From award-winning religion writer, a primer on how to tell a difficult story about a pedophile

Dear young journalists (and old ones, too): Want insight on how to report and tell an extremely difficult story?

Check out Charlotte Observer religion writer Tim Funk’s in-depth feature on the daughters of a pedophile pastor. Funk, a veteran Godbeat pro, was among the winners in the Religion News Association’s 2018 annual contest. His latest gem might well win him accolades again next year.

The 5,000-word piece (don’t let that count scare you; it reads much shorter) is both conversational in tone and multilayered in terms of the depth of information provided.

Funk’s compelling opening immediately sets the scene:

Their crusade began when Amanda Johnson visited the church of her childhood and saw a picture of her father on the wall.

She froze in fear, and felt the blood draining from her face. Then, she told the Observer, “I literally ran back to the car.”

For five years, she didn’t tell her older sister, Miracle Balsitis, who had asked her family not to mention her father’s name or any news about him.

But earlier this year, when Johnson found out from a friend that the photo was still on the wall, she finally told her sister.

Balsitis was shocked. Didn’t Matthews United Methodist Church know that Lane Hurley, their father and the church’s former pastor, was in prison because of child sex abuse crimes committed three years after he left the Matthews church?

Why, the sisters asked themselves, would a framed photo of him still be hanging next to pictures of other past clergy in a place of honor reserved for what a nearby plaque called “The Faces of Spiritual Leadership”?

The two sisters had left the Charlotte area 24 years ago — Balsitis, 39, now lives in California; Johnson, 35, in Kernersville.

They decided it was time to confront Matthews United Methodist about the picture.

After that lede, Funk immediately jumps back in time — all the way to 1984 — and starts at the beginning. Grab a cup of coffee (or if you’re like me, a Diet Coke) and settle in for a riveting, revealing read.

It really helps to know that this is a story about a pastor who was both prominent and successful. In other words, the stakes were high for the denomination’s leaders. And the people in the pews had lots of reasons to look the other way. Consider this:

Matthews United Methodist was still a small suburban church in downtown Matthews when the Rev. Lane Hurley, then 35, arrived as the new senior pastor in 1984.

When he left 10 years later, the Observer reported at the time, the church had nearly tripled its membership to more than 2,600, was in the midst of spending $7.5 million to build a new campus, and was drawing more than 1,200 people on Sundays — then, the highest average attendance at any United Methodist church in the Western North Carolina conference.

Hurley was handsome and debonair, said his then-boss, the Rev. Don Haynes, adding that some in the congregation “worshiped the ground he walked on.”

But then came the rumors of affairs with women and strange calls to his home. There was a giant stash of porn.

Here’s what I appreciated about the piece, besides the writing style that made me want to keep going: Funk did his homework.

He didn’t simply interview the daughters and rely on their version of events and memories of what happened.

He checked the court records. He asked for firsthand documents, such as a copy of a letter the father wrote in 1994. When records were withheld, he noted it:

Current leaders of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church refused the Observer’s request to view its decades-old file on Hurley. But the Rev. Amy Coles, assistant to Bishop Paul Leeland, told the newspaper recently that, in his letter surrendering his credentials, Hurley cited his “failure to keep my marriage covenant and my ordination vows.”

Funk did something else: He searched the Observer’s archives and compared what was reported then with what is being said now — some of it conflicting with the quotes the pastor gave the paper at the time.

Moreover, besides the daughters, he interviewed all the other relevant sources he could find, from other family members to church officials to the father’s attorney. And yes, by the end, Funk rewards readers who stick around after the opening cliffhanger.

Kudos to Funk and the Observer for a fine piece of journalism on the religion beat.

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