Newspaper apologizes for story that sparked Harper Communion controversy

  • July 29, 2009
{mosimage}OTTAWA  - A New Brunswick newspaper has apologized for a July 8 story that wrongly accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of pocketing Communion at a Catholic funeral.

The story also said a senior Roman Catholic priest had demanded the prime minister explain what happened to the Host.

“There was no credible support for these statements of fact at the time this article was published, nor is there any credible support for these statements now,” said a front page apology July 28 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal .

“The Telegraph Journal sincerely apologizes to the prime minister for the harm that this inaccurate story has caused,” the retraction said.

The retraction also said the reporters who wrote the story did not include those statements in the version they wrote and apologized to them as well.

“In the editing process, these statements were added without the knowledge of the reporters and without any credible support for them,” it said.

Telegraph-Journal publisher James Irving stepped down from his position, according to a report in the Globe and Mail July 29. It also said editor Shawna Richer was no longer filling that position. The Telegraph-Journal offered no more information.

The Communion controversy broke five days after Harper attended former Governor General Romeo LeBlanc’s July 3 funeral in New Brunswick. During the Mass, Moncton Archbishop Andre Richard approached the front row where Harper and other VIPs were standing and distributed Communion to everyone, including the Protestant Harper. Though video shows Harper receiving Communion, it does not show him consuming it. Harper insists he did and told CCN in a July 11 interview he made a decision when entering public life not to seek Communion in Catholic churches but to accept it if offered.

The initial stories did not include a rebuttal from the prime minister because he and his communications staff were flying across the Atlantic to the G8 summit in Italy. Coverage of the Communion issue upstaged G8 coverage in Canada and posed a potential embarrassment to Harper in advance of his first papal audience July 11.

“We appreciate and have accepted the apology from the Telegraph Journal,” said Andrew MacDougall, a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office.

CTV News Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife raised a political motivation for the initial false story that was picked up by news outlets around the world. 

“I’m told the Liberals passed the story to young Jamie Irving who was the publisher of the paper,” Fife said on CTV’s July 28 newscast. “He passed it to the editor who put it in the paper without checking it out, and today the editor has been fired, and Jamie’s father has suspended his son for 30 days.”

But Liberal MP John McKay, who Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has tasked with reaching out to Catholic and other religious voters, called Fife’s allegation “pretty thin gruel” and “patent nonsense.”

“It strikes me to adding gossip to hearsay on a story that never should have seen the light of day in the first place,” he said.

McKay, who has publicly criticized his own party’s anti-Christian political tactics in previous elections and during the same-sex marriage debate, said he would never approve of the Liberal Party using a religious matter in this way. He described the stories as “a classic case of media who have absolutely no appreciation of religious sensitivities, blundering about in an area about which they know nothing” and “inflaming sectarian issues.”

“Frankly, I’m rather sympathetic to the prime minister on this one,” McKay said.

In an interview with CCN after his papal audience, Harper said the controversy was driven by “people who want to cause embarrassment in religion and drive a wedge between Protestants and Catholics.”

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