It’s a horrifying and tragically familiar story: A beloved and trusted institution is rocked by allegations of sexual abuse of minors over many years. Intrepid reporters dig to learn how the crimes could have gone on so for so long, who knew about them, and if officials kept it quiet. Story after newspaper story leads with speculation that corruption may be systemic and the cover-up may go all the way to the man at the top.
At least, that’s how the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals played out in the pages of The New York Times. Oddly, though, it’s not how the paper has been reporting a similar scandal involving Mark Thompson, the Times’ incoming CEO. Thompson helmed the BBC in 2011 while the decision was made to abandon a story investigating accusations of pedophilia against long-time network star Jimmy Savile. Thompson takes over at the Times on Monday, Nov. 12.
Savile was an eccentric fixture at the BBC for decades, hosting programs that included kids’ shows. Since his death in October 2011, Savile has been accused of hundreds of incidents of sexual abuse of underage girls. Many allege the abuse occurred on BBC property and with girls as young as 12. A current British police investigation has led to the arrest of Savile’s friend, 70s rocker Gary Glitter. Some alleged victims say Savile was at the center of an organized pedophilia ring within the BBC.
Thompson, a 32-year BBC veteran, claims to have known nothing about rumors about Savile over the years, and has said he had no hand in squelching the investigative report about the Savile charges last year. But his accounts and those of others at the BBC conflict and questions remain.
Given how the Times pursued, in its words, “questions about [Catholic Pope Benedict XVI’s] role in the handling of an abuse case while he was an archbishop in Germany,” the paper’s downplaying of questions about Thompson is particularly hypocritical.
During a two-month period in 2010, The Times ran 64 stories on Roman Catholic church sex abuse scandals then emerging in Europe. Twenty of those pieces opened with sentences linking Pope Benedict to abuse cases, and 13 of them ran on the front page.
Yet between Oct. 14 and Nov. 6, 2012, the Times ran just 16 news stories mentioning the Savile controversy. Only 10 of them mentioned Thompson and his imminent employment as CEO with the newspaper, and just one story on Savile made the cover.
Two years ago, The Times engaged in a frenzied effort to link the head of the Catholic Church to sex abuse scandals, plastering accusations on its front page day after day. Now, to learn of charges linking the new head of the Times to a sex abuse scandal, readers must go to the Europe page of the International section. The same crime, the same newspaper. Two very different approaches to reporting.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. He served as Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982, before spending more than two decades in charge of the Vatican's doctrinal arm, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was also responsible for investigating sexual abuse cases.
In 2004, before he became pope, Ratzinger reopened the case against Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ order of priests who was suspected of mass abuse of students under his care. In May 2006 the pope disciplined Maciel. The pope also met with abuse victims in Boston in 2008.
Yet in the spring of 2010, as Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger was accused of allowing a pedophile priest to return to ministry when he served as archbishop of Munich in 1980. A separate allegation held that as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the 1990s he failed to defrock a Wisconsin priest who had abused deaf children 30 years before.
The New York Times couldn’t get enough of the story, and rather than making the pedophile priests or their victims the focus of reporting, the paper made the story about the pope.
Even before the 1980 Munich case surfaced, the Times connected the pope to the sex abuse scandals through his brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, who served as a choir director connected to a boarding school where former students alleged abuse. That March 10, 2010, story opened the floodgates on the paper's coverage of sex abuse in the church.
In just over two months, the Times ran 64 news stories on the pope addressing sex abuse scandals in the church, including in places like Ireland and California. The Times linked Benedict to the Wisconsin and Munich cases in 31 percent of those stories, including six of the first ten. Furthermore, 13 of those stories landed on the front page.
“A widening child sexual abuse inquiry in Europe has landed at the doorstep of Pope Benedict XVI, as a senior church official acknowledged Friday that a German archdiocese made ‘serious mistakes’ in handling an abuse case while the pope served as its archbishop,” began a front page story on March 13.
Three days later, another front page article began, “The priest at the center of a German sexual-abuse scandal that has embroiled Pope Benedict XVI continued working with children for more than 30 years, even though a German court convicted him of molesting boys.”
The lead of a March 25 front page article read, “Top Vatican officials – including the future Pope Benedict XVI – did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned them that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church, according to church files newly unearthed as part of a lawsuit.”
On that story, however, at least one Times op-ed columnist was more circumspect. That charge, wrote conservative Ross Douthat on March 28, “seems unfair. The case was finally forwarded to the Vatican by the archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, more than 20 years after the last allegation of abuse. With the approval of then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s deputy, the statute of limitations waswaived and a canonical trial ordered. It was only suspended because the priest was terminally ill; indeed, pretrial proceedings were halted just before he died.”
The Times’ attempt to link Benedict to abuse cover-up in that case prompted an unusual response from Cardinal William J. Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Here's how the Times’ Rachel Donadio, target of much of the Vatican's criticisms, covered it on April 1:
A top Vatican official issued a detailed defense of Pope Benedict XVI’s handling of sexual abuse cases and extensively criticized The New York Times’s coverage, both in its news and editorial pages, as unfair to the pope and the church.
In a rare interview and a 2,400-word statement posted Wednesday on the Vatican Web site, the official, Cardinal William J. Levada, an American who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, praised Pope Benedict for vigorously investigating and prosecuting sexual abuse cases. He said The Times’s coverage had been “deficient by any reasonable standards of fairness.”
Cardinal Levada singled out several Times reporters and columnists for criticism, focusing particularly on an article describing failed efforts by Wisconsin church officials to persuade the Vatican to defrock a priest who had abused as many as 200 deaf boys from 1950 to 1974. The pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office when the case was referred there, in 1996.
He said the article wrongly “attributed the failure to accomplish this dismissal to Pope Benedict, instead of diocesan decisions at the time.” On Wednesday, the archbishop of Milwaukee said the pope should not be held responsible for mistakes that were made in Wisconsin, according to The Associated Press.
The Times, however, continued to pound the drum, saying the pope faced “growing pressure to address his role in the handling of sexual abuse cases over the years.” Even an Arts section article on a string recital at the Vatican couldn’t resist leading with the scandals:
It had been a tough week for Pope Benedict XVI. Accusations about child abuse within the church continued to multiply. The focus of attack turned personal, with claims of cover-ups and quiet interventions in the Munich archdiocese decades ago, when the pope — then known as Joseph Ratzinger — was its archbishop. And if that weren’t enough, there were news reports of unholy happenings in the Regensburger Domspatzen, the celebrated German boys’ choir that the pope’s brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, directed for 30 years, though Monsignor Ratzinger was not implicated.
On it went. In an April 11, Week in Review piece, Daniel Wakin even talked of Benedict resigning. “He is elected for life, by a group of elderly men infused with the will of God,” Wakin sneered. “People address him as Holy Father, not Mr. President. After bishop of Rome, his second title is vicar of Jesus Christ. Can a man like this quit his job?”
The paper’s heated coverage finally cooled after a May 12 story, "Pope Issues Forceful Statement on Sexual Abuse Crisis."
Gentler Treatment Closer to Home
The Times was nothing if not zealous in its determination to make the church scandals that came to light in 2010 about dereliction of duty at the highest levels of the church. But the paper has been far less resolute about smoking out a cover-up in the executive suites of an elite media organization – especially when the cover-up may involve a man who is soon to be one of its own.
Mark Thompson, who takes over as president and CEO of The New York Times Company on Nov. 12, was director general of the BBC from 2004 until 2011. He held that position when the BBC’s “Newsnight” program produced and abruptly canceled a segment investigating accusations of pedophilia against eccentric, long-time BBC star Jimmy Savile. The host of “Top of the Pops” and “Jim’ll Fix It” died in 2011 at 84.
In death, Savile now stands accused of sexually abusing more than 300 women and underage girls. Among the horrific allegations, one witness described Savile molesting a brain-dead woman while volunteering at a hospital. More common, but still horrifying, allegations involve raping girls as young as 12.
Rumors and outright allegations had swirled around Savile for decades, and he’d been investigated by police several times. According to some who’d worked with Savile in and out of the BBC over the years, his taste for underage girls was common knowledge.
In December 2011, the BBC’s “Newsnight” prepared a report on the charges, but it was killed by higher-ups in the organization. The next week the BBC ran a series of tribute documentaries to Savile.
Thompson has admitted to being told about the cancellation at a party, though it’s unclear whether he was given the reason for the cancellation. And his account has shifted. Thompson initially said that he didn't know about either the abuse allegations against Savile, or of the “Newsnight” investigation, but later admitted that he had heard that the investigation had been stopped.
“I was not notified or briefed about the Newsnight investigation, nor was I involved in any way in the decision not to complete and air the investigation,” Thompson said in a statement. But later reports indicate his office was informed.
The Times has been considerably less interested in reporting on this scandal than it had about Pope Benedict and the Catholic Church. In an Oct. 25 letter to Times staff about the expressing confidence in Thompson’s veracity, publisher Arthur Sulzberger wrote, “We have dedicated a significant amount of resources to this story and this is evident by the coverage we have provided our readers.”
Not compared to the resources and coverage thrown at the church two years before. From Oct. 14, 2012, when the story broke in the paper, through Nov. 6, 2012, just 16 Times news stories mentioned the Savile controversy -- only one on the front page. Just 10 mentioned Mark Thompson and his imminent employment as chief executive of the Times.
Much to her credit, Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan called for the paper to “aggressively cover Mark Thompson’s role” in the scandal, and wondered whether the Times would indeed bring Thompson on board.
“His integrity and decision-making are bound to affect The Times and its journalism — profoundly,” Sullivan wrote. “It’s worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events.” She suggested “publishing an in-depth interview with Mr. Thompson exploring what exactly he knew, and when, about what happened at the BBC.”
The Times hasn’t taken Sullivan up on that suggestion. And unlike Times reporters’ fervent attempts to link Pope Benedict to the sex abuse scandals and coverups on his watch, Thompson’s position as incoming chief executive of the Times only made the lead sentence in two stories. In one of those he was allowed to deny knowing about the squelching of the investigative report.
The Times kept most of its BBC reporting squarely focused on Savile and his alleged crimes. On Oct. 29, in the lone story on the Savile scandal to make the Times front page, Nicholas Kulish (who had contributed a number of stories on the church abuse scandal in 2010) didn’t refer to Thompson until the fifth paragraph.
The more comprehensive stories dealing with Thompson’s role noted discrepancies in his accounts of what he knew about the “Newsnight” investigation, but they appeared in the Times’ International - Europe pages. Outside of the Times public editor and some columnists, the paper has seemed happy to avoid asking hard questions about what Thompson knew and when he knew it.
The difference in the amount and tone of coverage between the BBC scandal and the church scandal haven’t gone unremarked by Catholics. Catholic League President Bill Donohue noted on Oct. 24, 2012, that Thompson had worked for the BBC since 1979 but claimed that he’d “‘never heard any allegations or received any complaints’ about Savile.”
“If The New York Times were really on this story it would know that none of this is new,” Donohue wrote, citing a report by “British pundit Guido Fawkes: ‘Thompson was tackled about the axing [of the “Newsnight” report exposing Savile] at a pre-Christmas drinks party, so he cannot claim to be ignorant of it.’ Moreover, when the BBC was asked to respond, it refused. Do you know when all of this was reported? On February 9, 2012. If I know it, why doesn’t the New York Times?” Donohue asked.
Stocked with liberal and lapsed Catholics like columnist Maureen Dowd and former editor Bill Keller, who now seems amused that “I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ,” The New York Times has no love for traditional Catholicism.
But abuse did happen in the church, and it was covered up or handled negligently in many cases. Surely, the journalists of the Times would pursue any such stories with equal vigor. But in the case of Thompson, Savile and the BBC, they have not.
For $5 million per year, Thompson will head a company that, in Sulzberger’s words, believes in “strong, objective journalism that operates without fear or favor, no matter what it is covering.” One would expect the Times to put at least as much energy into reporting on the possibility that its new CEO was involved in a cover-up as it did for the head of a church few at the paper belong to or agree with.