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By Michael H. Brown

It's interesting how the Catholic media have handled recent word that the Vatican had accepted the laicization of a former Franciscan who served for several years (during the 1980s) at the reputed apparition site of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

First there are the blogs and websites in favor of the apparitions. They either avoided much discussion of the issue, mentioned it briefly, or ignored it altogether.

This is understandable -- from good, well-intentioned people -- and it can be looked upon as the charitable thing to do. Spiritually, we are not to hover over gossip -- and this case was fraught, for sure, with gossip. But it is not necessarily the way the matter should be handled journalistically. We don't pretend, ourselves, to be neutral (until proven differently, we believe the apparitions), but we do seek to be objective, and Scripture tells us that the truth sets us free, and so the entire truth of a matter should be aired, at least in the press. The priest in question, Tomislav Vlašić, was associated with Medjugorje for a period and was accused of a scandalous heterosexual relationship with a nun, which he denied. He was also associated with a dubious visionary (not one of the Medjugorje ones) who traipsed upon the scene, as so many dubious seers have since the onset of the apparitions. There is no reason to hide this (nor any other Church scandal).

Then there are the "mainstream" Catholic media, which reacted at the other extreme and made it sound like the Vatican had defrocked the main priest connected with the famous apparitions and had done so because the priest had made the entire apparition-thing up. Of course, that was hardly the case. But it created a little feeding frenzy (most of the Catholic press is not inclined to accept apparitions).  With this too one could take issue, journalistically.

By and large the U.S. reports could be traced to a single British reporter, Simon Caldwell, who writes for the London Daily Mail (you can get a look at this tabloid by clicking here) along with the London Telegraph and has been on a long and truculent campaign against the apparition site. Caldwell continues to present Medjugorje as a site that is under Church condemnation due to the pronouncements of a local bishop (when he has to know that the Vatican removed that bishop's authority, taking over the investigation), and has misrepresented the Vlašić laicization, making it sound -- in fact stating outright -- that it's for making the Medjugorje thing up when the scandal was for the main part sexual in nature. Meanwhile, although he had been sanctioned, he was not "defrocked," as Caldwell asserted.

Such a distortion of major elements in a news article is remarkable, as is the fact that such reportage would then be employed by the Catholic media in the U.S. Whenever there is a sudden eruption of anti-Medjugorje articles, it can virtually always be traced back to Caldwell, whose articles are quickly disseminated through anti-Medjugorje e-mail lists and blogs or through search-engine news alerts.

The truth is that Tomislav Vlašić arrived in Medjugorje after the apparitions had started (the seers were already under harassment by the Communists when he was sent there, and large crowds already common), was never quite "at the center" of the apparitions (the pastor was Father Jozo Zovko, who initially disbelieved the apparitions), and Vlašić left the parish in 1985 -- under a cloud. That was a quarter of a century ago. One of the seers signed a statement complaining about his attempts to manipulate the situation, and he ceased then to be any form of influence on the site. Thus -- and this was not presented in any major Catholic news outlet -- his departure came well before Medjugorje became an international pilgrim center, with few pilgrims ever even hearing of him.

He was being investigated, noted one newspaper, for "the diffusion of dubious doctrine, manipulation of consciences, suspected mysticism, disobedience towards legitimately issued orders and charges contra sextum (against the Sixth Commandment not to commit adultery)," as stated in the interdict signed by Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

This was verbiage taken almost directly from earlier complaints lodged by the Mostar bishop, Ratko Peric, who otherwise has not been allowed a role in the matter, but here -- in a case involving priestly scandal -- deserved, and received, jurisdiction. It was not clear if the "mysticism" involved the independent "seer" (with whom Vlašić  tried to establish a religious community) or attempts to influence one of the main visionaries, Marija Pavlovic, who publicly denounced his attempts.

Reports of scandalous behavior on his part have been  known since the late 1980s and his laicization has long been expected, as we previously reported when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith last year acted against him. Vlašić had been banished to a monastery in  L’Aquila, Italy, and after a year requested the laicization instead of facing the sanctions.

But back to reportage: in the Vlašić matter, it went from London to the e-mail lists and blogs and a small paper in Philadelphia and then to Catholic media outlets. Only Catholic World News attempted to present the matter in a balanced fashion.

The Catholic News Service, though long known as cool toward the apparitions (which has greatly influenced U.S. bishops), acknowledged -- accurately -- that "in 1985, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the doctrinal congregation and now Pope Benedict, banned official, diocesan or parish–sponsored pilgrimages to the shrine. However, individual Catholics are still free to visit and have a priest with them."

That was in direct contradiction to another major Catholic newspaper which stated that priests are not allowed to visit Medjugorje, a simple inaccuracy taken from Caldwell's report, which said -- erroneously -- that "Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, issued a ban on pilgrimages to the site but this has been widely ignored."

It is difficult to see how this misstatement was unintentional, when it is well known that the Vatican twice has stated through its press office that unofficial pilgrimages are accepted, and that it is even advisable for priests to accompany visitors while the Church tries to discern the matter.

That is where the matter remains. We will report any changes to such policy, if and when they occur. Interesting it would be for Catholic journalists to fully study the tone and content of antagonistic reports (including from the bishop's office), and then visit the site itself. Good journalism demands on-site research. We have noted a common trait among detractors: they have never been there, and have never interviewed the main players on both sides. The Pope himself reportedly visited twice as cardinal. How he now views Medjugorje is not known. There have been positive indications but also reports that he disapproves of how seers, like the rest of those in the village, operate pilgrim houses that generate income.

In the case of Father Vlašić, we carried a link Saturday to the first English blog we could find on the matter even before it was taken up by Simon Caldwell, and days before it hit the other Catholic sites. We seek to hide nothing, and never will. Positive and negative articles are aired (as long as there are no actual errors in them). We have reported on other priest problems there, and if the Vatican ever decides against the apparitions, we will seek to be among the first to report it, no matter our personal opinions. Meanwhile, if any further Church action is taken, our hope is that the Catholic media will pick up the phone to conduct original reportage, as opposed to paraphrasing a London tabloid.

[resources: Medjugorje and the Church]

[see also: Report: defrocked priest tried to force statement from Medjugorje seer and Spiritual 'adviser' in early days is laicized]

[A graduate in journalism from Fordham University in New York, Michael H. Brown is a former newspaper reporter who has authored several secular books and has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Reader's Digest, New York Magazine, Saturday Review, Science Digest, Discover Magazine, and was nominated for three Pulitzer Prizes for his investigation in the 1970s of the Love Canal crisis, which was the basis for his book, Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America]

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