admiring anniversary piece anyway, wouldn’t have suffered without them.) Finally, did no one understand what so many people have been saying for years (and what he admitted in his statement): that Groeschel’s health is frail and his wits aren’t as sharp? Who thought interviewing him was a good idea in the first place? And why didn’t the Friars of the Renewal intervene to protect Groeschel from himself?
The only problem with Deacon Greg’s take is that Groeschel’s controversial statement to Burger is, as I said above, not out of line with Groeschel’s past publicly stated positions on the scandal.