Julia Duin

Is Cardinal Pell a perpetrator or victim? Aussie media keep wavering between the two

Is Cardinal Pell a perpetrator or victim? Aussie media keep wavering between the two

Ever since Australia’s Cardinal George Pell was convicted of child abuse, the journalism folks Down Under have been split on if he’s actually guilty or whether he’s the target of a vicious anti-Catholic campaign.

Reaction to his conviction and jailing (the sentencing isn’t until March 13), has rippled across the Pacific, prompting Ethics and Public Policy scholar George Weigel (writing at First Things) to call the Pell affair “our Dreyfus case.”

(Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was a French Jew and a military man who was wrongly pilloried and imprisoned in 1894 on charges of selling secrets to the Germans. He was declared innocent in 1906, but the matter was considered as barbaric anti-Semitism on the part of the French. The conflict tore at the heart of French society.)

I’ll get back to Weigel in a moment but first I want to quote from a piece BBC recently ran on all this.

Cardinal George Pell is awaiting sentencing for sexually abusing two boys in 1996. The verdict, which he is appealing against, has stunned and divided Australia in the past week.

It has sparked strong reactions from the cardinal's most prominent supporters, some of whom have cast doubt on his conviction in a wider attack on Australia's legal system.

The largely conservative backlash features some of Australia's most prominent media figures, a university vice-chancellor and a leading Jesuit academic, among others.

Former prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott also continue to maintain their public support for the ex-Vatican treasurer.

The reporter then reports on her visit to St. Mary’s Cathedral in downtown Sydney where the parishioners predictably claimed that Pell is innocent. The reporter then interviews another journalist who has an obvious vested interest in Pell (notice the book title) being guilty.

Such stances have caused profound hurt to survivors, says ABC journalist Louise Milligan, author of the book Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell.

"I've been contacted by many, many Australian Catholics who are devastated by the way the Church is handling this issue," Milligan told the BBC.

"They are also greatly upset that political leaders continue to side with a convicted paedophile — and that is what Pell is, a convicted paedophile — over his vulnerable victim and the grieving family of his other victim." (One victim died of a drug overdose in 2014.)

The article then swings back to Pell’s defense.

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Of midwives and Mennonites: It pays for journalists to dig deeper when faith is involved

Of midwives and Mennonites:  It pays for journalists to dig deeper when faith is involved

When I lived in Maryland in a Catholic community that took seriously their church’s prohibition against artificial birth control, I knew a lot of women who had babies. Frequent babies. And a number of them were fervent advocates of home births.

They all had their favorite midwives as most had been to a hospital for their first delivery, then swore to never again step foot in an obstetrics ward.

The New York Times and other media have been covering an embattled midwife for a large Mennonite community in New York state’s Finger Lakes region. It’s pretty clear that lots of issues are involved in this story — including religion, clearly including the faith of the woman doing the delivering.

But that topic is strangely absent in the Times story, which starts here:

PENN YAN, N.Y. — For a generation of Mennonite women, Elizabeth Catlin was integral to the most joyous occasions of their lives: the births of their children.

Ms. Catlin was a second mother, they said, a birthing attendant who helped them with prenatal care and then caught their babies during hundreds of natural childbirth deliveries at their homes.

So it was incomprehensible to them that on a recent winter day they were in a courtroom to support Ms. Catlin, who in December had been arrested and charged with four felonies for practicing midwifery in a county about an hour southeast of Rochester.

It was Ms. Catlin’s second arrest: She had been charged the month before in a neighboring county, where the State Police wereinvestigating her possible role in a newborn’s death.

Police said she misrepresented herself as a licensed midwife — a status that requires a master’s degree and completion of an accredited midwifery program. She does, however, have a credential from the Northern American Registry of Midwives, which New York state doesn’t accept.

Ms. Catlin maintains that she served only as a birth attendant because New York does not recognize her midwifery certification. She has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

“My life is ground to a halt,” Ms. Catlin said. “My passion has been taken away.”

Her clients also reject the charge that she distorted her training, and they are making rare public overtures of support, like the courtroom appearance.

“Normally the Mennonites do not speak out — and especially the women don’t — because we’re kind of taught the men are the leaders,” said Kathleen Zimmerman, a 37-year-old mother of eight children, four of whom Ms. Catlin helped to deliver.

Next comes the article’s one nod to religion.

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When covering the United Methodist split, remember that there's two sides -- not one

When covering the United Methodist split, remember that there's two sides -- not one

I’ve been only peripherally observing the United Methodist meltdown of this past week where, unlike any other U.S. denomination that’s debated doctrinal issues related to homosexuality over the past two decades, the conservatives won this round. The key: Church growth in the Global South and declining numbers of key parts of the United States.

So what’s the story? The impact on the winners after this historic St. Louis conference, the views of the losers or both? Under normal circumstances, journalists would say “both.”

Since St. Louis, a flood of articles have, voilà, been published bemoaning the crucial votes and concentrating on the angry, grieving liberals who must decide whether to stick with the denomination or leave to form their own. And it is a tough decision to make.

I know, because I covered a lot of conservative Episcopalians –- and some Lutherans -– who had to exit their denominations, starting with my column about the tornado that hit the Minneapolis Convention Center on the day in August 2009 of a crucial vote by members of Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and how some folks wondered if God was sending a message.

But where were these same articles oozing sympathy when theological conservatives were forced to leave? For instance, look at a recent piece in the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — Chet Jechura was 12 years old when he first felt called to preach, but for years he put off ordination. He knew himself, and he knew the official rules of the United Methodist Church: Homosexuality was “incompatible with Christian teaching.” And so he left the denomination.

Then four years ago, he discovered Foundry United Methodist, a church that has carved a different path. He could sing the hymns of his childhood, be fully supported as a gay man, and finally become a candidate for ordination.

This week, a decision at a global conference for Methodists threatened to upend a lifetime of dreams, with the church voting to strengthen its ban on same-sex marriage and gay and lesbian clergy.

At an impromptu prayer service on Wednesday, as Mr. Jechura helped serve communion, he broke out in sobs, his body convulsing, barely able to stand. The emptiness grew louder with every wail. Friends held him up, wrapping him in their arms…

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Cardinal Pell story is an extremely tangled web, but readers need alternative media to know that

Cardinal Pell story is an extremely tangled web, but readers need alternative media to know that

I hadn’t been following the child abuse charges against Australian Cardinal Pell all that much because I assumed, based on the evidence, that they were somewhat plimsy and would never stick.

But they did — in a series of trials that are as odd as they come. At the heart of the proceedings there was a single witness and what appeared to be “recovered memories” of abuse.

The end result? A cardinal is now in jail and a bunch of journalists have been handed the Aussie equivalent of contempt-of-court charges.

This is a complex story that I’ll do my best to break down, starting with what CruxNow ran in December:

NEW YORK — In a decision that will undoubtedly create shockwaves around the globe, Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Church official to stand trial for sexual abuse, was found guilty on Tuesday by a Melbourne court.

In one of the most closely watched trials in modern Catholic Church history, after nearly four full days of deliberations, a jury rendered unanimous guilty verdicts on five charges related to the abuse of two choirboys in 1996.

The trial, which began on November 7, has been subject to a media blackout at the request of the prosecution, and follows a first trial in September ended after a jury failed to reach consensus.

Pell, who is 77 years old, is currently on a leave of absence from his post as the Vatican’s Secretary for the Economy.

In June 2017, Pell was charged by Australian police with “historical sexual assault offences,” forcing him to leave Rome and return home vowing to “clear his name.”

Technically, CruxNow wasn’t supposed to run that story because of this media blackout, aka a suppression order, that media around the world were supposed to follow. Of course, lots of news sources outside of Australia’s borders refused to go along.

The charges concern a claim that Pell sexually abused two male altar boys about 20 years ago when he was archbishop of Melbourne and that he did so on several occasions following Sunday Mass.

His lawyers have said that Pell was constantly surrounded by other clergy after Mass and there’s not a chance he could have gotten alone with some altar boys. Also, the sexual acts he’s accused of performing are impossible considering the voluminous, complex layers of liturgical vestments he would have been wearing — vestments that require the help of a second cleric to put on and remove.

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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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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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John Chau redux: The Guardian locates slain missionary's angry dad and several crucial facts

John Chau redux: The Guardian locates slain missionary's angry dad and several crucial facts

John Chau, the young American missionary who died last fall while trying to convert the hostile natives on an island in the Andaman Sea east of India, caused quite a lot of international comment after he passed.

Most media moved on, eventually, but three months after the fact, the Guardian has come out with a late obituary that includes an interview with Chau’s father. Until now, Chau’s parents, who are based in Vancouver, Wash., have remained silent.

Finally, one journalist got the dad to talk.

When Chau’s death became international news, many Christians were keen to disavow his actions; Chau’s father believes the American missionary community is culpable in his son’s death. John was an “innocent child”, his father told me, who died from an “extreme” vision of Christianity taken to its logical conclusion.

All Nations, the evangelical organization that trained Chau, described him as a martyr. The “privilege of sharing the gospel has often involved great cost”, Dr Mary Ho, the organization’s leader, said in a statement. “We pray that John’s sacrificial efforts will bear eternal fruit in due season.”

Ho also told news organizations that Chau had received 13 immunizations, though Survival International, an indigenous rights group, disputes that these would have prevented infection of the isolated Sentinelese people. The Sentinelese, hunter-gatherers who inhabit North Sentinel Island in the Andaman island chain, are considered one of the Earth’s last uncontacted peoples; their entire tribe is believed to number several dozen people.

Why is the Guardian telling this story so late in the game?

The reporter explains that it took awhile to dig the truth up. J. Oliver Conroy is a New York-based writer whose major topics are “ US politics, the far right, religion, Donald Trump, US crime.”

After talking with people who knew him, and delving into the blogposts, diary writings, photos, and social media he left behind, a complicated picture emerges.

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How the mighty are fallen: Press should keep asking about 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick's secrets

How the mighty are fallen: Press should keep asking about 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick's secrets

The ongoing demolition of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick came to a head last weekend as the Vatican announced that he was being defrocked — an action that didn’t surprise anyone.

Big questions remain, of course. They are the same questions your GetReligionistas and lots of other people have been asking for months. Who promoted McCarrick? Who protected him, as reports about his private affairs circulated for years? And finally, who did McCarrick promote, in his role as a powerbroker in U.S. Catholic life?

Rocco Palmo, wizard of the Whispers in the Loggia blog had one of the better summations of what the issues are. Gone are the days, he wrote, when clergy sexual involvement with adults, ie the seminarians McCarrick preyed upon, were dismissed by the higher-ups.

“(Such) acts with adults are listed among the graviora delicta (grave crimes) warranting McCarrick's dismissal – specifically "with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power" – represents a massive sea-change in the church's handling of allegations beyond those involving minors, one which could well have significant ramifications going forward, both in Rome and at the local level.

With his laicization now imposed, McCarrick – a particular favorite of Popes John Paul II and Francis alike – loses all the titles, responsibilities and privileges of a priest and hierarch, except for one emergency role: namely, the faculty to absolve a person in imminent danger of death. As for his descriptor going forward, he should be referred to as "the dismissed cleric Theodore McCarrick," with the ranks or offices he once held only used after his name to reflect that they no longer apply.

Given his dismissal, it remains to be seen whether the now-former cleric will keep his residence at the Capuchin friary in Kansas where Francis ordered McCarrick to live in prayer and penance pending the outcome of Rome's investigation; as a result of today's decree, the onetime cardinal is no longer bound by obedience to his now-former superior.

That does bring up an interesting possibility; what if McCarrick decided to slip his bonds and walk away?

McCarrick’s hometown paper, the Washington Post, had quite the busy day on Feb. 16, producing a trifecta of pieces.

This story by the newspaper’s Rome bureau chief was first out of the gate:

The top part of the piece was mostly material we’ve heard before but further down was this note:

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Medium wants to know: Can Mormon transhumanists revitalize the Latter-day Saints?

Medium wants to know: Can Mormon transhumanists revitalize the Latter-day Saints?

When Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, decided to tell the world that the National Enquirer was blackmailing him with nude photos, he turned to the blog platform Medium to tell the world about it.

Everyone, from Mashable to USA Today asked why someone worth $150 billion would self-publish not in the Washington Post, which he owns.

Instead, he turned to a humble (but neutral) place that’s accessible to everyone and anyone. I joined Medium a month ago — after perusing it for over a year — because the writing was about unusual topics with unique angles. There isn’t an army of editors going over the prose; what you see is raw copy straight from the writer’s laptop.

As it turns out, I’m not writing about Bezos, but I am writing about a recent piece on Medium about Mormon transhumanists, whatever they may be. Fellow GetReligionista Dick Ostling has written about them before, but some things bear repeating.

Mormons are the opposite of cafeteria Catholics. Instead of a pick-and-choose religion of faith du jour, they inhabit a closed system with a unique holy book and scriptures; certain beliefs that only they own and a place as the preeminent American-founded religion. Its legends and history are uniquely that of the Western hemisphere.

Before we start, please note the author isn’t just any old pajama-clad writer wannabe. Erin Clare Brown has worked for the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. although her stint with the Times lasted only seven months. Whatever. (See here for a piece on Nordic Mormons she wrote for the WSJ three years ago). Her Linked-In account mentions she is a former Mormon missionary to the Russia, which explains her insight into these folks.

The piece starts with an anecdote by Michaelann Bradley, a young woman who was having a crisis of faith and had drifted from her Latter-day Saint roots.

In 2013, Bradley met her future husband, Don, at an academic scripture study group. He was a thoughtful historian 18 years her senior whose own faith in the LDS Church had been shaken years before. Many of their early dates were to “Mormon-adjacent gatherings,” Bradley said, so she hardly batted an eye when Don invited her to a meeting of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. He billed it as a group of thoughtful folks tackling slightly different ideas about Mormonism. “I thought he meant ‘transcendentalist,’” Bradley told me. “I came prepared to talk about Thoreau.”

The meeting was as far from Walden as the moon or a terraformed Mars. Held in a local tech entrepreneur’s basement, it was a philosophical free-for-all of ideas that were closer to science fiction than scripture. The 10 other attendees — all male, all white, all in their 20s and 30s, and mostly with backgrounds in computer science or the tech world — batted around theories that reframed deeply held Mormon beliefs, like the notion that “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become,” in terms of cryonics and the singularity. They quoted futurists in the same breath as Latter-day Saint Apostles and Carl Sagan. They asked whether we could become like God through technology — could we live forever now and not just after we die?

Taking certain Mormon beliefs to their logical conclusion, I’m guessing.

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