News Brief: Boeing's Issues, Card Message, Catholic Church Abuse

Dec 24, 2019
Originally published on December 24, 2019 8:20 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, Boeing has a new chief executive now, but he is facing the same problems as the old one.

NOEL KING, HOST:

That's right. David Calhoun will take over from Dennis Muilenburg. Calhoun was the chairman of Boeing's board. The company is trying to recover from two deadly crashes of its 737 Max jets. Boeing grounded the planes in March and said last week it was temporarily stopping production.

GREENE: And let's talk about this move with NPR business correspondent Jim Zarroli, who is with us. Hi there, Jim.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: OK. So this announcement comes yesterday; Muilenburg is gone. What have you been seeing in terms of reaction?

ZARROLI: Well, you know, I think the departure was not completely unexpected. I mean, Muilenburg had been the chief executive since 2015, and he - during that time, he'd been seen as a good CEO, but the 737 Max has really tarnished his reputation, and it tarnished the reputation of the company. Boeing really lost a lot of confidence among, you know, regulators, shareholders and the flying public, too.

The feeling was that Muilenburg had downplayed the safety problems that led to the crashes. And then after the planes were grounded last March, he kept saying that the 737 Max would be flying again by the end of the year, but then that didn't happen. And last week, Boeing had to stop making the plane altogether. So a lot of people thought Muilenburg had not performed well and he was just the wrong man for the job. And when he left yesterday, you saw Boeing's share price go up almost 3%.

GREENE: OK. So some optimism about David Calhoun is taking over, but, I mean, he's still confronting the fundamental problems here and also all the pressure on this company with these crashes and all of these deaths, right?

ZARROLI: Yeah. I mean, he - I think he really faces two huge problems. First, he's got to get the 737 Max up in the air again. And it's not clear when that's going to happen because as long as the plane is grounded, Boeing is losing billions of dollars. I mean, it has thousands of these jets on back order, and it can't sell them. But he's also got to restore Boeing's reputation with the regulators and shareholders and the public. You know, Boeing really kind of ticked off regulators, the FAA, but also just regulators all over the world because of the way it downplayed the 737 Max's safety problems. It also caused a lot of trouble for its customers, which are, you know, the world's airlines.

GREENE: Sure.

ZARROLI: Because, you know, companies like Southwest own a lot of 737 Maxes and they've had to cancel flights because the plane is grounded. And that's really meant lower revenues. So this is something that is affecting the entire aviation industry and not just in the United States but around the world. And so, you know, Boeing is hoping that Calhoun can begin to fix these problems. You know, he worked at General Electric, which makes jet engines for Boeing, so he knows the aviation industry. He also comes from the world of private equity, and that's what private equity companies are supposed to be good at. They're supposed to be good at fixing troubled companies.

GREENE: You know, you say this could have an impact on the entire aviation industry, really the entire U.S. economy, right? Is that overstating it? I mean, this is a leadership change in a very important U.S. company.

ZARROLI: Right. Boeing is by far the biggest exporter in the United States. It has hundreds of suppliers that depend on it. You know, they include a lot of big companies like General Electric, which makes jet engines, but also a lot of small ones. Until last week, you know, Boeing was still making the 737 Max, but now that production is suspended. So those suppliers are going to lose a lot of business, and it's going to have an effect on the broader economy. Some analysts say the growth will slow by an annual rate of five-tenths of a percentage point just during the first quarter of 2020. So the impact is very big.

GREENE: NPR's Jim Zarroli for us this morning. Jim, thanks so much.

ZARROLI: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. So a 6-year-old girl in South London was writing Christmas cards to her classmates when she found this bizarre message inside one of them.

KING: Part of the message said we are foreign prisoners forced to work against our will. Please help us. Now, that card was made in China, and the message seems like it was written by a factory worker. A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry says the card is a fake.

GREENE: OK. Let's go to NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. And, Frank, just bring us up to speed, if you can. What happened here?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah. So the note, David, said notify human rights organization - they didn't have exactly the correct grammar there - and also mentioned a man named Peter Humphrey. It said please contact Peter Humphrey. Now, Peter Humphrey is a corporate fraud investigator who had actually - he's British. He actually served time in this prison, which is in Qingpu, which is a Shanghai suburb. And Humphrey was eventually released in 2015. So the family reached out to Humphrey who wrote about it in the Sunday Times here. The card was sold by the British supermarket chain Tesco. Tesco suspended orders for the cards and is investigating.

GREENE: And so this was a little girl in London who was, like, just opening a card that she was going to write something and found this note.

LANGFITT: It was, and there was actually - there was a kitten on the card with a Santa hat; so, in one sense, very innocent and then the note inside, absolutely sinister.

GREENE: So the Chinese Foreign Ministry is saying this is all made up. I mean, are they providing evidence?

LANGFITT: Not yet that I've seen. The Chinese company that made the cards says it's never contracted with the prison. It calls the charges of forced labor completely fabricated. And the foreign ministry, interestingly, has focused on Humphrey, saying that they think he's behind this as a hoax.

Now, the Chinese government said Humphrey was in prison for illegally collecting citizens' information. I talked to Humphrey. I've actually met him before. He says this charge was bogus, never heard in court. And he says he actually recognizes the handwriting on the card as a prisoner he knew years ago in this prison. I ask him about the foreign ministry claim that he's behind all of this, and Humphrey says this is a typical response to accusations of human rights abuses by the Chinese government. This is what he said.

PETER HUMPHREY: This is the kind of answer you'll get. You get a lie. You get a complete lie in response. The one thing about this message that is a little bit different maybe is it's a very personal attack on me accusing me of fabricating this story. But, you know, I didn't invent a little girl in South London and her father who I've never known in my life. And I didn't invent the message that they handed to me. So it's absolutely ridiculous.

GREENE: Frank, do you have a sense for this? I mean, you were based for a good number of years in Shanghai. Did you ever see something like this?

LANGFITT: Yeah, I actually covered this very topic. These sorts of messages, David, do surface in Chinese products every few years. Back in 2012, a woman in Oregon discovered an account of torture in Halloween decorations that were made in China. And I actually interviewed an American sociology professor who'd served time for theft and was later released. And he said he was forced to assemble Christmas lights in a jail in Guangdong province.

And he said there was an inmate who ran the work gang, and he would braid the Christmas lights together and use them as whips to whip workers to drive production. Now, after I did that story, I got messages on Facebook and elsewhere from other American inmates who said that they had actually been forced to make Christmas ornaments. So there's a lot of evidence that this certainly happens.

GREENE: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Frank, thanks so much.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. We just want to give you a warning - this next story contains details that some of you might find disturbing. So we're talking about an investigation into an ultra-conservative Catholic order in Mexico that's uncovered a history of abuse.

KING: Yeah, that's right. That order published an internal report over the weekend. It accuses 33 priests and 71 seminarians of sexually abusing children, including the man who founded the order, which is called the Legionaries of Christ. He is accused of abusing at least 60 kids. And the report says there are probably more cases.

GREENE: All right. I want to talk to David Agren, who is a freelance journalist who is in Mexico City and has been covering this. Hi, David.

DAVID AGREN: Hello.

GREENE: Can you just tell us about this order and its founder to give us some context here?

AGREN: Sure. The Legionaries of Christ was founded in 1941 in Mexico City by a priest named Marcial Maciel who grew the order quite substantially by courting the rich. The rich were not being necessarily attended to by other Catholic orders. And he went about getting the upper crust into this order, and it became very economically powerful. And it also became very influential within the Vatican to the point that he was seen quite favorably by Pope John Paul II.

It was known for being conservative. It was known for being elitist and somewhat exclusionary and also controversial. And when these accusations of abuse came up, originally these were lodged by seminarians, they were denied and because of the power of the Legionaries of Christ in Mexico at least, these - it took a long time for these accusations to be - come to the public's attention.

GREENE: And what exactly are the accusations? What did this report find?

AGREN: Well, the report found that there were 175 people abused, mostly boys between the ages of 11 and 16 years old, by 33 priests and more than 70 seminarians. With the priests, one thing they had found was that 14 of the victims of Father Maciel, the founder, had gone on to commit what they call - you know, crimes themselves against children. So this was seen as, you know, a chain of abuse. So it was all quite disturbing, and it was believed to be almost 2 1/2% of the priests that had ever been ordained committed abuse, which is actually a little bit of a lower number than the average in the U.S. So there are questions about the report. And the Mexican bishops conference are among those asking questions.

GREENE: Asking questions about whether this could be more widespread than the report is actually acknowledging.

AGREN: That's right. The order has said that there will - there's probably more to come at least in terms of issues such as abuse of authority. But, you know, the Legionaries of Christ has cut a controversial course through Mexican public life and also to a lesser degree in Spain and in the Vatican. So as one analyst put it to me, there's a lot of easy hate out there for the group and, you know, the crimes of the founder, Marcial Maciel, who died in 2008, explain that.

GREENE: And, I mean, you say this order has been affiliated with the Vatican and, I mean, there was a relationship with the pope. What is the Vatican's response to this been so far?

AGREN: It's been muted. The response has come more from the Mexican bishops conference, which has said that the report has come too late and also seems to have shortcomings in it. It's a little bit of a surprising response because the bishops hadn't really been especially all that vocal about the Legionaries of Christ in the past. And part of that is because of the Legion's influence, its economic power. And, you know, for example here in Mexico City, which was one of the largest archdiocese in the world, it obtained a lot of important positions under the last archbishop.

So it's - it feels like a lot of people are coming to the point of sort of just repudiating the order, especially the order's founder. The order was taken over by the Vatican in 2010 largely because it was sort of seen as it had become a cult of the founder, Maciel. And it needed to be founded anew. What seems to be happening now is that the Legionaries are saying, yes, our founder was responsible for some horrible crimes committed against children and young men but are they telling the whole story? That's the question that a lot of people are asking.

GREENE: Freelance reporter David Agren in Mexico City this morning. Thanks, David.

AGREN: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.