The Charlotte Observer

Friday Five: Wuerl resignation, freed American pastor, Tebow's J-word, Texas accused, Mormon identity

Friday Five: Wuerl resignation, freed American pastor, Tebow's J-word, Texas accused, Mormon identity

Among the religion news breaking today: Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C.

As the Washington Post reports, Wuerl is a “trusted papal ally who became a symbol among many Catholics for what they regard as the church’s defensive and weak response to clerical sex abuse.”

But even in letting Wuerl go, Francis offered him a “soft landing,” as the Post described it.

Stay tuned for more GetReligion analysis of media coverage of that big story.

Another major religion story today: American pastor Andrew Brunson has been released after being detained for two years in Turkey, as Christianity Today reports. Look for more commentary on that news, too.

In the meantime, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Tim Funk’s exceptional Charlotte Observer deep dive into the sordid history of a North Carolina pedophile — a former United Methodist pastor — is my pick for must-read Godbeat story this week.

As I noted in a post earlier this week, Funk’s 5,000-word report “is both conversational in tone and multilayered in terms of the depth of information provided.”

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

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.

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Archbishop Vigano's explosive testimony dismissed as new conservative attack on Pope Francis

Archbishop Vigano's explosive testimony dismissed as new conservative attack on Pope Francis

Just when you think the wheels have come completely off the ongoing Catholic sexual abuse story, it goes to the next level.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal nuncio to the United States, is the author of an 11-page document that is rocking the Roman Catholic world. You may remember him as the official who was ejected from his Washington, D.C. post in 2016 by Pope Francis after he arranged a meeting between the pope and Kim Davis, a former municipal clerk in Kentucky who was fired for refusing to sign marriage licenses to gay couples.

When word got out that Francis had secretly met with her during his September 2015, U.S. visit that year, the Vatican furiously backpedaled on whether Francis backed religious-liberty claims by Davis, and many U.S. bishops. Viganò was eventually removed.

Revenge is a dish best served cold and Viganò waited for an opportune time to strike back. It arrived on June 22, when former Washington Cardinal McCarrick, a Vatican favorite and a Francis confidante, was exposed for being a serial sexual predator. Viganò’s letter was released two months later.

The document is very detailed; it mentions dates and names (which can be easily verified or disproved) and, Viganò assures, all the documents backing him up are at the Vatican and the apostolic nunciature office on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC.

Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, tweeted that the document implicates 17 cardinals (I counted 23), two popes, four archbishops and three bishops.

As tmatt pointed out yesterday, different media are reading this different ways. Still, others at the Times attacked the messenger, portraying it as yet another battle between church liberals and conservatives. 

DUBLIN — On the final day of Pope Francis’ mission to Ireland, as he issued wrenching apologies for clerical sex abuse scandals, a former top Vatican diplomat claimed in a letter published on Sunday that the pope himself had joined top Vatican officials in covering up the abuses and called for his resignation.


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Monday Mix: Reeling Penn parish, un-Celebrity Jimmy Carter, Satan in Arkansas and more

Monday Mix: Reeling Penn parish, un-Celebrity Jimmy Carter, Satan in Arkansas and more

Welcome to the Monday Mix!

What's that? Well, nine months ago, we introduced Friday Five, an end-of-the-week feature highlighting important and interesting links from the world of religion news. Readers have responded positively to that approach.

So today, we add this feature as another avenue to offer quick information and insight, focused on headlines you might have missed from the previous weekend and late in the week. You see, lots and lots of religion news gets published on Saturday and Sunday, when readership of this blog tends to fade a bit (some people go to lots and lots of baseball games, for example).

Frankly, there are times when it's hard to keep up, pointing readers toward some of what comes out over a typical weekend. Thus, we're trying out this new feature.

Please note: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

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What's chewing gum got to do with it? Paper delves into why transgender teen was denied Communion

What's chewing gum got to do with it? Paper delves into why transgender teen was denied Communion

I wrote my first newspaper story about the Roman Catholic Church in 1999 when The Oklahoman assigned me to cover Pope John Paul II's visit to St. Louis.

At the time, I didn't know what a diocese was or the difference between a bishop and a cardinal. I had heard of the pope.

In the nearly two decades since, as I've gained experience in religion reporting, I've become much more familiar with the Catholic Church. Last year, for example, I covered the first beatification Mass for a U.S.-born priest and martyr.

But there's still so much I have to learn.

Such as: I had no idea of this little fact that I learned via a Charlotte Observer story this week:

Canon law — the rules of the Catholic Church — says people who are to receive Communion should fast from food and drink (except water) for at least one hour beforehand.

Interesting, huh?

The reason for the Observer mentioning that requirement is equally compelling and intriguing: Religion writer Tim Funk reports on the question of why a transgender teen was denied Communion. Chewing gum is one of the possibilities.

Funk's lede explains the other possibility:

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Bias flashback: Should religious leaders risk talking to reporters? (A tmatt response)

Bias flashback: Should religious leaders risk talking to reporters? (A tmatt response)

The other day, our own Bobby Ross Jr. wrote a post that included a very strong dose of opinion from a reader. The headline on that post: "Why ignoring a reporter's call probably isn't the best media relations strategy for a religious leader."

As you can tell, this is a topic linked to an assumption, and a safe one at that: Many religious leaders are scared to talk to journalists.

Now, why might that be? Why the fear? Here's that reader comment, once again:

It boggles this Catholic’s mind that you are surprised that any of these pastors would talk to the reporter.

This blog has existed on the premise that the media, by and large, are hostile to any kind of religion. The hero of these pastors, President Trump, paints the press as the enemy rather than a guardian of the people’s right to know. And then you are surprised when that actually manifests itself in the real world.

Ah, what we have here is a failure to communicate.

You see, no one here thinks that the vast majority of news-media pros are "hostile to any kind of religion." To be blunt about it, many journalists don't care enough about religion to work up a decent case of hostility about the subject. Some journalists love some forms of religion and, well, aren't fond of others.

Also, apathy is not hostility. Ignorance is not hostility, either. Some editors are scared to try to cover religion. That isn't hostility, either.

Well, Bobby told readers that I might want to respond at some point. This is rather ironic, since I am currently in Prague, lecturing at the European Journalism Institute at the historic Charles University. My third and final lecture is relevant to this discussion: "The Four Biases that Shape Religion News Coverage."

The quickest way for me to share my thoughts on this complicated topic is to cut and paste a section of an essay that I wrote long, long, long ago for The Quill, published by the Society of Professional Journalists. So here goes.

After nearly two decades of studying this issue, in academic settings and while working in the media, I am convinced four different forms of bias are to blame for this media blind spot.

Update! Make that four-plus decades of studying this issue!

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Jim Bakker plus real estate plus the apocalypse plus zero new reporting equals WHAT?

Jim Bakker plus real estate plus the apocalypse plus zero new reporting equals WHAT?

Jim Bakker likes to build things.

In the old days be built really big things and news consumers with a long attention span will remember how that turned out. Click here for a recent news update.

Today he's building smaller things -- like Ozark cabins for the post-apocalyptic age. Buyers will need lots of Bakker approved religious-home furnishings, of course.

As you would imagine, there are people who want to write about that. The question is whether, in a social-media and Internet journalism age, WRITING about this topic actually requires journalists at a major newspaper in the Midwest to do any new REPORTING, other than with an Internet search engine.

Here's the Kansas City Star headline: "Televangelist Jim Bakker calls his Missouri cabins the safest spot for the Apocalypse." Read this story and count the online and streaming info sources. I'll start you off with the overture:

Televangelist Jim Bakker suggests that if you want to survive the end of days, the best thing you could do is buy one of his cabins in Missouri's Ozark Mountains. And while you're at it, be sure to pick up six 28-ounce "Extreme Survival Warfare" water bottles for $150.

Bakker, 78, made comments promoting his Morningside church community alongside his co-host and wife, Lori, on an episode of "The Jim Bakker Show," which aired Tuesday. The show is filmed there, near Branson.

Then there's a short flashback to the PTL Club days in Charlotte, with no attribution necessary. That's followed by a temptress Jessica Hahn update, care of reporting by The Charlotte Observer a few months ago. Then a bit more history, with no attribution.

Then we're back to information gained by watching the new Bakker show from Branson.

But wait. Read this next part carefully.

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Lessons from the past: Who is building a super-ministry in ruins of Jim Bakker's dream?

Lessons from the past: Who is building a super-ministry in ruins of Jim Bakker's dream?

As a former religion-beat guy in Charlotte, and a veteran of the Jim Bakker and PTL wars of the 1980s (click here for my flashback), I was -- of course -- very interested in The Charlotte Observer's lengthy update on the status of the old Heritage USA.

Here's the totally logical headline on this solid -- but narrow -- feature: "Jim Bakker’s theme park was like a Christian Disneyland. Here’s what happened to it." What's missing? Hold that thought.

As the story notes, Heritage USA was supposed to grow into a kind of Disneyland for charismatic Christians, but things fell apart before the 2,300-acre complex reached the roller coaster ride through heaven and hell stage of development. For those in need of a refresher on why there is this:

Construction had already begun by then on two other mega-projects: A sand castle with a 10-story turret that would house the world’s largest Wendy’s restaurant, and a high-rise hotel to be called Heritage Grand Towers. When finished, reported the Heritage Herald, a weekly newspaper for tourists and those living on the PTL property, the tower’s “elegantly furnished” 500 rooms would include 100 honeymoon suites “for couples who come to Heritage USA to renew their marriages.”
Two months later, Bakker suddenly resigned amid financial and sexual scandal. His plans were scrapped, the ongoing construction halted. Today, three decades after Bakker’s dreams gave way to a nightmarish spell of bankruptcy, lawsuits and prison, many of the magnets that once drew people to Heritage USA are long gone.

The architectural corpse that gets the most attention in this piece -- fittingly enough -- is Bakker's never-finished, never-occupied 21-story tower. It continues its slow decay, while the current owners dream of expanded ministries that sound eerily familiar.

This is the crucial part of the story that I hope Observer editors return to, in depth, in the future. Why? Well, I am biased because this is the part of the story that I kept writing newsroom memos about in the early 1980s, trying to convince editors that there was a national-level story at the foundation of the Bakker scandals.

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Who succeeds Billy Graham? Reporters are all over the map trying to answer that question

Who succeeds Billy Graham? Reporters are all over the map trying to answer that question

Even though it's been three days since Billy Graham died, you'll be hearing more about him for at least one more week. His funeral preparations alone are worthy of a head of state, starting with a 130-mile procession from Asheville to Charlotte, N.C., where he’ll lie “in repose” for two days.

Then he’ll be flown to Washington, DC to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. That’s totally unprecedented for a minister. The most recent private citizen to receive that honor was Civil Rights Movement matriarch Rosa Parks in 2005.

A “private” funeral will be held March 2 back in Charlotte although it’s unknown how private an event for 2,300 invitees can be. 

Along with all the tributes comes the inevitable question that the experts have been asking for decades: Who –- if anyone –- can replace this man? A few publications have already run “what next” articles.

Ed Stetzer, in an opinion piece in USA Today, said replacing Graham in impossible, possibly a snub toward heir-apparent and oldest son Franklin Graham.

In a culture always looking for the "next Michael Jordan" or "the next John Wayne," there will undoubtedly be articles asking who will fill Graham’s shoes, and inherit his legacy. There is no next Billy Graham. There are and will be many effective preachers of the Christian gospel, but Billy Graham’s ministry of influence will forever be unique and unparalleled.

Tim Funk of the Charlotte Observer foresaw this question and tackled it last May. His answer -- care of one of the go-to Graham experts for journalists -- was essentially what Graham himself has been saying for several decades.

“I don’t think any single person will be ‘the next Billy Graham,’ ” says William Martin, author of “A Prophet with Honor,” long considered the definitive biography of Graham. “That’s in part because evangelical Christianity has become so large and multifaceted -- in significant measure because of what Graham did -- that no one person can dominate it, regardless of talent or dedication. It’s just not going to happen.”…

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