Yesterday, we noted that the USCCB was pushing back hard against an article published by the Catholic News Agency. In a posting at the Conference’s Media Blog, Helen Osman charged that at least three of the quotes attributed to Cardinal Francis George in the CNA report were “fabricated,” a charge which is, in journalistic circles, the most damning of charges. (Think Janet Cooke, a name that will live in infamy so long as journalists are taught how not to ply their trade.) Later in the day, CNA replied that it was standing by its story and said that “several bishops” who had been in attendance at the USCCB meeting when Cardinal George gave his speech served as sources for their report. Who’s telling the truth?
Perhaps both, but in very different ways, and that is the bad news. Yes, Helen Osman was in the room, CNA was not, and we have no reason to doubt that the quotes she mentioned were, in fact, fabricated. Even though CNA is a tendentious and slanted media outlet, fabricating quotes goes beyond the pale. Why anyone would trust them before this is beyond me, but now their reputation is in tatters. You do not put a person’s remarks in quotes unless you know that they said it. This is reason enough for Bishop John Wester, who has a column at CNA, to disassociate himself from the organization immediately.
CNA would argue that their sources - “several bishops” - provided the quotes, leading me to think that no one at CNA ever played the game of telephone, in which a group of people sit at a table, and the leader whispers something into the ear of the person on their right. The whisper goes around the table and it is often unrecognizable by the time it gets back to the leader. The “several bishops” may have heard what they wanted to hear, that is to say, they placed their own prejudices and arguments in Cardinal George’s mouth. CNA needs to evaluate these “several bishops” as sources going forward but, arguably, the reporters and editors at CNA thought when they published their original article that the quotes were accurate.
But, here is where it gets dicey. What if the quotes are not “fabrications” and “several bishops” did tell CNA what they thought Cardinal George had said. It is one thing for Cardinal George to have difficulty with a fringe right-wing media outlet. It is a different, and larger, problem to have “several bishops” who have decided to leak to the press in order to push the USCCB towards their more conservative position. Cardinal George’s first task as leader of the USCCB is to keep the body of bishops on the same page, to keep them together and I think a case can be made that while his raw intelligence has helped, the principal reason for his success as president of the Conference is that all the bishops trust him. The question now is: Can he trust them? Why did these “several bishops” go leaking to the press after the meeting? Given the nature of the quotes, they obviously want some severe sanctions taken against the Catholic Health Association, they want some kind of showdown and, I think it is safe to venture that, not detecting sufficient movement in their direction at the USCCB meeting, they decided to take their arguments to the press. That is always and everywhere the motivating force behind leakers, to affect the outcome of an internal debate by bringing one side of a story to the outside debate.
It is not difficult to think of who these “several bishops” might be. Go ahead – you can list them. I will only call attention to one telling indication. Yesterday, the blog at the official newspaper of the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, the Catholic Key, ran an item that questioned the veracity of Helen Osman and defended the substance of the CNA report. The editor of the Catholic Key, Mr. Jack Smith, is a man who has made it a habit of attacking Sr. Carol Keehan in the most scurrilous and unchristian manner; he is on my short list of the very few people who warrant an ad hominem attack. Perhaps Mr. Smith is on such a long leash that his master lets him publish whatever he wants, including this blog post which would seem to question the integrity not only of a staffer at the USCCB but of Cardinal George. Perhaps.
Maybe these bishops who spoke to CNA were foolish. Maybe, like many people in authority, they are susceptible to the charms of journalists and say things they shouldn’t. General Stanley McChrystal and his staff evidently fell in love with a Rolling Stone reporter and poured out their resentments, so the phenomenon is not unknown. Perhaps. But, it must be remembered that the USCCB meeting was behind closed doors and these bishops who decided to speak to CNA chose to break the confidentiality of the meeting and to make Cardinal George’s job more difficult. Evidently, some conservative bishops don’t think the Conference rules apply to them. If they are unsatisfied with the results of a meeting, they can run to CNA and make their case.
As is apparent from Cardinal George’s interview with John Allen at NCR, Cardinal George wants to mend the strains in relationship with CHA, not exacerbate them. That is what bishops do, they build up the unity of the Church not tear it apart. I suspect he gave voice to that desire at the bishops’ meetings and the bishops who want a showdown were disappointed. But, if some of his fellow bishops are willing to go behind his back to make their case, Cardinal George has a bigger problem on his hands than an errant piece of journalism. There are loose cannons among the episcopal bench, but now they are firing on their own. Whatever happened to "in all things charity"?