Sex

Covering Nadia Bolz-Weber: It's time for reporters to ditch the public-relations approach

Covering Nadia Bolz-Weber: It's time for reporters to ditch the public-relations approach

I’ve been following a trail of articles about the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber that correspond to cities where she’s doing a book tour for her latest book “Shameless: A Sexual Reformation.”

Surprise. All the reports have been glowing about this brave, tell-it-like-it is pastor who gives the world her middle finger while writing cool books.

I call this drive-by journalism. This is not an insult to the writers, but these pieces are the kind of thing one does when a entertainment celebrity is in town and she grants you an hour or two for an interview and lets you follow her around a bit. One can crank out quite a bit of copy after such an encounter and puffy pieces about Bolz-Weber like this Houston Chronicle article make reporters think they get this woman.

But they don’t. Let’s not pretend these journalistic one-offs are the whole picture. They’re a snapshot at best and remember, the subject of the story is pushing a book. I have found that some religious personalities, like the Rev. Joel Osteen, are ONLY available when they want some book PR.

One article I’m going to dissect is one of the better ones: Eliza Griswold’s recent New Yorker piece, which involved more than one face-to-face with the pastor. It didn’t satisfy me for several reasons that we will get to shortly.

Bolz-Weber had flown in from her home in Denver to promote her book “Shameless,” which was published last week. In it, she calls for a sexual reformation within Christianity, modelled on the arguments of Martin Luther, the theologian who launched the Protestant Reformation by nailing ninety-five theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, in the sixteenth century. (One of the slogans of the church that Bolz-Weber founded in Denver, House for All Sinners and Saints, is “Nailing shit to the church door since 1517.”)

Yes, this pastor has a way with words. I first heard her in 2011 at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina, a shindig for the liberal Christian set. The heat that June was awful, but Nadia stood out. She was and is a brilliant quote machine. Her honesty is disarming.

In 2014, I talked More magazine, a glossy for over-40 women that has since gone out of print, into profiling her, so they flew me to Denver that February.

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Bingo and monster trucks: Making sense of breaking news from United Methodists' high-stakes meeting (updated)

Bingo and monster trucks: Making sense of breaking news from United Methodists' high-stakes meeting (updated)

UPDATE: The Traditional Plan wins.

That’s the verdict from the United Methodists’ high-stakes meeting in St. Louis on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage

Religion News Service’s Emily McFarlan Miller reports that “the General Conference, the global denomination’s decision-making body, passed the Traditional Plan by a vote of 438 to 384.”

Here is the breaking news lede that just showed up in my email via the Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer and Sarah Pulliam Bailey:

In a contentious meeting years in the making, the United States’s third-largest faith community voted to emphasize its opposition to same-sex marriage and gay clergy — a decision which was cheered by conservatives in the global church, especially in Africa, but was deeply disappointing to many Americans who had hoped the church would change.

Many American ministers in the United Methodist Church already perform same-sex marriages and approve of the ordination of LGBT people as clergy, although the Protestant church’s rules officially forbid these marriages and ordinations. Many Methodists hoped the church would amend those rules this week. Instead, a group of more than 800 clergy and lay leaders from around the world voted to affirm the church’s traditional view of sexuality — and in fact to punish disobedient clergy more harshly than before.

“The United Methodist Church will very soon lose an entire generation of leadership in the United States,” lamented Kimberly Ingram, speaking at the meeting on behalf of Methodist seminaries and theological schools, who argued that their students strongly approve of including LGBT people fully in the church. “The future of the United Methodist Church in this country is at stake.”

But presented with several options during a four-day special session on the future of the church in St. Louis, the delegates picked the “traditional plan.” Other options would have allowed local churches to choose their stance on sexuality for themselves, or would have split the church into separate denominations.

Here at GetReligion, look for more analysis of the decision and news coverage of it in the coming days.

In the meantime, don’t miss the tweets below about monster trucks. Trust me, there’s a connection to the Methodist meeting.

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Clergy sexual-abuse fog: Here are five crucial questions for Catholic Church going forward

Clergy sexual-abuse fog: Here are five crucial questions for Catholic Church going forward

Pope Francis, cardinals and senior bishops from around the world gathered for four days in Rome for a conference on clergy sex abuse designed to guide the church on how to best tackle the growing global crisis that has eroded Roman Catholicism’s credibility around the world in a span of three decades.

The pope vowed that there will be change going forward when the summit opened this past Thursday, while victims vented their anger at the Vatican for its inability to discipline priests and bishops who had committed heinous acts against children, teenagers, adult lay men and women, seminarians and even nuns.

Francis capped off the meeting Sunday calling for “an all-out battle against the abuse of minors” and that “no explanations suffice for these abuses involving children.” He promised, once again, that “concrete” changes were ahead.

What next for the church? A few days of speeches and prayer clearly isn’t enough to heal the deep wound that decades of abuse and inaction have caused. Nonetheless, the first-of-its-kind summit was aimed at trying to right some of those past wrongs in what can very well turn out to be a defining moment for Francis’ papacy going forward. The pope himself, it’s worth noting, had tried to lower expectations on the eve of the summit.

To recap the very busy events of the past few days, here’s a look at five questions to emerge from the Vatican’s summit and how the church hopes to handle cases of clergy sex abuse going forward:

What has changed?

This is the big question. While a meeting regarding sex abuse (or any real public addressing of this problem was both unprecedented and long overdue), the event was largely seen as a publicity stunt and to some even a farce. The overarching message was for the pope to convey sincere regret. The photo-ops and video b-roll of Pope Francis looking somber were needed to publicly show repentance for the problem and the years of cover-ups by cardinals and bishops.

“In the face of this scourge of sexual abuse perpetrated by men of the church to the detriment of minors, I thought I would summon you," the pontiff told the nearly 200 Catholic leaders last Thursday to open the summit, “so that all together we may lend an ear and listen to the Holy Spirit … and to the cry of the small ones who are asking for justice.”

In those brief comments, he added that people are “looking at us and expect from us not simple condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to put in place. We need to be concrete.”

How concrete remains the big issue.

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Yes, the United Methodist Church's big meeting in St. Louis is national news, but it's something else, too

Yes, the United Methodist Church's big meeting in St. Louis is national news, but it's something else, too

Some familiar Godbeat reporters with national audiences are in St. Louis covering the United Methodist Church’s high-stakes meeting on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage.

Both Emily McFarlan Miller of Religion News Service and Holly Meyer of The Tennessean (which is part of the USA Today’s national network) are on the scene reporting on the crucial developments.

Speaking of which, this is the latest — as I type this post — from the United Methodist News Service:

The Traditional Plan — with some amendments — won approval in the General Conference legislative committee, clearing a major hurdle in The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking body.

The delegates also approved two plans that allow churches, with certain limitations, to leave the denomination with their property.

All the forwarded legislation still faces a vote in the General Conference plenary session on Feb. 26. 

The legislative committee voted for the Traditional Plan, which seeks to strengthen enforcement of the denomination’s homosexuality prohibitions, as amended by 461 to 359.

But while the meeting in the Gateway City is obviously national news, it’s something else, too: It’s a big local story in places such as Atlanta, Cleveland and, of course, St. Louis itself.

Those of us who follow religion news are accustomed to those few regional papers that still have Godbeat pros — such as The Oklahoman, the Oklahoma City paper where Carla Hinton is the longtime religion editor — jumping on stories such as this. Indeed, Hinton had a big Page 1 preview on the Methodist meeting in Sunday’s edition.

However, this story also has generated some attention from metro dailies that don’t follow religion as closely. We mentioned a big story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram earlier this month. And this weekend brought some newsy, informative coverage from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, among others.

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'Pope is the sole legislator' -- Real lives, real cover-ups, overshadow global abuse summit

'Pope is the sole legislator' -- Real lives, real cover-ups, overshadow global abuse summit

Catholic shepherds from around the world gathered at the Vatican to talk about clergy sexual abuse, surrounded by journalists and victims asking lots of questions.

In the end, the only words that will matter — in terms of shaping life in Catholic institutions rocked by decades of scandal — will come from Pope Francis himself, aided by the close circle of cardinals and aides who helped plan this much-anticipated summit and kept it focused on a narrow and relatively safe subject — the abuse of “children.”

In other words, this painful puzzle will be solved by the men who have been in charge all along, including some men involved in the long and complicated career of former cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. That’s all Catholics around the world are going to get, for now.

You can sense the anticlimax in the first lines of this wrap-up report from The New York Times:

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis ended a landmark Vatican meeting on clerical sexual abuse by calling “for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors” and insisting that the church needed to protect children “from ravenous wolves.”

But for all the vivid language and the vow “to combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of our mission,” the pope’s speech was short on the sort of detailed battle plan demanded by many Catholics around the world.

Francis had barely finished speaking before some abuse victims and other frustrated faithful began expressing outrage and disappointment at his failure to outline immediate and concrete steps to address the problem.

After spending most of this weekend swimming upstream in the coverage from Rome (along with early #hashtagconfusion news from the United Methodist LGBTQ conference), I actually think that the most important story was a blockbuster Associated Press report from veteran Nicole Winfield.

This story focused on two topics that the principalities and powers in Rome worked so hard to keep out of the headlines — seminarians and the pope’s on connections to the issue of episcopal oversight.

The headline on this story at US News & World Report captured the timing issue: “Argentine Bishop's Case Overshadows Pope's Sex Abuse Summit.” Here’s the overture:

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis may have wrapped up his clergy sex abuse prevention summit at the Vatican, but a scandal over an Argentine bishop close to him is only gaining steam.

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The 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick saga continues: A second priest spills all to the Washington Post

The 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick saga continues: A second priest spills all to the Washington Post

The second shoe dropped Saturday when the Washington Post came out with the on-the-record account of another priest who’d been sexually abused by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

By “shoes,” I mean the three former New Jersey priests who filed lawsuits against the Catholic Church or one of its dioceses regarding McCarrick. The first ‘shoe’ was Robert Ciolek, who went public early on in this saga. The other two were refusing to talk until now.

When reading this story, let’s keep the big picture in mind. The key questions remain: Who moved McCarrick higher and higher in the church, while reports circulated about his private affairs? Who protected him later? Who benefited from his favors?

Now, back to the new chapter in this story:

Less than a week after Theodore McCarrick became the first cardinal ever defrocked, a New Jersey priest has for the first time agreed to be interviewed about his accusations that McCarrick sexually abused him in the 1990s and the effect the alleged abuse has had on his life and career.

In exclusive interviews with the Post, the Rev. Lauro Sedlmayer said the interactions with McCarrick, who was then his archbishop, in Newark, set off a downward spiral that severely damaged his psyche and career. Now 61, the priest says he told three bishops but nothing was done.

Note the crucial detail: Bishops were informed about this and nothing happened.

The Post folks have known about this guy since last summer. I wrote about that here, but it’s taken eight months for this guy to go on the record. Better late than never.

The Brazilian-born Sedlmayer has been in a tense stand-off with his superiors for a decade, with both sides filing lawsuits and accusations of sexual and financial impropriety on each side.

Sedlmayer says much of his troubles began with what he recently described in written testimony to Vatican officials investigating McCarrick as “sexual battery.”

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Thinking about 'Sodoma': Critics on left, right have many similar concerns about Martel's work

Thinking about 'Sodoma': Critics on left, right have many similar concerns about Martel's work

So, now that the big splash is over in Rome, does anyone need to take the time to read “In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy” by the French LGBTQ activist Frédéric Martel?

That’s the English title. In other parts of the world the book was given an even more provocative title — “Sodoma.”

Everyone agrees, basically, that the book contains some serious allegations about gay life and gay power networks in Catholic life, and the Vatican to be specific.

But what has Martel been able to document with solid, journalistically respectable information? On many crucial points, everything depends on whether readers are inclined to accept the accuracy of the author’s “gaydar,” that gay extra sense that tells him — based on issues of culture, style and his own emotions — whether this or that person (or pope, even) is gay.

This is your rare chance to read radically different cultural voices attack the same book for some very similar reasons. For starters, it doesn’t help when — the critics agree — a book is packed with factual errors and appears to have been edited by someone with years of experience in supermarket tabloid work.

I mean, check this out: Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher pointing readers toward an essay by Michael Sean Winters of The National Catholic Reporter?

Here is a choice bite of Winters review:

Martel sees gay influence everywhere. He has a whole chapter on Jacques Maritain, the gist of which is this: "To understand the Vatican and the Catholic Church, at the time of Paul VI, or today, Jacques Maritain is a good entry point." Why? "I have gradually understood the importance of this codex, this complex and secret password, a real key to understand The Closet. The Maritain code." He mentions in passing that Maritain is the father of Christian democracy, and mentions not at all that Maritain's reading of Thomas Aquinas is critical in understanding how the Second Vatican Council came to many of its conclusions. None of that really matters. The key is that he hung out with gay writers.

Such stereotypes would be denounced as sheer bigotry if they came from a straight man (and would not get reprinted in NCR). Why is Martel given a pass to traffic in them because he is gay? Bigotry is repugnant no matter the source.

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The 'Catholic Church' destroyed files about abuse cases. OK, who did this? Where? Everywhere?

The 'Catholic Church' destroyed files about abuse cases. OK, who did this? Where? Everywhere?

We have some real, live news coming out of the Vatican conference that is focusing on clergy sexual abuse of “children,” and maybe a few other kinds of victims.

It’s big news. But one or two of the most important facts in this story are still missing.

Looking at the coverage, it would appear that these holes are probably not the result of bad or shallow reporting. The holes may be intentional, in terms of a German cardinal’s remarks that were stunning, but also rather vague.

Let’s look at the top of a report in the National Catholic Reporter, which — as I typed this post at mid-day — had the most information in it. You can see the big hole right in the headline: "

Cardinal admits to Vatican summit that Catholic Church destroyed abuse files.

What, precisely, is the “Catholic Church”?

I realize that the Church of Rome is one church, with one leader in the Chair of St. Peter, but — at the level of administration and the supervision of priests — it is actually a complex network of ecclesiastic bureaucracies at the local, national and global levels. Let’s look at the overture in that story. This is long, but essential as journalists look forward:

VATICAN CITY — A top cardinal has admitted that the global Catholic Church destroyed files to prevent documentation of decades of sexual abuse of children, telling the prelates attending Pope Francis' clergy abuse summit Feb. 23 that such maladministration led "in no small measure" to more children being harmed.

In a frank speech to the 190 cardinals, bishops and heads of religious orders taking part in the four-day summit, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx said the church's administration had left victims' rights "trampled underfoot" and "made it impossible" for the worldwide institution to fulfill its mission.

"Files that could have documented the terrible deeds and named those responsible were destroyed, or not even created," said Marx, beginning a list of a number of practices that survivors have documented for years but church officials have long kept under secret.

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Do Catholics have one -- singular -- sexual-abuse crisis? No, the reality is worse than that

Do Catholics have one -- singular -- sexual-abuse crisis? No, the reality is worse than that

We have now — at the Vatican’s clergy sexual abuse meeting — reached a stage in the proceedings that will be familiar to reporters who frequent ecclesiastical meetings of this kind.

After a few headline-friendly opening remarks, there will usually be a long parade of semi-academic speakers who offer complex, nuanced and ultimately unquotable remarks about the topic of the day. As a rule, these papers are written in deep-church code that can only be understood — maybe — by insiders.

Long ago, I covered a U.S. Catholic bishops meeting that included pronouncements on the moral status of nuclear weapons. During one address, the speaker veered into Latin when stating his thesis. At a press conference, I asked the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin if that passage in Latin had been (in my words) a “preemptive strike on American headline writers.” The cardinal smiled and said one word — “yes.”

Try to quote that in a hard-news story.

At the end of things, reporters can expect a formal statement prepared by the powers that be that organized the event. We can also expect some kind of television-friendly rite of repentance.

At this point, it’s probably easier to focus on what is not being said, rather than what the Vatican’s chosen speakers are carefully saying. Also, we can look back into the history of this crisis, in order to anticipate what will end up happening. We did a little of both during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

Pope Francis stated that the goal of this event was to take concrete steps to stop the abuse of “children,” the “little ones.” The church has been rocked by a “pedophilia” crisis, he said.

That’s what was said. Journalist Sandro Magister offered this commentary on what was not said:

… The big no-show was the word “homosexuality.” And this in spite of the fact that the great bulk of the abuse tabulated so far has taken place with young or very young males, past the threshold of puberty.

The word “homosexuality” did not appear in the pope’s inaugural discourse, nor in the 21 “points of reflection” that he had distributed in the hall, nor in the introductory talks by Cardinal Luis Antonio G. Tagle, Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna, and, in the afternoon, Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez

Scicluna on the contrary, when questioned in this regard at the midday press conference, said that “generalizing on a category of persons is never legitimate,” because homosexuality “is not something that predisposes one to sin,” because if anything what causes this inclination is “concupiscence.”

This is consistent with one viewpoint that’s common in the Catholic establishment: This crisis is about pedophilia. Period.

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