Last Saturday, Politics Daily published a disquieting story that hinged on a claim by a 67-year-old man named John Wojnowski, who has picketed the Vatican embassy on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington for the past dozen years.
Wojnowski, who says he was molested in 1958 by an Italian priest and repressed the memory until 1997, seeks an apology and "reparations" from the Catholic Church. He and his large signs are a familiar sight in Washington. (The most recent of his banners reads: "Sociopaths Hide Pedophiles.Vatican Hides Pedophiles.")
Our piece, written by veteran reporter Annie Groer, centers on Wojnowski's assertions that the current Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, has been verbally abusive to him -- allegedly calling him, among other things, "a paid idiot," a "loser," and a "fetid pervert."
Annie Groer's story clearly states that Wojnowski was the sole source of these assertions (allegedly made in Italian, a language both men speak). It also points out that Groer made repeated efforts to get Archbishop Sambi's side of the story. But it did not initially include comment from others who know Sambi, or reporting that might have provided context for the accusations, notably that it was Sambi who helped arrange for the first-ever meeting between a pope and victims of clerical sex abuse when Pope Benedict visited Washington in 2008. In hindsight, the story did not rise to our own threshold of fairness. I say "in hindsight," because I approved the story, and read it prior to publication myself, as did two other editors.
There is an explanation, of sorts. In political journalism, Sambi's silence almost automatically generates a presumption that Wojnowski's account is true: The archbishop didn't even deny it! Upon reflection, however, it occurred to us that other explanations are as likely. For one, the hierarchy of the church is not steeped in the customs of post-Watergate U.S. journalism, and does not necessarily subscribe to the dictum in American politics to immediately respond to every attack. Archbishop Pietro Sambi's reticence might just as well stem from a general reluctance to engage the mass media. Or perhaps his silence is motivated by feelings of Christian charity, instead of contempt, toward a troubled protester.
We don't know the answer. We don't know, in fact, that the story is wrong. But we're not sure it's right, and we wish now that we had not published it. No Catholic official or lawyer asked us to take the story down, a decision made by our editor in chief, Melinda Henneberger, after she read it post-publication. This probably will not be the last word on this subject. As a wise man once noted (well, not always so wise -- it was me who wrote it): "Nothing digital ever dies." But this mea culpa should be part of the record, too.