Father Rodgers, who are you?
The San Diego Union Tribune should have asked that.
He's a Catholic priest, if you go by some of his latest coverage, picketing a church over a voters' guide. But what kind of Catholic? Some media don’t seem to ask further.
And it matters.
Take the San Diego Union Tribune, which wrote up the protest:
A Catholic priest and handful of picketers gathered outside an Old Town Catholic church Saturday to protest church messages linking presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to Satan and warning that voting Democrat is a mortal sin.
Father Dermot Rodgers of St. Peter of Rome Roman Catholic Mission in Allied Gardens wore a priest’s robe and held a hand-lettered sign saying, "Separation of Church and State."
He and four like-minded men and women, including two of his parishoners, stood in front of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church on San Diego Avenue amid church-goers and puzzled tourists.
They sparked spirited sidewalk debate on whether a flyer inserted in a bulletin at the church last month should have taken a political position that "It is a mortal sin to vote Democrat" and anyone who died in that state would immediately "descend into hell."
Granted, it's a story guaranteed to get readers, viewers and social media clicks, and it's gotten plenty of coverage. Immaculate Conception raised eyebrows in allowing a bulletin insert to decree someone's eternal destiny by his/her vote. And Union Tribune carefully checks with local church leaders: "The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego said it does not support the views printed in the church’s bulletins, and that the flyer was inserted without the knowledge of its priest, the Rev. Richard Perozich."
But the paper left hanging a couple of obvious questions. For one, why would a priest picket someone else's parish? And more importantly, as I first asked: Who is Father Dermot Rodgers? And what is his relation to the Catholic Church?
That last lapse annoyed one of our Faithful Readers, who shared with us his letter to the newspaper.
"The Diocese also should have been asked about Rodgers' status," Faithful Reader said. "Your story's headline and opening words give the impression that Rodgers is a Catholic priest who is going after a priest and parish of his own diocese."
Could the newspaper have thought of that? Maybe, if it checked the list of parishes in the San Diego Diocese and found Rodgers' church isn't there. You also can't find Rodgers among the diocesan priests.
The Times of San Diego must have done some checking. It calls St. Peter of Rome an "independent parish, which isn’t connected with the Diocese of San Diego." The NBC outlet in San Diego, too, said Rodgers' church is "not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego."
The Union Tribune should have known better, because Rodgers has played this card before -- the social issues card, which would grab the interest of mainstream media that normally shun church openings. As I noted in 2015, he got the city's Fox TV outlet to publicize his new church for people "from all walks of life, including divorcees, remarried people, the LGBTQ community and female ordained priests."
Rodgers, in fact, has done some trekking. He left the mainstream Catholic Church in 2007 for the Independent Catholic Movement, then joined the Evangelical Catholic Church six years later. And he's apparently still moving: The ECC says it now has no churches in the southwestern United States, which, of course, includes the San Diego area.
I found all of this in a couple of hours online, with no specialized databases. Reporters on the scene probably could have found out faster just by asking Rodgers. Assuming, of course, they cared to know.
Sure, Rodgers can call himself Catholic. As I wrote last year, it's a favorite label with a lot of splinter groups like American Catholics, Reformed Catholics and the Old Catholic Church. But reporters can't assume even that someone speaks for the Vatican-led fold just because he says he's Roman Catholic. That would be like quoting somebody about Florida beaches because he's from Miami County, Ohio.
What a source says, after all, is only part of the story. You also need to make clear by what authority he speaks -- what organization he speaks for. The old reporter's rule "Consider the source" is just another version of "Who are you?"