Controversy continues about the Catholic News Agency story on Cardinal Francis George’s criticism of the Catholic Health Association’s (CHA) actions during the health care debate. Defenders of CNA note the substance of the report is supported by other sources, while critics focus on the accuracy of several quotations.
At the U.S. bishops’ executive session last week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) president reportedly discussed the fallout resulting from CHA’s support for the health care legislation despite the bishops’ opposition. Among the bishops’ objections to the bill were that its abortion restrictions were insufficient.
Several bishops who wished to remain anonymous told CNA that Cardinal George charged CHA and other Catholic groups with providing “cover” for undecided legislators to support President Obama’s legislation. According to these sources, the cardinal clearly remarked that CHA president Sr. Carol Keehan and her colleagues were to blame for the passage of the bill. He said these groups’ actions also weakened the moral voice of the bishops in the U.S., caused confusion and wounded Catholic unity.
In response, USCCB Secretary of Communications Helen Osman criticized the CNA story, suggesting it was unfortunate if the news agency “tried to take an educated guess at what the cardinal might have said and cobbled together its own fabrication of the session.”
She criticized CNA for attributing several remarks verbatim to the cardinal and said he never accused the CHA of creating a “parallel magisterium.”
In response, CNA executive director Alejandro Bermudez said that the news agency stands by its report. He cited Cardinal George’s June 16 interview with journalist John L. Allen, Jr. as validation of CNA’s reporting and charged that Osman’s blog post denying that reporting is “disturbing, dishonest and unfairly selective.”
Bermudez also called for the release of an audio recording of the cardinal’s remarks “to see who is right.”
The CNA report has drawn attention from several quarters.
Michael Sean Winters, a blogger for the Jesuit’s America Magazine, wrote on Tuesday that the bishops “may not always be pleased with my arguments regarding the health care debate, but at least they know that we at America magazine do not fabricate stories.”
Discussing CNA and “the rightwing Catholic blogosphere,” he added, “But, really, what do they say to themselves when they are caught just making stuff up? How do their well-formed Catholic consciences respond when they are caught with their journalistic pants down? The inevitable question wells up: Have you no shame?”
Then, in a Wednesday post, Winters reiterated his agreement with the charge that some of the quotes attributed to Cardinal George in the original CNA report were “fabricated.”
“Why anyone would trust them before this is beyond me, but now their reputation is in tatters,” said Winters, who has been critical of CNA in the past and characterizes it as “a fringe right-wing media outlet.”
He suggested that CNA’s episcopal sources “may have heard what they wanted to hear” and “placed their own prejudices and arguments in Cardinal George’s mouth.”
Winters then speculated whether CNA’s sources in the USCCB decided to “leak” their account to the press to push the conference towards what he called “their more conservative position.” He charged that these bishops who spoke to the news agency “chose to break the confidentiality of the meeting and to make Cardinal George’s job more difficult.”
He implied that the Catholic Key, the paper of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, was associated with one of CNA’s sources. Its post defending the substance of the CNA report was “one telling indication,” he continued.
In response, Catholic Key editor Jack Smith pointed out that Bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph Robert W. Finn did not attend the June bishops’ meeting “and so any suggestion that he leaked the comments is false,” Smith wrote at the newspaper’s blog.
Besides the Catholic Key, defenders of CNA’s report include Kathryn Jean Lopez of the conservative web site National Review Online (NRO) and Deal W. Hudson of InsideCatholic.com.
In a blog post at the NRO site, Lopez said that John Allen’s interview with Cardinal George shows the cardinal’s “similarly adamant, scolding criticism of the Catholic groups that played a role in making sure Obamacare passed.”
She suggested that Osman “heard what she wanted to hear from Cardinal George,” noting the difficulty of arguing against the CNA report with no evidence to the contrary and with the cardinal making similar statements in the Allen interview.
“Clearly he is unabashedly critical of the Catholic Health Association, which should come as no surprise,” Lopez wrote at National Review Online. “The CHA did undercut the moral authority of the bishops (not to mention the natural and moral law) in the health-care debate, even as the bishops were unambiguously working to defend innocent human life, a clear obligation of the Catholic when it comes to public policy.”
“The Catholic Health Association did a lot of damage,” continued the commentator, saying that the bishops’ opposition to “left-wing policymakers” is going to be hard to deny especially as it becomes “increasingly obvious” that the executive order on abortion funding secured by Rep. Bart Stupak was “a lie.”
Deal Hudson responded to Osman’s comments and CNA’s defense of its report in a blog post at InsideCatholic.com.
“Given both the seriousness of the charges brought by Ms. Osman, as well as the insulting tone, I find it surprising that Ms. Osman claims to have a recording proving her account, but says she is not willing to make it public,” Hudson remarked, also calling for the recording’s release.
“I find it impossible to believe that CNA would put such a serious charge against Sr. Keehan in the mouth of Cardinal George, president of the USCCB, knowing the seriousness of the consequences. CNA has an established reputation for accuracy which Ms. Osman's attempt to defame will not harm.”