Donald Cozzens

Catholic beat memo: Fuzzy math and the quest to estimate the number of gay priests

Catholic beat memo: Fuzzy math and the quest to estimate the number of gay priests

There is an old newsroom saying that I have found often holds true: journalist + math = correction.

This comical equation exemplifies how often people working in newsrooms just get math wrong in their stories. From polls and surveys to trying to quantify something by way of statistics, most reporters and editors find themselves befuddled — even fooled — by numbers.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been, especially in recent years, a large number of data journalists who excel in using math in their storytelling. Overall, that remains a small number. At least, I have found that to be the case anecdotally given my circle of former colleagues who work as general assignment reporters and news editors at mainstream news outlets.

What does math have to do with the Catholic church? Well, a lot if you’re trying to quantify how many priests are gay.

These days, the story about how much homosexuality has permeated the church at all levels — from cardinals and archbishops down to parish priests — remains very much a topic of much news coverage. Just how many men in the Catholic clergy are gay? Depends who you ask and who you read. Here’s where the math can be very fuzzy, a cautionary tale to anyone covering the events of this week and the sex-abuse scandal going forward.

The scandal remains very much in the news. The defrocking of former Cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick and the upcoming Vatican’s sex-abuse summit means rehashing many past allegations, a slew of fresh ones and lots of fuzzy math. If the 2016 presidential election taught us anything, it is that polls and surveys are often not to be trusted.

Journalists keep trying to do the math. In April 2017, Slate put the number of gay U.S. priests somewhere from 15 to 50 percent, which the article points out is “much greater than the 3.8 percent of people who identify as LGBTQ in the general population.” The 15 percent the article cites comes from a 2002 poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times. The 50 percent figure comes from a figure from the same year, reported by USA Today, as coming from “some church experts estimate.”

The article doesn’t elaborate — a great example of how a number not given proper context or sourcing can be repeated without hesitation by journalists, thanks to searches with Google or LexisNexis.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

No 'Crossroads' podcast: So tune in a tmatt alternative, talking Catholic wars with Metaxas

No 'Crossroads' podcast: So tune in a tmatt alternative, talking Catholic wars with Metaxas

The long and the short of it: There is no "Crossroads" podcast this week, because one of our key partners at Lutheran Public Radio has this week off.

It happens. Even clergy/radio pros need a break every now and then.

However, the news coverage of the current uptick in the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis rolls on. Recently, I ended up offering a high-altitude overview of that topic in an on-air conversation with author and radio host Eric Metaxas. This took place while I was in New York City for my latest set of journalism classes at The King's College in lower Manhattan.

The key to this discussion is the question that I hear all the time in conversations with readers, friends and even people I bump into everywhere from my church in the Oak Ridge, Tenn., to hole-in-the-wall food joints in New York.

That question: What is this story really all about? The problem is that different crowds of people are shouting different answers to that question.

(1) There are some conservative Catholics who keep shouting, "It's gay priests! It's gay bishops! It's gay cardinals!" That isn't the main issue, when you look at the big picture.

(2) There are Catholics on the other side who are saying: "This is about pedophilia -- period -- and things aren't perfect, but we're getting this horrible problem under control." In other words, it's time for more grief, but no fundamental changes. And don't talk about seminaries!

(3) Lots and lots of people in the press (click here for a rather over-the-top example) who seem convinced that this whole mess is the result of homophobic right-wing Catholics who oppose this pope's efforts to modernize the church and some of its moral theology (see answer No. 1). Hey, I hear that Steve Bannon may even be in the mix.

(4) Many observers say that the real news story right now centers on ex-cardinal Theodore "Uncle Ted" McCarrick and the network of associates and disciples who have promoted and protected him for several decades.

Ok, Ok. Yes, that's my take of the current crisis, narrowly defined. And that's what I explained in my conversation with Metaxas. Click here to tune that in.

So why listen, if you have kept up with the hurricane of posts on this topic here at GetReligion?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The must-cover 'Big Ideas' at heart of the complex Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis

The must-cover 'Big Ideas' at heart of the complex Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis

First we had the tsunami of clergy sexual-abuse news linked to the life and times of former cardinal Theodore "Uncle Ted" McCarrick.

Now we have a second wave of digital ink following the devastating -- especially for those who had not followed this scandal for nearly four decades -- Pennsylvania grand-jury report (full .pdf here). 

After the report, there was an obvious story that had to be covered.

Priests from coast to coast had to face their people in Sunday Mass. What would they say? How would people react? This was one Sunday when it was clear that editors had to tell a reporter to go to church and take careful notes.

Ah, but which church? And, once again, journalists faced horrifying questions about which details to publish, drawn from this vision of clerical hell. After all, some of the crucial details were clearly X-rated. Others were sure to bring down the wrath of activists -- those inside and outside these newsrooms -- with axes to grind linked to this explosive topic (sex with children, teens and seminarians).

Thus, the world's most powerful newsroom, the one that editors nationwide look to for editorial guidance, did its own version of the "angry Catholics at Mass" story. We are talking about The New York Times, of course. Here is the overture. Please read carefully:

Some Catholic priests offered fiery homilies, telling parishioners their anger at the sex abuse detailed in last week’s grand jury report was justified, even necessary. Others asked the faithful to pray for the abusers. And some said nothing about the scandal on the first Sunday since the release of the report that detailed 70 years of child sex abuse by hundreds of priests in Pennsylvania.

Regular worshipers at Sacred Heart Church in Lyndhurst, N.J., and visitors from around the globe at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue packed the pews and listened intently to what church leaders had to say about the sex abuse revelations that continue to pain Catholics and haunt the church.

Church leaders found themselves in a difficult but sadly familiar position, as they faced their congregations. Except this time they grappled with the unique breadth and horrific details outlined in a grand jury report that ran for nearly 900 pages. The report accused 300 priests of abusing more than 1,000 victims and cataloged ghastly assaults, like that of a priest who raped a young girl in a hospital after she had her tonsils removed.

Now, flash back a few days to an earlier post: "A time for anger? Some Catholic bishops worked hard to limit exposure of their sins and crimes." This post focused on the very first Times article reacting to the grand-jury text.

Please respect our Commenting Policy