Recent flaps over The New York Times‘ and other outlets’ coverage of the mishandling by Catholic priests and the Vatican of allegations of child abuse again took a personal turn today, as Times executive editor Bill Keller took Notre Dame professor Scott Appleby to task for saying Keller had compared Pope John Paul II to Hitler and Stalin.
Speaking on a radio talk show Monday, Appleby referred to a May 2002 Times column Keller wrote before assuming his current role as the paper’s executive editor. “Is the Pope Catholic?” argued that John Paul II bore much of the responsibility for the Church’s child-abuse scandals.
In an email to WBUR radio host Tom Ashbrook published on the NPR affiliate’s Web site, Keller calls Appleby’s comments “a slanderous bit of nonsense.” He says he compared the Vatican to the Soviet Union, but he was talking Brzhnev, not Stalin. The Hitler reference, says Keller, came from an expert quoted in the column, and in any case does not directly compare the Pope with Hitler.
Even if Keller didn’t make those comparisons, what he did say was probably enough to raise hackles among the Church’s supporters:
I do not mean that the pope condones child abuse, although his zeal to combat it ranks right down with that of, say, Cardinal Bernard Law, the pedophile-juggling head of the Boston archdiocese.
“Pedophile-juggling” isn’t exactly a euphemism, so we can see why some Catholic partisans might get heated over the column. Scott Appleby had said the following on the WBUR program:
The media is not innocent in this regard, and one of the implications, or one of the effects of it, has been to reinforce clericalism, because some of the attacks of the media have indeed been unbalanced. The current editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, wrote an op-ed years ago at the end of John Paul the Second’s pontificate, before he became editor, that likened John Paul the Second to Hitler and Stalin. It was ludicrous, just outrageous. So when people say the New York Times has it in for the Catholic Church, I don’t think that’s true overall for all their reporters, but there’s evidence that the New York Times opposes the church and various of its policies, and sees it as retrograde, rearguard, a regressive institution that needs to be taken down.
Much of the latest controversy stems from a March 25 Times report that said the Pope Benedict XVI had, as a cardinal, been aware of complaints of sexual abuse by a German priest who was ultimately convicted of child molestation. The ensuing controversy spilled onto the Times‘ editorial page, notably prompting a column from Op-Ed writer Maureen Dowd in which she defends the paper against accusations of demonic possession.
That the media is conspiring to take apart the Catholic Church is part of an ongoing narrative in which advocates for the Church say that media institutions are treating the Vatican unfairly.