Too little, too late.

"Nun Has Refused to Meet with Doctrine Committee, Cardinal Wuerl Reveals." That's the headline of a Catholic Culture story reporting on a press release put out on Friday by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine. There's one problem with that headline. None of it is true.

A common criticism of the Committee on Doctrine's conduct during l'affaire Johnson is that the bishops failed to engage her in dialogue before slamming her book Quest for the Living God. As the Catholic Theological Society of America board and membership have pointed out, the committee's refusal to discuss its concerns with Johnson before issuing its critique violates the bishops' own guidelines for handling such conflicts. Indeed, in her response to the committee's most recent statement on the controversy, Elizabeth Johnson points out that "both publicly and privately I made clear my willingness to meet with Cardinal Wuerl and the committee to discuss these matters at any time.... No invitation was forthcoming to meet and discuss with the committee in person."

On Friday--in what may be the shortest press release ever issued by the USCCB--Cardinal Wuerl claimed that he had offered to meet with Johnson on three occasions, and that "Sister Johnson did not respond to any of the offers." You can see why Catholic Culture might interpret that as "Johnson refuses to meet with Committee on Doctrine." But, according to correspondence I have obtained, not only were the offers to meet with Wuerl alone, rather than with the full committee, but each of the offers came after the committee had already finished composing its critiques of Johnson. Perhaps more troubling, the correspondence shows that Johnson did in fact respond to Wuerl, as recently as October 26. Wuerl says that he offered to meet with Johnson on July 22, October 11, and October 26. In fact, it was Johnson who first asked to meet with the Committee on Doctrine.

In a letter dated July 14, she wrote to Wuerl: "I assure you explicitly of my willingness to meet face-to-face to clarify these matters, and in fact would like to do so, should you deem that helpful." Johnson was replying to Wuerl's letter acknowledging receipt of her response to the Committee on Doctrine's critique of Quest for the Living God. It was not until his July 22 reply that Wuerl offered to meet with Johnson. In that letter, he explained that the next step would be for the committee to "review...your observations and how they affect the committees original statement. The next meeting of the committee is set for September and as soon as possible following the meeting I will get word to you. I would welcome the opportunity to meet with you.The next time Wuerl contacted Johnson was earlier this month, when he sent a letter dated October 11 to Johnson's office at Fordham. Johnson is on sabbatical this semester, so she did not receive the letter until the 25th. In that letter, Wuerl wrote:

With this letter I want you to know that the Committee on Doctrine has completed its study. Enclosed is the text of the committees response to your observations. The committee intends to make this text public on Friday, October 28, 2011.In earlier correspondence, you and I spoke about the possibility of meeting in person. I renew my offer to meet with you if you so desire.

Not having heard back from Johnson, Wuerl's secretary Fr. Adam Park called her office, learning that she was not on campus this semester. So Park e-mailed Johnson on October 25, reiterating the offer to meet with Wuerl--not with the Committee on Doctrine, and only after it had completed its response to Johnson.

She replied as soon as she read Park's e-mail (October 26), apologizing for the trouble Wuerl had reaching her, and noting that in the cardinal's October 11 letter there was no request to meet before the committee's statement would be released. "There is no timing to this offer," Johnson wrote to Park. "When I read it yesterday, I took it to mean the Cardinals door was open for a meeting some day." Park replied later that day, renewing the cardinal's offer to meet at a mutually agreeable time. "The reason there was a two-week interval between the sending of the letter and statement and the publication of the statement," Park wrote, "was to allow time for a personal meeting prior to the statement's publication."

Yet the document was complete on October 11, and Park did not say that the committee was open to changing the text on the basis of anything discussed at the proposed meeting between Wuerl and Johnson. On Saturday, October 29, Johnson sent a follow-up letter by post requesting a meeting with Wuerl "once the dust settles."That was before she saw Wuerl's October 28 press release, claiming that she did not respond to any of his three offers to meet. So yesterday morning, Johnson sent another e-mail to Wuerl's secretary, pointing out the misleading nature of the cardinal's news release:

I am aghast at the accusation you make in the USCCB website post that I have not responded to any of the offers to meet. I never received an offer to meet at a definite time or with a protocol or agenda that would ensure serious discussion of the issues in my book. If I had, I would have accepted immediately. In addition, each offer was vague about time, indicating that a meeting would take place after the committees deliberations were over.

In conclusion, Johnson asked Wuerl--"for the sake of your own reputation for truth-telling, and for the good of the church"--to have the press release removed from the USCCB Web site. As of this writing, it remains in place.

***

Update: Here are links to correspondence between Johnson and Wuerl, and Johnson and Park (Wuerl's secretary):

* 7/14 letter from Johnson to Wuerl [.rtf]

* 7/22 & 10/11 letters from Wuerl to Johnson [.pdf]

* 10/25 e-mail from Park to Johnson

* 10/26 e-mail from Johnson to Park

* 10/26 e-mail from Park to Johnson

* 10/30 e-mail from Johnson to Wuerl (here's a link to a transcript of the e-mail [.rtf])

Update 2: Catholic Culture has run a follow-up story to their original, erroneously titled one, which repeats the false claim that Wuerl invited Johnson to meet with the Committee on Doctrine. In fact, she was the first one so suggest meeting--and he never invited her to meet with the full committee. In journalism--but not in PR--it's common practice to correct errors once they've been pointed out. Maybe that's the key to understanding Catholic Culture's shoddy reporting (remember their work on the Sobrino case?).

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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