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A belated apology to Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier

ROME — Crux owes Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of Durban, South Africa, an apology. Although it’s coming later than it should, this piece is intended to deliver it.

Although it largely got lost amid a bigger controversy this week over a letter signed by several cardinals objecting to elements of the process at the 2015 Synod of Bishops, a smaller row broke out Tuesday over a Crux piece published the day before in which Napier was quoted as saying he shared concerns over a drafting committee for the synod’s final document, “challenging Pope Francis’ right to choose them.”

The interview was conducted by my Crux colleague, Inés San Martín, on Monday, who recorded it on her smartphone and then transcribed it. I listened to the recording and confirmed the transcript. What both of us heard was the following:

“One of the concerns was, and this I really would share, is the choice of the people that are drawing up the document, challenging Pope Francis’ right to choose them. If we’re going to get a fair expression of what the synod is about, what the Church in Africa really would like to see happening, we wouldn’t like to see the same kind of people on that committee that were there the last time, that caused us the grief that we had.”

At about 9 a.m. Tuesday, Napier called San Martín to say he had not challenged the pope’s right to make the appointments. Since that part of the recording was a bit unclear, we removed the line from the story.

At Tuesday’s daily Vatican briefing at 1 p.m., the Rev. Federico Lombardi read a denial from Napier that he had challenged the pope’s right to make the appointments. In response, Crux published the transcript quoted above at the bottom of the original article, noted that we had removed the line from the story, and considered the matter closed.


On Wednesday afternoon, Napier tweeted that he wanted to see me acknowledge he had been misquoted. I replied that while the quote was accurate, I accepted “100%” that it was not what he had meant to say. I assumed this was simply a matter of someone not expressing themselves correctly in a given moment, and believed the record had been set straight. I also sent Napier a private note saying the same thing.

On Thursday morning, I went back to the recording again to reassure myself the transcript was correct.

After repeatedly listening to it, it now seems entirely possible that at the same moment San Martín is heard saying “yeah” in response to Napier’s reference to the people drafting the document, Napier is saying “not” before the phrase about challenging the pope’s right to choose them.

Obviously, that changes the entire sense of what he was saying. It becomes, in essence, “While the pope has the right to do this, I share concerns about some of the people who have been chosen.”

There were two clear breakdowns, and for both, Crux takes full responsibility.

First, I should have listened to the recording more carefully on Monday before we published the piece, and either gone back to Napier for clarification or omitted the line altogether since it’s not fully clear what he was saying.


Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington left a session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 6. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Cardinals clash on doubts about process at the Synod of Bishops
Two quick thoughts on ‘letter-gate’ at the Synod of Bishops
Cardinal George Pell with his successor as archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher. Pell reportedly hand-delivered a letter to Pope Francis signed by 13 cardinals unhappy with the synod process. (Getty)
Uncertainty surrounds cardinals’ letter voicing doubts about the synod
Second, I should have reviewed the recording immediately after Napier first raised an objection Tuesday morning, rather than doing so only 48 hours later.

To be clear, the names of San Martín, our Vatican correspondent, and Michael O’Loughlin, our national reporter, were also on Monday’s story, but none of the blame for these errors belongs to them. They were following my lead.

I could make the usual excuses about deadline pressures and so on, but the bottom line is that while I never meant to misrepresent Napier, that was the effect of these two mistakes.

My reputation and that of Crux is based on getting things right, and this is a case in which I didn’t do so. For that, above all to Napier but also to my colleagues and readers, I sincerely apologize.

By John L. Allen Jr.


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