Godbeat

A time for anger? Some Catholic bishops worked hard to limit exposure of their sins and crimes

A time for anger? Some Catholic bishops worked hard to limit exposure of their sins and crimes

It's impossible to step into the sickening whirlpool of that Pennsylvania grand-jury report, covering seven decades of Catholic priestly sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses, without feeling angry.

Right now, anger is the element of this story that I think will be the hardest for journalists to handle and to cover accurately and fairly.

First and foremost, there is the anger and grief of the victims and their families. That's a story.

Then, we also need to admit that journalists who have been on the beat for a decade or more face anger issues of their own. In many cases, reporters are facing a tough reality today -- they now know that they were often manipulated by bishops and diocesan staffs that were hiding hellish crimes.

Now they are seeing some bishops produce updated websites and public statements that -- let's face it -- look a lot like the PR campaigns of the past. Is this a story?

Also, what about the all-to-familiar flashes of anger and the sense of betrayal that many priests and bishops have to be feeling today? Imagine what it must feel like to be going about your work right now while wearing a Roman collar.that

Years ago, a friend of mine -- when he was ordained as an Episcopal priest -- said that he was shocked at how many people gave him looks of disgust when he walked the streets in black clerical clothing, thinking he was a Catholic priest. Having even one person spit at your feet is a shattering experience.

This is a story for many, many valid reasons, not the least of which is how these horrors will continue to shape efforts to handle the growing shortage of Catholic priests in parts of the world, including America.

With that in mind, read (hat tip to Rod "Benedict Option" Dreher) this remarkable set of tweets from a priest whose entire ministry has been surrounded by headlines about priests abusing children and teens:

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Remember the Church Page? RNS story on churches aiding South Sudanese refugees will take you back

Remember the Church Page? RNS story on churches aiding South Sudanese refugees will take you back

The Republic of South Sudan is one of the world’s misery portals. Since its independence in 2011, (it's the globe’s youngest fully-minted nation) South Sudan has known little else but war, poverty, hunger and political infighting among its power elites.

The result of which is ongoing misery for the north-central African nation’s ordinary people. This BBC backgrounder tells the tale -- though, curiously, it fails to mention that South Sudan sought to secede from its northern neighbor, Sudan, in large part over religion. Sudan is staunchly Muslim while the people of what is now South Sudan largely practice traditional African tribal faiths, though Christianity is also a major force.

A newly brokered power-sharing agreement could change things for the better. However, those in the international media paying close attention to South Sudan note that we’ve been here before. Al Jazeera English reported that this is the 12th ceasefire and second power-sharing arrangement between the current civil war’s rival parties. So don’t start clapping just yet.

All I’ve said so far is meant as a prelude to dissecting this recent -- and troubling -- Religion News Service story about an upsurge in South Sudanese refugees in Uganda seeking “healing” in Christian churches.

Here’s the top of it. This is long, but essential:

BIDI BIDI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda (RNS) -- Every morning when Achol Kuol wakes up, she borrows a Bible from her neighbor and reads a verse to comfort herself before she meets others in an open-air church rigged from timber. They sing, dance and speak in tongues during the service. Some who feel filled with the Holy Spirit scream and jump -- not with joy, but remorse.

Confessions flow as they recall the ones they killed in the civil war back home in South Sudan. They cry out, lamenting ordeals they endure at night. Others weep in prayer as they ask God for forgiveness.

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Amazing grace: KKK leader transformed by baptism, repentance and other vague stuff

Amazing grace: KKK leader transformed by baptism, repentance and other vague stuff

What an amazing religion story NBC News offered the other day about sin, repentance, forgiveness and a Christian pastor showing some genuinely amazing grace to a KKK leader.

Well, it would have been an astonishing religion feature, if only the newsroom team had included a reporter or a producer who recognized that Christian faith was at the heart of this story of human hatred that was baptized -- literally, in this case -- in love. 

It's hard to leave religion out of a born-again story like this one, but the NBC team did its best.

So here is the dramatic, but faith-free, headline on top of the report: "Ex-KKK member denounces hate groups one year after rallying in Charlottesville." And here is the faith-free overture:

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nearly one year ago, Ken Parker joined hundreds of other white nationalists at a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. That day, he wore a black shirt with two lightning bolts sewn onto the collar, the uniform of the National Socialist Movement, an American neo-Nazi group.

In the past 12 months, his beliefs and path have been radically changed by the people he has met since the violent clash of white nationalists and counterprotesters led to the death of Heather Heyer, 32.

Now he looks at the shirt he wore that day, laid out in his apartment in Jacksonville, and sees it as a relic from a white nationalist past he has since left behind.

So where is the faith element in this born-again story? Well, Parker had some contacts with opponents of the alt-right that left him somewhat shaky, in a good way. He began to think twice about his beliefs.

Then this happened:


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Thinking about trust & the press: Religion-beat pros are liberals who 'get' the right?

Thinking about trust & the press: Religion-beat pros are liberals who 'get' the right?

And now, an all too familiar word from America's Tweeter In Chief: "The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE. I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust."

This is, of course, a variation on his larger theme that the entire mainstream press is the Enemy of the People, or words to that effect. Meanwhile, "fake news" has become a phrase that (click here for a tmatt typology on this term) is all but meaningless in American public discourse.

Whenever a Trumpian Tweet storm kicks up, I always say that it's stupid to say that something as complex as the American Press is the Enemy of the People. However, after decades of reading media bias studies on moral, cultural and religious issues, I think that it’s possible to say that significant numbers of journalists in strategic newsrooms are the enemies of about 20 to 40 percent of the nation's population. This remark usually draws silence.

This brings us to the growing "trust gap" between the American press and the American people. What can be done to improve this tragic situation?

That's the subject of this weekend’s think piece, which is a Q&A at FiveThirtyEight, that includes a rather strange reference to improving religion-news coverage. The discussion opens like this: 

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): It’s time to gaze at our navels!!! We’re chatting about the media. Everyone ready?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I’m not not ready.

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Technically, I’m in a different field full time, academia, where we never do any navel-gazing, sooo …

micah: On this week’s FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, we talked about President Trump’s attacks on the press. Trump’s criticisms are mostly wrong, but the press as a whole (yes, it’s not great to lump all the media into one) does have a trust issue.

With that in mind, our mission for today: What resolutions do we think journalists (us and everyone else) should make to improve Americans’ faith in the press? 

Now, if you are an advocate of old-school, "American Model of the Press" journalism (stress on accuracy, balance, fairness and respect for voices on all sides of public debates), this Q&A is going to make you upset.

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Catholic drama is epic tragedy: Why is Willow Creek meltdown so important?

Catholic drama is epic tragedy: Why is Willow Creek meltdown so important?

At this point, two of America's hottest religion-beat stories have become wedded at the hip, at least in my mind.

I am talking about the latest round of the four-decade scandal in the Roman Catholic Church centering on clergy sexual abuse of children and teens -- the vast majority of them male. Now we have a new #MeToo angle, with numerous reports of sexual abuse and harassment of seminarians and young priests, and some of the attackers have ended up in the episcopate.

The poster-male for this story, of course, is former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the American hierarchy's most powerful networkers and media stars over the past 50 years.

Then there is the #ChurchToo fall of the Rev. Bill Hybels, a superstar megachurch leader who helped create the "Seeker Friendly" evangelical movement of the past couple of decades.

But you know all of that, and I wove those subjects together the other day in a post with this headline: "Who you gonna call? New York Times offers a spiritual piece of the Bill Hybels puzzle."

It will not surprise people who listen to "Crossroads" that host Todd Wilkins and I returned to these topics in this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Look, everyone knows why -- in terms of news -- the Catholic crisis is as has hot at Hades. This is the biggest religion game in town. It's the religion-news Olympics. But why is the Willow Creek story so massive?

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Friday Five: Lifetime achievement winner, Willow Creek drama, Spikeball Mennonites and more

Friday Five: Lifetime achievement winner, Willow Creek drama, Spikeball Mennonites and more

Talk about a slam dunk!

The Religion News Association announced its 2018 William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award recipient this week.

What a fine choice the RNA made:

When the Vatican ordered the bishop of Pittsburgh to reinstate a pedophile priest, then Pittsburgh religion reporter Ann Rodgers received the decision even before the bishop himself.

When an evangelist was making false claims about miracles in a Houston hospital, Rodgers did the hard yards of investigation and spotted the fake.

And when she was invited to join Pope Francis’ Palm Sunday procession in St. Peter’s Square, Rodgers waved a palm and reported back to Pennsylvania on the experience.

In addition to serving as president of the Religion News Association during a time of significant transition and growth, Rodgers faithfully served on the religion beat in New Hampshire, Florida, and finally in Pittsburgh, Pa., for more than three decades.  

For her many years of work in religion newswriting and service to RNA, Rodgers will receive the William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award at the 69th Annual RNA Conference in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 15.

The William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award was created in 2001 and is presented to individuals who demonstrate exceptional long-term commitment and service to the Religion News Association and its members, and to the field of religion newswriting.

Read the rest of the release.

Let's dive into the Friday Five:

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Got those religious-liberty news blues: Nuns with charge cards buying birth control?

Got those religious-liberty news blues: Nuns with charge cards buying birth control?

So what has been going on, for the past couple of years, with the Sisters of the Poor and the federal health-care mandate requiring them, and many other religious institutions, to offer their employees health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives?

Journalists: Does anyone believe that these regulations require elderly nuns to go to a nearby drug counter, whip out the religious order's charge card, and purchase "morning-after pills"?

Is that what Attorney General Jeff Sessions meant when, in a recent speech on the rising tide of disputes about religious liberty, he said the following (which is typical of the language he has been using)?

"We’ve seen nuns ordered to pay for contraceptives. We’ve seen U.S. Senators ask judicial and executive branch nominees about their dogma -- a clear reference to their religious beliefs -- even though the Constitution explicitly forbids a religious test for public office."

What does he mean when he says the nuns have been ordered to "pay for" contraceptives, and lots of other things that violate the doctrines at the heart of their ministry?

So many questions! Was he talking about nuns using a charge card at the pharmacy? Or was Sessions discussing a requirement that they use ministry funds to offer a health-care plan that includes these benefits, requiring them to cooperate with acts that they believe are evil?

It's the latter, of course.

So what are readers to make of the language in the overture of this recent Religion News Service story (it does not carry an analysis or column label)?

(RNS) -- Standing beneath the cast aluminum statue of Lady Justice in the Department of Justice’s Great Hall, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a bold statement last week: “Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack.”

He spoke of Catholic nuns being forced to buy contraceptives. (Actually, the Affordable Care Act required the nuns to cover the costs of contraceptives in their employees’ health plans.)

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Jehovah's Witnesses: Why some persecuted faiths grab consistent headlines and others don't

Jehovah's Witnesses: Why some persecuted faiths grab consistent headlines and others don't

The world is inundated with sad examples of persecuted religious, ethnic and racial minorities. Journalistically speaking, however, each case may be reduced to a “story,” each competing for press attention at a time when shrinking industry resources and an ominous uptick in American political chaos make grabbing international media coverage increasingly difficult.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses is one such religious minority. The Kremlin has come down on Russian members of the faith like a ton of bricks.

The situation, from time to time, gains some coverage from western media elites. That attention soon fades, however, which prompts the following question: Why do some persecuted minorities trigger persistent journalistic attention while others do not?

I’ll try to answer that question below. First, though, let’s get current on the plight of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses.

This Los Angeles Times piece about their seeking refuge in neighboring Finland is a good place to start. Here’s a snippet from it:

In the 16 months since Russia’s Supreme Court banned Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist group on par with Islamic State, raids and arrests of the religion’s estimated 175,000 members in the country have increased rapidly. The ruling criminalized practicing the religion and ordered its 395 branches closed. Members face prosecution for doing missionary work, a fundamental part of the faith.

There are now an estimated 250 Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking asylum in Finland. They wait out their asylum applications in several refugee centers across the country, including the Joutseno refugee center outside Lappeenranta in southeastern Finland.

How has this impacted individual Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Read on.

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She kept stacks of journals: Bill Hybels drama enters a shocking new #MeToo chapter

She kept stacks of journals: Bill Hybels drama enters a shocking new #MeToo chapter

Is there any phrase that investigators -- in police departments, newsrooms or even in churches -- fear more than "he said-she said"?

We are talking about accusations in which one person insists that something happened. The only other person with first-person, direct knowledge of what happened is the person on the other side of the alleged incident. This person denies the facts presented by the accuser.

What is the investigator supposed to do?

Here is a hint of where we are going in this post: One of the best editors I ever had would always say something like the following, whenever I brought in a story in which crucial voices disputed what happened behind closed doors. This editor would say: Is there anything on paper? Can we prove that one or more of these people shared this information with others?

Hold that thought.

The big story, in this case, is that there has been another #MeToo development linked to the painful exit of the Rev. Bill Hybels, the founder of the massive Willow Creek Church outside of Chicago -- one of the most influential institutions in "moderate" or even "progressive" evangelicalism. Here is the dramatic double-decker headline at The New York Times:

He’s a Superstar Pastor. She Worked for Him and Says He Groped Her Repeatedly.

Bill Hybels built an iconic evangelical church outside Chicago. A former assistant says that in the 1980s, he sexually harassed her 

The story opens with this anecdote:

SOUTH BARRINGTON, Ill. -- After the pain of watching her marriage fall apart, Pat Baranowski felt that God was suddenly showering her with blessings.

She had a new job at her Chicago-area megachurch, led by a dynamic young pastor named the Rev. Bill Hybels, who in the 1980s was becoming one of the most influential evangelical leaders in the country.

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