It has always been hard for religion-beat pros to convince editors to open the newsroom checkbook to back coverage of a story on the other side of the country or somewhere on the other side of the world. It's even harder today, with the horrifying economic crisis that shaking newsrooms in the age of Facebook, Google and the digital advertising pirates.
The key is to be able to link an event to a really big, really hot topic in the news. Why? That's one of the big ideas in this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.
Let's cut to the chase: Newsroom managers! Who wants to say "Yes!" to sending a skilled religion-beat professional to cover the Vatican's World Meeting of Families, which will be held Aug. 21-26 in Dublin, Ireland?
Yes, Pope Francis will be there. But it also helps to know that this gathering -- "The Gospel of the Family, Joy for the World" -- is being run by the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. Note that ecclesiastical office is led by Cardinal Kevin Farrell. That's a name that has been in the news quite a bit because of he is the former auxiliary bishop of Washington, D.C., where he served alongside his mentor Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
Editors should note that this is "Uncle Ted" -- the cardinal at the heart of the current firestorm about accusations that he sexually abused young boys and teens, as well as decades worth of seminarians and young priests.
This is the same cardinal who has been given credit for helping several other U.S. Catholic leaders -- in addition to Cardinal Farrell -- win their red hats. This is the same Cardinal McCarrick who, in a remarkable speech in 2013, described his (wink, wink) behind-the-scenes role in helping elect Pope Francis.
Hey editors: Need another news hook before you write that check?
One of the major topics at this conference will be how the church relates to young people. It's hard to imagine that decades worth of scandals linked to clergy abuse of children and teens will not be discussed. That sounds like a news hook, to me.
Also, the keynote address on that subject will be given by one of the most mainstream media-friendly figures in Catholicism today -- Father James Martin. He is best known, at the moment, as author of the controversial book "Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity."
In a press conference about the Dublin event, the subject of this Jesuit's keynote was described as how "parishes can support families with members who identify as LGBTI+.” That sounds newsworthy, especially during the current firestorm about McCarrick (which Martin addressed in an essay at the journal America).
The key to the whole McCarrick story is that names and dates are now surfacing that make it clear that Catholics have -- yes, behind the scenes -- been making accusations about abuse by this priest, bishop, archbishop and then cardinal since 1994 or even earlier. Clergy and laypeople urged Rome not to move him to Washington, D.C., where he would be one of America's most important Catholic voices, including on policies linked to sexual abuse. Rome was warned not to give this man a red hat.
It's also crucial that McCarrick has been accused of being an abuser on all three levels -- in terms of the ages of the victims -- of this scandal. In a recent post, I described these sins and crimes as follows:
Level I: Pedophilia -- The sexual abuse of prepubescent children. These cases have received the most news coverage.
Level II: Ephebophilia -- The widespreed sexual abuse of under-aged children and teens.
Level III: The sexual harassment and abuse of adults, often young seminarians.
While the accusations stacked up, McCarrick kept rising -- becoming one of the most powerful Catholic leaders in America and the world, a man at the hub of a network that helped other clergy climb the ladder of Catholic power. And he was so popular with the press that, during big events in Rome, the journalists who swirled around him were called "Team Ted."
So how will concerned Catholics and other news consumers know that Rome -- oh, and news-media leaders as well -- are serious about this latest chapter in the ongoing horror story of clergy sexual abuse? What will it take to get a full, candid investigation of the McCarrick saga, with the reports shared with Catholics and the press?
Well. let's see how many journalists -- television networks, even -- show up to cover the World Meeting of Families. Let's see what Pope Francis, Cardinal Farrell and Father Martin have to say when they are asked tough questions.