At the top of Monday's NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams made this hyperbolic declaration: "A moment of crisis for the Catholic Church hit by a wave of scandals, just as the leaders must gather to select a new pope." Introducing the lead story moments later, Williams further hyped: "The problem for the Catholic Church is the drumbeat of scandal is now growing so loud and so vast, it's taking a lot of attention from this process." [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]
In the report that followed, correspondent Anne Thompson ominously declared: "... the world is seeing the darker side of the Church, the in-fighting and scandals....It's all revealing the sometimes nasty politics behind the pageantry."
Picking up where she left off on Monday's Today, Thompson touted innuendo and conjecture, rather than report actual facts: "...today the Pope dealt with another sordid mess, last year's leak of papal documents by the Pope's own butler....Italian newspapers have run wild with speculation about a cover-up."
On Tuesday's Today, Thompson asserted that the Vatican was consumed with "ugly gamesmanship" and again elevated unfounded accusations from the Italian press: "Newspapers here have speculated it contains allegations of sex and blackmailing, and led to the Pope's resignation."
Here is a full transcript of the February 25 Nightly News segment:
7:00PM ET TEASE:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: A moment of crisis for the Catholic Church hit by a wave of scandals, just as the leaders must gather to select a new pope. While speculation swirls around the Pope himself about what might be the real reasons for stepping down.
7:01PM ET SEGMENT:
WILLIAMS: We are nearing the time when cardinals gather at the Vatican and the 1 billion-plus Catholics around the world await a puff of white smoke from the chimney, announcing the election of a new pope. The problem for the Catholic Church is the drumbeat of scandal is now growing so loud and so vast, it's taking a lot of attention from this process. And it's actually affecting the number of Church leaders who will come to Rome and cast a vote. The top Catholic leader in great Britain has resigned. The top Catholic leader in Los Angeles has been publicly humiliated. And the Pope himself is now at the center of swirling rumors and press reports while on his way out. We begin tonight with NBC's Anne Thompson at the Vatican. Anne, good evening.
ANNE THOMPSON: Good evening, Brian. With just three days left in his papacy, the Vatican wanted the spotlight to be on Pope Benedict. Instead the world is seeing the darker side of the Church, the in-fighting and scandals that today claimed Britain's highest-ranking Catholic. For Scotland's Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the end came with astonishing swiftness. Today O'Brien resigned and said he will not attend the conclave to elect a new pope. The first cardinal in history to stay away because of a personal scandal. Sunday, a British newspaper published accusations by three priests and a former priest that O'Brien engaged in inappropriate behavior with them, going back to the 1980s.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Holy Father accepted the resignation.
THOMPSON: 24 hours later, Pope Benedict accepted O'Brien's resignation as archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN A: Quite upsetting, really.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN B: The Catholic Church is in quite a bit of turmoil now anyway.
THOMPSON: O'Brien denied the claims and said in a statement today, "For any failures, I apologize to all whom I've offended." Just last week, O'Brien spoke out about the controversial American cardinal, Roger Mahoney, under pressure to sit out the Conclave because he shielded sexually abusive priests.
KEITH O'BRIEN: We all know, and I think we all acknowledge that sometimes if someone has erred in some way or another, it doesn't stop their judgment in other matters.
THOMPSON: It's all revealing the sometimes nasty politics behind the pageantry.
GEORGE WEIGEL: The fact that we haven't been through a mourning period and a papal funeral has let the dogs loose over the last week in a way that would not normally have taken place in the normal course of a papal transition.
THOMPSON: After adoring crowds yesterday, today the Pope dealt with another sordid mess, last year's leak of papal documents by the Pope's own butler. The Pope decided that an internal report on that scandal would remain secret, known only to him and the next pope. Italian newspapers have run wild with speculation about a cover-up. Wondering if that report led to the Pope's resignation. The Vatican denies that.
GREG BURKE [VATICAN SENIOR COMMUNICATIONS ADVISER]: It certainly weighed on him, but I don't – I think we're putting more into it if we make that the decision.
THOMPSON: Also today, the Pope gave the cardinals permission to move up the start date of the Conclave, but those discussions are not expected to happen until Pope Benedict officially steps down Thursday night. Brian.
WILLIAMS: Anne Thompson at the Vatican on this Monday night. Anne, thanks.