Clergy

Liberal white Catholic parish vs. new conservative black priest = clumsy Oregonian story

Liberal white Catholic parish vs. new conservative black priest = clumsy Oregonian story

I attended college in southwest Portland; my first newspaper reporting job was just south of town; I have multiple friends in the area and my brother was an Oregonian reporter for 36 years.

In other words, I know a thing or two about the area, its people and the local media.

Religion coverage at the Oregonian has had some definite highs and lows in past decades. Highs were the coverage of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the 1980s, reporting by Mark O’Keefe in the 1990s and in recent years, Melissa Binder, who was on the beat for a short time. She then left the paper about a year ago.

The beat seems to be at a low point now, if the paper’s recent profile of a Catholic church torn by dissension is any indication. This story is so weak that it’s really hard to read.

The new priest took charge of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church more than a year ago. Week after week, parishioners said, George Kuforiji changed their church in ways they didn’t think he ever could.

They talked to him, wrote letters to the Archdiocese of Portland about their frustrations, resisted change and protested during Mass.

But after a while, some couldn’t take it anymore. They left the Southeast Portland church for other parishes or their own spiritual groups. Others said they would stay to the bitter end.

The parish where some had prayed for decades was slipping away. St. Francis is one of the oldest churches in Portland. It has long been known as a bastion of progressive Catholic faith.

So far, so good. However, at this point this news report turns into a one-sided jeremiad.

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Attention New York Times editors: Was El Paso priest following the 'spirit' or the Holy Spirit?

Attention New York Times editors: Was El Paso priest following the 'spirit' or the Holy Spirit?

Is it time for The New York Times to hire a liturgist as a copy editor?

Well, maybe the world’s most influential newspaper doesn’t need to hire someone with a degree in liturgical studies. It might be enough to hire a few people who are familiar with (a) traditional Christian language, (b) the contents of the Associated Press Stylebook or (c) both of the previous options.

Faithful news consumers may recall the problem Times editors had following the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. I am referring to the news report in which Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Department, was quoted — a direct quote — as saying that he rushed into the flames to save a “statue” of Jesus. In a gesture that left Catholic readers bewildered, he was said to have used the statue to bless the cathedral before rushing to safety.

Apparently, someone thought the priest’s reference, in French, to the “Body of Christ” was a reference to a statue. That led to this correction:

An earlier version of this article misidentified one of two objects recovered from Notre-Dame by the Rev. Jean-Marc Fournier. It was the Blessed Sacrament, not a statue of Jesus.

This brings me to a much less serious error — but one I am sure some readers found jarring — in a story following the racist massacre in El Paso. The headline: “In a Suffering City, an El Paso Priest Needed a Message of Hope.”

The content of that message? The Times team — to its credit — noted that the Rev. Fabian Marquez preached from a specific passage in the Gospel of Matthew:

“We need to follow the commandment of love — love God, love your neighbor,” the priest said. “This was a tragedy that came to break us and separate us, but God is inviting us to spread the love that only comes from him, and only with that are we going to be able to overcome this tragedy and this sadness.”

What inspired this sermon? What was the source of this inspiration?

That’s where the Times had trouble, once again, with basic Christian language and doctrine. Read this overture carefully:

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tmatt returns to Colorado, plus a brief debate about some basic GetReligion work

tmatt returns to Colorado, plus a brief debate about some basic GetReligion work

Greetings from one of my favorite, somewhat obscure corners of the wonderful state that I called home for about a decade, back in the 1980s and early 1990s. That would be Colorado.

At the moment, I’m on vacation out West with family. Bobby is in Southern California and I’ll be stunned if he doesn’t manage to produce a post on his smartphone while inside Dodger Stadium.

It’s summer. The result is often fewer posts and even a tweaked schedule. Some of our quick posts may even be a little strange — like this one.

The other day I received a comment that deserves discussion. It was a criticism of my recent post with this headline: “Associated Press digs into hush-hush network that protects priests – on Catholic right only.” The key AP statement:

Still, since 2002, Opus Bono has played a little-known role among conservative Catholic groups that portray the abuse scandal as a media and legal feeding frenzy. These groups contend the scandal maligns the priesthood and harms the Catholic faith.

Are there groups on the Catholic right that do this? Yes. Are there groups and networks on the Catholic left that do this kind of work? I wrote:

… At the heart of the accusations swirling around men like former cardinal Theodore McCarrick (and others) are claims that these men have been hidden and supported by networks of powerful Catholics inside and outside the church. The questions I keep asking: Who helped McCarrick come to power? Who protected him? Who profited from his support and protection?

AP has raised very serious issues about Opus Bono and shown strong signs of work that crossed ethical and doctrinal lines. But is the assumption that there are no similar problems in groups — perhaps inside church structures — with ties to the Catholic left?

This Associated Press report does not contain a single factual hint that this problem exists anywhere other than on the Catholic right. It contained valid and important information, but failed to provide essential context — that the Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal is not a left-right thing. This cover-up is too big for that.

A frequent GetReligion commentator defended the AP piece, arguing that the AP report was not about the abuse scandal, or even the problem of Catholic leaders hidingthese crimes, but:

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Associated Press digs into hush-hush network that protects priests -- on Catholic right only

Associated Press digs into hush-hush network that protects priests -- on Catholic right only

If there was an omnipresent reader who had somehow managed to follow my 30-plus years of work linked to the Catholic clergy sex crisis, I think that she or he would have spotted at least one overarching theme.

The big idea: This is a scandal that cannot be divided according to liberal and conservative prejudices. Anyone who tried to do that would have to avoid too many case studies, too many tragedies, too many people — on the left and right — hiding too many crimes. I have argued that wise, patient reporters will listen to liberal and conservative activists and then search for issues and ideas that they share in common.

Hold that thought, because I will end with that.

Every now and then, we see an important story produced by journalists (often in the mainstream press) who seem to think the scandal is all about the sins of conservatives or (often in some independent Catholic publication) all about the sins of liberals.

The Associated Press just produced a story of this kind, a report that raises important issues and was built on tons of journalism legwork to get solid sources. It’s a valid and important story. But it appears that these journalists only saw half of a larger tragedy. The headline: “Unmarked buildings, quiet legal help for accused priests.”

Yes, secrets were uncovered. But stop and think about that headline. Is the assumption that all Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse are, in fact, guilty? Is it possible to imagine that some Catholics might support efforts to research and clear the names of priests who they believe have been falsely accused and have valid reasons to do so? And are all these efforts on the right? Just asking.

Here is the AP overture:

DRYDEN, Mich. (AP) — The visiting priests arrived discreetly, day and night.

Stripped of their collars and cassocks, they went unnoticed in this tiny Midwestern town as they were escorted into a dingy warehouse across from an elementary school playground. Neighbors had no idea some of the dressed-down clergymen dining at local restaurants might have been accused sexual predators.

They had been brought to town by a small, nonprofit group called Opus Bono Sacerdotii. For nearly two decades, the group has operated out of a series of unmarked buildings in rural Michigan, providing money, shelter, transport, legal help and other support to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse across the country.

Again and again, Opus Bono has served as a rapid-response team for the accused.

That leads us to the big, sweeping thesis statement:

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News reports say poll paints bleak picture of clergy's role in American society — but does it really?

News reports say poll paints bleak picture of clergy's role in American society — but does it really?

Is the glass three-quarters empty or one-quarter full?

That’s the question one prominent Godbeat pro is asking after an Associated Press story painted a somewhat negative portrait of clergy members’ role in U.S. society.

It probably should be noted that the award-winning journalist, G. Jeffrey MacDonald, also is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.

According to the AP headline, a new poll shows that Americans “rarely seek guidance from clergy.” MacDonald takes issue with the global wire service’s concept of “rarely.” More on that in a moment.

First, the lede from AP:

DETROIT (AP) — Timothy Buchanan says he never consults clergy about important decisions, but it’s not for lack of faith: He regularly attends a nondenominational Christian church near his home.

Buchanan, 41, is not alone. A large majority of Americans make important decisions without calling on religious leaders for advice, according to a new survey released Monday by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research . The poll finds three-quarters of American adults rarely or never consult a clergy member or religious leader, while only about a quarter do so at least some of the time.

“The church we go to is quite large, and we’re relatively new there,” said Buchanan, who lives with his wife in Bolivia, North Carolina. “We really haven’t established a relationship with a minister there. Going to larger churches, it’s nearly impossible now to get a relationship with a clergyman or woman.”

The lack of personal connection with ministers even includes people who identify with a specific religious faith, though those who are most engaged with their faith are more likely to have relationships with clergy.

The poll finds about a third of Americans saying they attend church or other religious services at least twice a month; roughly a quarter never go. Among religious adults who attend services at least twice a month, about half say they sometimes or often consult with a religious leader. That compares with 16% of religious adults who attend services less often.

(By the way, Religion News Service wrote about the same survey this week, presenting the findings in an equally negative light. “New poll shows growing view that clergy are irrelevant,” says the headline.)

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Follow the money? By all means. But Bransfield scandal may involve some 'Catholic' issues

Follow the money? By all means. But Bransfield scandal may involve some 'Catholic' issues

It’s time for another trip into my GetReligion folder of guilt. That’s where news features go that I know are important, but I cannot — quickly — spot the issue that is nagging me.

Thus, the story gets filed away, while I keep thinking about it.

In this case, we are talking about a Washington Post story that is an important follow-up on the newspaper’s investigation into charges of corruption against Catholic Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of West Virginia — an important disciple of the fallen cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. Click here for the first GetReligion post on this topic, by Bobby Ross, Jr.

The headline on this new expose states: “Warnings about West Virginia bishop went unheeded as he doled out cash gifts to Catholic leaders.” Yes, this story is about money, money, money and then more money.

Oh, there is some signs of sexual harassment of seminarians in there, but that doesn’t seem to interest the Post team. And there are hints that some of the conflicts surrounding Bransfield may have had something to do with Catholicism. Maybe. Hold that thought because we will come back to it. Here is the overture:

Senior Catholic leaders in the United States and the Vatican began receiving warnings about West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield as far back as 2012. In letters and emails, parishioners claimed that Bransfield was abusing his power and misspending church money on luxuries such as a personal chef, a chauffeur, first-class travel abroad and more than $1 million in renovations to his residence.

“I beg of you to please look into this situation,” Linda Abrahamian, a parishioner from Martinsburg, W.Va., wrote in 2013 to the pope’s ambassador to the United States.

But Bransfield’s conduct went unchecked for five more years. He resigned in September 2018 after one of his closest aides came forward with an incendiary inside account of years of sexual and financial misconduct, including the claim that Bransfield sought to “purchase influence” by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash gifts to senior Catholic leaders.

“It is my own opinion that His Excellency makes use of monetary gifts, such as those noted above, to higher ranking ecclesiastics and gifts to subordinates to purchase influence from the former and compliance or loyalty from the latter,” Monsignor Kevin Quirk wrote to William Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, in a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

Then there is the big thesis statement:

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Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

This certainly was not your typical media storm about a Baylor University graduate who achieved fame in the ministry by heading to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City.

However, the fall of the Rev. Amy Butler from the high pulpit of Manhattan’s world-famous Riverside Church offers readers a classic journalism case study illustrating the differences between New York Post readers and New York Times readers. It’s also educational to note that the religious themes in this controversy played little or no role in either report.

Starting with a classic A1 headline, the Post editors knew what would zap readers awake while reading in their subway cars:

The reason for her ouster is far more stimulating than any sermon this pastor could have delivered.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, the first woman to lead Manhattan’s famed Riverside Church, lost her lofty post amid complaints that she brought ministers and a congregant on a sex toy shopping spree and then gave one of them an unwanted vibrator as a birthday gift, The Post has learned.

On May 15, Butler allegedly took two Riverside assistant ministers and a female congregant to a sex shop in Minneapolis called the Smitten Kitten, during a religious conference, according to sources familiar with the out-of-town shopping excursion.

At the store, the pastor bought a $200 bunny-shaped blue vibrator called a Beaded Rabbit for one minister — a single mom of two who was celebrating her 40th birthday — as well as more pleasure gadgets for the congregant and herself, sources said. The female minister didn’t want the sex toy, but accepted it because she was scared not to, sources said.

The great Gray Lady, on the other hand, knew that the readers in its choir would want a story rooted in sexism, patriarchy and workplace politics. The headline, as you would imagine, was a bit more restrained: “Pastor’s Exit Exposes Cultural Rifts at a Leading Liberal Church.”

The sex toys angle made it into the Times story, with a nod to Post coverage, but readers had to wait a few extra paragraphs to find that angle. Here’s the overture:

When the Rev. Dr. Amy K. Butler was hired to lead Riverside Church in Manhattan in 2014, she was hailed as a rising star, the first woman to join a distinguished line of pastors at one of the pre-eminent progressive Protestant congregations in the United States.

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Reporters will need help from canon lawyers to correctly explain California’s confession bill

Reporters will need help from canon lawyers to correctly explain California’s confession bill

In this politically polarized world, there are issues that can drive a large wedge between people — including several that, one way or another, are tied to religion.

Immigration and abortion are two of the biggest in the Donald Trump era, issues that dominated the Supreme Court’s recently-completed term and the Democratic presidential primaries that are just underway. Then again, immigration and abortion are the issues that dominate news on the web and cable TV.

Religious freedom, an old-school liberal issue now largely taken up by conservatives, is often lost in mainstream news coverage. Lost in this coverage is an issue of such importance to Roman Catholics, that it may very well be the biggest fallout to come from years of clerical sex abuse when it comes to how it affects the law.

The California State Senate, controlled by Democrats, recently passed a bill (the first of its kind in the United States) that would compel a priest — violating centuries of Catholic law and tradition — to disclose to civil authorities any information learned in the confessional if it involves the sexual abuse of a minor committed by another priest or lay worker. The bill was supposed to head to the State Assembly later this summer, where Democrats hold a majority.

On Tuesday, on the eve of a scheduled hearing, State Sen. Jerry Hill withdrew the bill after realizing he didn’t have the votes to get it passed out of committee. Opponents may have rejoiced, but this issue is far from over. It certainly will gather steam again in future legislative sessions. That means reporters need to be better equipped to cover such an issue in a balanced and fair way.

If this bill doesn’t seem like a big deal, consider what it would have mandated: the government would have been allowed to control a religious sacrament by legally punishing a priest for not breaking the seal of confession. Passage of such a law would be a major violation of religious freedom for both the priest and the person in the confessional. It would also have a chilling effect for those seeking to go to confession, but fearing possible legal troubles.

Mainstream news coverage of this bill has been largely muted over the past few months. This bill hasn’t, for example, been made a bigger issue by national media outlets such as The New York Times. Compare that to the coverage on immigration and abortion.

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Wall Street Journal pokes fun at vain pastors with flashy, expensive sneakers

Wall Street Journal pokes fun at vain pastors with flashy, expensive sneakers

One of the upsides of paying $19 a month for the Wall Street Journal is that you sometimes find real gems on the religion beat. Like there’s this piece by their Vatican correspondent on growing pressure from secular authorities to force Catholic priests to report evidence of child sex abuse heard in the confessional.

Then there’s this piece about the Catholic Archdiocese of New York suing its insurers, which are making noises about not paying out claims by people who said they were sexually abused by priests sometime in the past 50 or years.

Oddly, none of the above are by the paper’s national religion reporter, Ian Lovett, whose output seems rather low compared to most other national religion reporters. Why Lovett isn’t breaking stories on the beat is the topic for another day but let’s say that the most interesting material in the pages of the Journal is written by folks on other beats.

One of these is a howler of a piece that I knew I had to write up — a cute little number on “sneakerhead pastors” that I somehow missed when it came out in April. Yes, this is a deep trip into my “GetReligion guilt file.”

Written by Jacob Gallagher, the men’s fashion editor, it’s a comic look at how some of America’s hipper megachurch pastors are spending thousands of dollars for their footwear.

MID-LAST MONTH, an Instagram account was launched to catalog a very particular sort of modern style icon: the preacher sneakerhead. @PreachersNSneakers, which is run anonymously, documents the trendy and extravagant footwear choices of popular, social-media-savvy church figures. So far, it has featured photos of megachurch pastors like Relentless Church’s John Gray (wearing long-sold-out Nike Air Yeezy 2s that resale for $5,611 on the website StockX, as @PreachersNSneakers points out), Hillsong’s Nathan Finochio (new Gucci slides that retail for $1,100) and Zoe Church’s Chad Veach (Saint Laurent Jodhpur boots with a sticker price of $1,045). The account has also caused quite a stir, racking up over 123,000 followers and thousands of comments in its short existence. Click on any photo and you’ll find a string of fervid comments debating whether or not it’s OK for pastors to flaunt their conspicuous consumption as they preach the word of God.

Now the clothes worn by these pastors often look pretty commonplace and extremely understated. But please look at those shoes!

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