The New York Daily News Smears Catholic Bishop with a Bogus Bribe Charge

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio (via YouTube); New York Daily News’ June 7 cover (inset)
The News’s reputation and credibility are in tatters after the publishing of erroneous and shoddy reporting.

The New York Daily News has taken a hard turn to the left in the past few years under Colin Myler (the paper’s editor-in-chief from early 2012 until his resignation last September) and his successor, Jim Rich. But the News hit a new low by running a front-page story on June 7 claiming that a Catholic bishop had offered a bribe to a Democratic state assemblywoman.

The News’s flimsy, fact-challenged smear job does not hold up on close inspection: The diocese has multiple witnesses denying the charge, which rests only on the word of one politician who can’t seem to get the date, location, or details straight. That’s probably why no other news outlet has attempted to run with the story, not even those that are deeply committed to discrediting the Catholic Church. Yet the News ignored the diocese’s private efforts to warn it off the story, apparently failed to talk to any of the other participants in the meeting where the alleged bribery took place, and has continued to reference the charge in its coverage even after the diocese published facts that required a correction to the original story. The entire episode does more to damage the remaining credibility of the News than anything else.

The “bribe” story did not come out of nowhere. Since 2006, Queens Democratic assemblywoman Margaret Markey has been pushing a bill to extend the statute of limitations for sex-abuse-of-minors cases. Her bill would allow suits to be revived where they have long since been time-barred. Not only would it allow minors to sue any time up to their 28th birthday, but it would also create a one-year window in which all claims of sex abuse of a minor would be revived, even if the claims involved events 40, 50, or 60 years ago and no other witnesses remained alive. The bill passed the state assembly in 2006, 2007, and 2008 but stalled each time in the state senate. Markey proposed another version in 2009 but it, too, went nowhere — though it resurfaced at the end of the 2015 session. Some advocates for the Church questioned whether the timing was intended to discredit a separate Church push for an education tax credit. Governor Andrew Cuomo has stayed mute on the issue, reflecting both his typical preference for backroom dealings and careful courting of allies beyond Manhattan progressives.

Democratic lawmakers revived Markey’s bill again in the assembly this year, with the Daily News beating the drum. As the News trumpeted in late March:

Markey’s bill is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan). Hoylman said he’s using the Daily News’ Tuesday front page — part of a series highlighting New York’s worst-in-the-nation law that requires victims of child sexual abuse to come forward by the age of 23 or lose legal recourse — to urge his colleagues to co-sponsor the bill.

With the approach of end of the legislative session, in mid June, the News’s advocacy for Markey’s bill grew shriller, as did its focus on the Church as the main offender — even though Horace Mann, a non-religious private school in the Bronx, was the site of New York City’s most egregious sex-abuse scandal, in which at least 22 faculty were accused of abusing more than 60 boys over several decades.

The News’s campaign for Markey’s bill included a May 21 story pressing Cardinal Dolan (head of the Archdiocese of New York) to discuss the bill, a May 24 story turning the words of one bill supporter into a piece entitled “Timothy Cardinal Dolan ripped for delaying talk on child sex abuse,” and a May 25 story attacking Bishop Murphy, of the Rockville Centre Diocese, for not removing a priest (the Church had concluded there were no credible allegations to warrant his removal). Yet despite reports of a compromise in the assembly, the state senate did not take up Markey’s bill, so the assembly left town without voting on it. The News moaned, “N.Y. Legislature, Gov. Cuomo abandon child sex abuse victims: ‘Our elected officials chose predators over victims.’” Yet the paper added: “Advocates believe their aggressive work this year as well as a Daily News campaign on the issue gives them momentum heading into the 2017 legislative session.”

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For Catholic and other private schools and institutions (ranging from Jewish yeshivas to the Boy Scouts), the potential financial impact of allowing claims from the distant past could be ruinous, given the sympathetic nature of the charges and the near-impossibility of reconstructing the facts for cases that are decades old. The very fact that so little individual evidence would survive in such cases would probably make it easier for a judge to aggregate old cases into a class action, increasing the financial burden. All of these are reasons that statutes of limitations exist in the law in the first place, not just for abuse cases but for all kinds of lawsuits. The current law, allowing claims up to age 23 if the abuse happened before the alleged victim turned 18, already creates a limitations period of anywhere from five years to a decade or two — far longer than most of New York’s statutes of limitations for other kinds of civil lawsuits, which often run three or six years.

Public schools and other arms of the government would remain immune to the potential litigation avalanche unleashed on Catholic and other private schools.

But the Church has fought back by noting a particular problem with the various versions of Markey’s bill that have been introduced over the years: None of them repeal the 90-day notice-of-claim requirement for suits against public institutions, and thus public schools and other arms of the government would remain immune to the potential litigation avalanche unleashed on Catholic and other private schools. This despite the fact that sex abuse in public schools is a problem several orders of magnitude larger. A 2004 Department of Education study found that sex abuse in public schools was about 100 times more likely than sex abuse by priests, and ten years later, a GAO report found little being done to fix the problem. A 2007 investigation by the Associated Press found thousands of sex-abuse cases and a culture of looking the other way — and “the overwhelming majority of cases the AP examined involved teachers in public schools.” In Colorado, the teachers’ union sued in 2011 to keep teacher arrests from public disclosure. Here in New York, an investigative report in 2012 by the New York Education Department found 16 New York City public-school teachers still teaching after sex-abuse charges, and New York’s Pix11 TV reported this month that victims continue to complain about the public-school system’s handling of complaints.

A competing version of the Markey bill would put public and private schools on the same footing. Opposition to this suggests that the real agenda is not to compensate victims. Of course, suits against New York City or against small towns upstate would be paid by innocent taxpayers and/or by making cuts in public services — but that’s no different from what would happen to churches and other private social-service organizations.

#share#Tensions had erupted before between Markey and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, head of the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens, one of the largest and most diverse Catholic dioceses in the United States. (It’s my home diocese, in which my wife volunteers for the pastoral councils of the diocese and our parish.) In 2009, Markey told the New York Post that the bishop was “on the borderline of jeopardizing his not-for-profit status” by campaigning against the bill, and she warned, “If I were the bishop, I would walk very cautiously.”

Which brings us to the charge of bribery. The current version of the News’s “Exclusive” front-page story, edited after the diocese asked for corrections, now reads:

Markey (D-Queens) said DiMarzio . . . invited her into his chancery at the now-shuttered Bishop Ford High School on Prospect Park West in early 2007.

A nun was present when he offered the money, she recalled.

Markey’s spokesman Michael Armstrong said that DiMarzio suggested to Markey that the money would go toward therapy for one of her family members who had been sexually abused as a child.

Markey says she saw no use in reporting the $5,000 offer to authorities at the time.

“Who could I report it to? He said, I said,” she explained Monday.

She first spoke publicly about the offer Sunday — but without naming DiMarzio . . . Markey said she decided to go public, saying she was overcome with emotion after crossing the [Brooklyn] bridge with the supporters.

Worse, the News coupled the front-page headline with a scurrilous editorial implying that Bishop DiMarzio would escape criminal prosecution for bribery only because the statute of limitations had passed. The editorial explicitly linked this to the Church’s opposition to the limitation-extender bill for sex-abuse cases:

Markey says that in 2010, DiMarzio offered her $5,000 to drop her push — her account coming as close as possible to describing the New York crime of third-degree bribery. . . . This fan of restrictive sex-offense statutes of limitations has nothing to worry about in terms of a law enforcement investigation.

The New York statute of limitations on bribery third degree is but three years and the federal limit is five years.

So, whatever happened, thanks to Markey’s inexplicably long silence, DiMarzio enjoys the shield he upholds for the church plus other institutions that failed to weed out predators.

Notice that the article says DiMarzio offered her $5,000 in 2007, but the editorial says the offer came in 2010. That’s because Markey’s account was off by three years. The News has since had to correct the story, but it did not correct the editorial:

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated Bishop DiMarzio allegedly offered Markey hush money in 2010, according to information provided by her office. They now say that meeting took place in 2007, according to Markey’s office.

As the News had to concede in a story bylined on the Web later the evening of June 7:

Markey conceded she initially gave The News the incorrect date of the meeting where the bribe allegedly occurred. It was in 2007, not 2010. A nun who was in the room when Markey and DiMarzio spoke said the meeting occurred at a chancery office in Fort Greene and that the subject of money never came up.

Notice that the location is different in this account, in addition to the date. Why the walkback by Markey’s office? Because the bishop published a detailed letter calling out the factual inaccuracies and failures of fact-checking of the News’s report, blasting it as “false and defamatory” and “slander,” and demanding a retraction:

The meeting Ms. Markey is referring to actually took place in 2007. It took place at our former Chancery located at 75 Greene Avenue, not Bishop Ford High School as she claimed. Present in that meeting was myself, Assembly Member Markey, Monsignor Kieran Harrington, Assembly Member Joseph Lentol, Assembly Member Vito Lopez, Richard Barnes, who is executive director of the NYS Catholic Conference, and Sister Ellen Patricia Finn, O.P., who at the time was the Victim’s Assistance Coordinator for the Diocese of Brooklyn. . . . 

Immediately following this broader meeting, I met separately with Assembly Member Markey and Sister Ellen Patricia to discuss a matter deeply personal to Ms. Markey. In that meeting I spoke of the counseling services and support the Church offers to victims of abuse without any conditions. There was absolutely no offer of money nor a quid pro quo. While the Daily News failed its ethical responsibility to contact Sister Ellen Patricia and to otherwise fact-check this story before printing it, Sister Ellen Patricia provided our diocesan lawyer with a statement. Her recollection supports my memory.

Sister Ellen Patricia is no longer employed by the Diocese of Brooklyn, nor under the authority of the Bishop. She is a dedicated victim’s advocate. . . . Sister Ellen Patricia, the only other person present in that meeting nine years ago, remembers the conversation just as I do; there was absolutely no offer of money made.

The Web version of the June 8 News story on a possible compromise still references the bribery charge.

What explains the rush to publish and give prominence to this sort of irresponsible smear? One motivation is probably the News’s falling circulation, which has led to an effort to rebrand itself. As New York magazine reported in January, the News is trying to be less of local newspaper and more of a website that win clicks and generates social-media buzz among leftists. And it’s pretty clear that the Left hates the Catholic Church as much as it hates guns. New York writes:

In the last decade, it, like most dailies, has drastically shrunk in print distribution — and staff size — from more than 500,000 copies on weekdays and Sundays five years ago to 234,000 on weekdays in the third quarter of 2015. . . . Last year, the Daily News’s longtime owner, Mortimer Zuckerman, shopped the paper around but by August gave up, unable to find an acceptable buyer for it. And there were more layoffs. . . . 

The latest and most visible manifestation of that new strategic direction is a reinvention of the paper’s “wood” — newsman-speak for page one — for an era of hyperpartisan social sharing. Just as tabloid covers used to amuse, inform, and outrage passersby on the sidewalk, enticing them to pick them up and read all about it, the Daily News has arguably been the most aggressive and successful newspaper brand at turning the old-school institution of a front page into an irresistibly “like”-able image on Facebook — at least for people who don’t care for the right-wing politics of the New York Post.

It’s a strategy that depends as much on trolling for hate-clicks as on honest readership. 2016 has seen more high-profile departures from the paper, and even the well-known sports columnist Mike Lupica reportedly had to take a 75 percent pay cut. Also in 2016, the News was forced to fire an editor for repeated instance of plagiarism. The paper’s transformation, already under way under the management of Myler (himself a refugee from the News of the World phone-hacking scandal in the U.K.) has only accelerated under Rich’s editorial control. But the smear campaign of Bishop DiMarzio is a new low.

The News owes Bishop DiMarzio a much more forthright and public apology. And readers of its clickbait “Exclusive” stories should think twice about what kind of journalistic practice goes into producing them.

Dan McLaughlin — Dan McLaughlin is an attorney practicing securities and commercial litigation in New York City, and a contributing columnist at National Review Online.

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