The One Missing Fact

How EWTN misreported the Viganò letter
Raymond Arroyo and Laura Ingraham in 2018 (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)

EWTN’s website declares that “Our mission is simple. We aim to bring you reliable, accurate, trustworthy news, from a perspective of faith. We prize integrity, fairness, and a commitment to the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

But in reporting one of the biggest stories to hit the Catholic Church in recent years, EWTN, which says it is the largest religion-news organization in the world, was neither reliable, nor accurate, nor trustworthy. Its coverage of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s bold call for Pope Francis to resign his office willfully ignored the gaps and contradictions in his claims (except to explain them away), promoted his credibility, and slanted the narrative against the pope.

This can be seen even more clearly now that the Vatican has released its report on the Holy See’s role in advancing the career of Theodore McCarrick to his pinnacle as cardinal-archbishop of Washington and elder statesman of the American Church—all the while concealing multiple allegations that he sexually harassed and abused seminarians and young priests. But from the start, EWTN shaped the story to fit its increasingly Fox News-ified agenda.

From the start, EWTN shaped the story to fit its increasingly Fox News-ified agenda.

EWTN Global Catholic Network, based in Alabama, is a powerhouse. The nonprofit organization boasts cable subscribers in 310 million households in one hundred and forty-five countries, more than five hundred radio affiliates, the National Catholic Register newspaper, a book-publishing unit, and the Catholic News Agency. Its website received 4.9 million visits in November, according to SimilarWeb analytics. Publicly filed tax returns show that its main entity, Eternal Word Television Network, raised $305 million in donations from 2014 through 2018.

Viganò released his “testimony” against Francis and other prelates through the Register, as well as on the farther-right website LifeSiteNews, on August 25, 2018. It was, for any journalist, a titillating document, with a high-ranking insider accusing not only Pope Francis but also numerous bishops of covering up the allegations against McCarrick. But it also contained many warning signs that required journalistic caution in reporting on it.

The biggest was that while Viganò called for the pope to take the unprecedented step of resigning for malfeasance—for supposedly reversing sanctions that Pope Benedict XVI had imposed on McCarrick—the archbishop didn’t really know what Benedict had done, or when he did it. On one hand, Viganò said he told Pope Francis about Benedict’s sanctions on McCarrick. On the other, it wasn’t clear from his own account how much he knew. Despite that haziness, Viganò asserted that it was “certain” Pope Benedict had imposed “canonical sanctions” barring McCarrick from celebrating Mass in public, giving lectures or traveling, taking part in public meetings, and requiring him to leave the seminary where he was living.

This raised another obvious problem with Viganò’s claim: it was easily verified that during the sixteen months he was the papal nuncio to the United States and Benedict was pope, McCarrick remained in the public spotlight (sometimes in events with Benedict or Viganò), traveled the globe, and appeared on national television. But in Viganò’s telling, “From the time of Pope Francis’s election, McCarrick, now free from all constraints, had felt free to travel continuously, to give lectures and interviews.” The question was: What constraints?

This is not to deny the document’s value as a tool for reporters to unpack the two-decade story of how McCarrick advanced to such heights in the Church. But the EWTN operation lacked the journalistic distance to filter out Viganò’s bias, and thus to find the larger story that was implicit in his testimony—how the McCarrick matter was mishandled through three papacies. They’re not the first journalists to limit themselves to a major source who gave them a string of exclusives, but they should at least realize what they’ve done in retrospect. Judging from the coverage of the McCarrick report, released this November, the key journalists there don’t.

 

The network’s most visible figure, newscaster and Fox News commentator Raymond Arroyo, led the way in arguing for Viganò’s credibility and keeping the focus where the archbishop wanted it: on Francis and those American bishops who supported him. In breaking the Viganò story on August 25, National Catholic Register Rome correspondent Edward Pentin wrote:

“What is certain,” Viganò writes in his testimony, “is that Pope Benedict imposed the above canonical sanctions on McCarrick and that they were communicated to him by the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Pietro Sambi.” 

 

The Register has independently confirmed that the allegations against McCarrick were certainly known to Benedict, and the Pope Emeritus remembers instructing Cardinal Bertone to impose measures but cannot recall their exact nature. 

At first read, it looks like enterprising journalism for Pentin to be able to confirm that important fact while reporting a breaking story. But it reminds me of a quip I once heard from the late Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist Murray Kempton: “An investigative reporter is someone who leaves out one key fact.” I took him to mean the missing fact that would lead readers to the gray areas of a story, the ambiguities that soften outrage, Kempton’s specialty.

Six days later, Pentin used a blog post to report, in the fifteenth paragraph of a twenty-three-paragraph article, what the key fact was. From “a reliable source close to Benedict” he had gleaned this:

As mentioned in the Register’s initial report on the testimony on Aug. 25, the Pope Emeritus was “unable to remember very well” how the matter was handled, according to the source. As far as Benedict could recall, the source said the instruction was essentially that McCarrick should keep a “low profile.” There was “no formal decree, just a private request.”

Request. That’s a world of difference from the “canonical sanctions” that, according to Viganò, Pope Francis had removed in an act of “sinful conduct,” in which he “associated himself in doing evil with someone he knew to be deeply corrupt,” and was “abdicating the mandate which Christ gave to Peter.”

This revision came about after a Catholic newspaper in Germany, Die Tagespost, published an August 28 article in which a Holy See insider, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, said it was “fake news” to claim that Benedict had confirmed Viganò’s allegations. This presented a challenge for EWTN: Gänswein, who worked closely with the two popes, was one of the good guys in EWTN’s version of Vatican politics, someone who granted its reporters rare access to the highest levels of the Church.

According to Die Tagespost, Gänswein was referring to a New York Times report on August 27 that quoted EWTN board member Timothy Busch, a wealthy conservative Catholic lawyer and donor, as saying that he believed Viganò’s claims to be credible. Referring to the National Catholic Register, the Times said that “leaders of the publication had personally assured him that the former pope, Benedict XVI, had confirmed Archbishop Viganò’s account.”  

The EWTN operation lacked the journalistic distance to filter out Viganò’s bias, and thus to find the larger story that was implicit in his testimony.

I won’t weigh readers down with the semantic debate that followed with Busch’s denial and a flurry of related attacks and counterattacks on social media. The editors were on the spot. As is often the case when that happens, the reporter was left to explain. 

Pentin did so in an interview with Arroyo. “This is certainly a very very good source who told me that, and it seems very clear that Pope Benedict did enforce sanctions, he did impose sanctions,” he said. But, Arroyo told Pentin with a stagy alarm, Gänswein’s comments “seemed to undercut your reporting.” With the table set, Pentin responded that wasn’t the case. “What he didn’t deny is that there were sanctions imposed on Cardinal McCarrick.... So we stand by our report on that.” 

What was missing was added the next day to the fifteenth paragraph of Pentin’s blog post: his “very very good source” had told him in July that Benedict’s sanctions amounted to “a private request” to keep a “low profile.” In fairness to all parties involved, that should have been in the original story on August 25. But that would have undercut Viganò’s credibility. Arroyo continued on his path when he appeared on The Ingraham Angle on Fox News. Viganò was “very well respected, [a] man of integrity, a sharpshooter.” He declared that “bishops around the United States and the world, Tyler, Texas, Arizona and the entire Conference of Catholic bishops say these are credible charges that need full investigation.”

That was an exaggeration: the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops hadn’t said the charges were credible. Rather, the president of the conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, had issued a statement saying that “the questions raised deserve answers that are conclusive and based on evidence. Without those answers, innocent men may be tainted by false accusation and the guilty may be left to repeat sins of the past.” 

The missing “one key fact” became clearer when Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, released an open letter on October 7, 2018, explaining what he’d learned through a document search. McCarrick “had been strongly advised not to travel and not to appear in public, so as not to provoke additional rumors in his regard,” he wrote. But, he added, “It is false to present the measures taken in his regard as ‘sanctions’ decreed by Pope Benedict XVI and revoked by Pope Francis.” There were no documents requiring “an obligatory mandate of silence and to retire to a private life, carrying canonical penalties. The reason being that at that time, unlike today, there was not sufficient proof of his alleged guilt.” This cast the matter into the gray area EWTN commentators had been avoiding: Benedict, lacking evidence to formally sanction McCarrick, “strongly advised” that McCarrick stay out of the public eye to avoid drawing public (read: news-media) attention to himself.

On his The World Over telecast on October 11, Arroyo and his “papal posse,” Robert Royal and Rev. Gerald Murray, did their best to dismiss Ouellet’s findings. It didn’t matter if Benedict’s decision was formal or not, Arroyo and Murray maintained. “The pope does not make decisions based on rumors,” Murray said, adding that the pope has a right to tell Church leaders what to do, in writing or not. “Any evidence that is brought forward is going to confirm what Viganò said,” the New York priest said, adding that the steps Ouellet described “are all sanctions placed on someone who has committed an ecclesiastical crime.”

 

The McCarrick report that the Vatican released on November 10 has shortcomings, but its chief virtue is its extensive disclosure of documents in normally secret Church files. The records show that in December 2006, the papal nuncio to the United States at the time, Pietro Sambi, told McCarrick that “he needs to decide to lead a private and prayerful life, so as not to be spoken of,” even if “no one believes in the truth of the accusations.”

McCarrick managed to thrive in the gray area that the Curia created for him. There was no announcement to him that the pope had decided this (the report says Benedict was informed of the steps that were taken). At least some of the time, McCarrick informed the Vatican Secretariat of State about his public activities in various parts of the globe. He even concelebrated Mass with Benedict at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in April 2008. 

After the psychotherapist Richard Sipe published an online statement about “The McCarrick Syndrome” in 2008—and Viganò highlighted it in the second of his two detailed memos to Vatican superiors about McCarrick—there was a renewed, but still weak, effort to rein in the cardinal.

The tone of the next letter to McCarrick was more insistent, but still gave him room to maneuver. Cardinal Giovanni Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, wrote: “I appeal to your ecclesial spirit and I am obliged to ask you not to accept invitations for any public events.” According to the report, Gänswein said Benedict recalled approving of the approach taken in Cardinal Re’s letter. If Viganò was right about anything, it was in his call for a real investigation to be done, a canonical proceeding. He never knew if that was done, but told the world that it was. It wasn’t.

The McCarrick report didn’t only expose the bias, the gaps, and the suppositions in Viganò’s allegations; it implicitly exposed the same in EWTN’s reporting. Given its size and influence, and its claim on truth, the network has a duty to examine how it reported this story—much as mainstream secular news organizations sometimes do after mishandling a major story. Often enough, the problem is getting too close to sources and failing to verify their claims. Think of the New York Times and the Iraq war, or 2016 election coverage that failed to understand the strength of Donald Trump’s campaign.

But the release of the McCarrick report prompted a victory lap of sorts at EWTN. In keeping with his practice to tell one side of this story—Viganò’s—Arroyo’s November 12, 2020 episode of The World Over featured what was presented as a telephone interview with Viganò, with the usual piling on from the “papal posse.” Even more revealing was a podcast called the CNA Editor’s Desk, featuring Catholic News Agency’s editor, J. D. Flynn, and Ed Condon, the Washington bureau chief. Condon took the opportunity to trash other journalists who had covered the story. The report had noted that reporters from the Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey, the New York Times, and the Washington Post had tried to report stories on allegations circulating about McCarrick’s advances on seminarians—indeed, the Vatican restrictions on McCarrick had been aimed at preventing those stories—but weren’t able to verify them. 

David Gibson, at the time a reporter for the Star-Ledger, was quoted in the report as saying that in 2002 he had gotten a list of seven former seminarians at Seton Hall University who, he was told, McCarrick allegedly abused at a beach house on the Jersey shore. But none of them would speak beyond a curt denial. (Gibson is a contributor to Commonweal and a friend of this writer.) It was the same story for a Washington Post reporter.

Condon bragged of how he got that story—but “one key fact” was missing from his boast: there is a huge difference between getting McCarrick’s victims to talk in 2002, when he was at the peak of his power, and in August 2018, after he was discredited by a “substantiated” child-abuse allegation and had renounced his position in the College of Cardinals. By then, it was safer to talk.

Condon, a canon lawyer, noted that he didn’t have journalistic training when he was hired at Catholic News Agency at the end of July 2018. “I heard these rumors and I published three stories about McCarrick and his conduct with seminarians...and I did it in the first three weeks I worked at CNA,” he said. “It was that easy. I don’t think I’m some kind of journalistic savant. I think the rest of them were lazy and incurious and culpable in this.” He went on: “The difference between us and other Catholic journalists, J. D.—and this is the closest I will come to taking a victory lap in this podcast—”

“We’re getting dangerously close to being unseemly here,” Flynn cut in.

“I don’t care,” Condon continued, and without skipping a beat, dug himself in deeper. 

Flynn tried again: “I do not like to spike the football.”

Condon was undeterred: “I’m mad, J. D.” 

Published in the January 2021 issue: 

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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