Friday Five: Dallas clergy abuse, God and abortion, Colorado hero, 'Whiskeypalians,' Tenn. execution

Friday Five: Dallas clergy abuse, God and abortion, Colorado hero, 'Whiskeypalians,' Tenn. execution

Here’s your periodic reminder that — from “Save Chick-fil-A” legislation to the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandals — the Dallas Morning News sure could use a religion writer.

When police this week raided Diocese of Dallas offices related to allegations of sexual abuse by priests, the Texas newspaper — to which I subscribe — put a team of reporters on it and produced two front-page stories (here and here).

The team included a projects/enterprise writer, two police/crime reporters and a city hall writer/columnist. A Godbeat pro on the team? Sadly, the Dallas Morning News doesn’t have one, despite the importance of religion in that Bible Belt city. (There’s another Page 1 report today, again by a public safety reporter.)

Ironically, the paper’s initial coverage included an opinion piece (“Why it's good Dallas police ran out of patience with the Catholic Diocese on sex abuse”) by metro columnist Sharon Grigsby. Those of a certain age will recall that in the 1990s, Grigsby founded the Dallas Morning News’ award-winning religion section (now defunct) and oversaw a team of six religion writers and editors.

Those were the days!

Turning from the Big D, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Alabama’s passage of a law banning abortion in almost all cases tops the week’s headlines.

Since my post pointing out the holy ghosts in much of the news coverage, the religion angle has received major treatment from the New York Times (here and here) and showed up in The Associated Press’ headline on the state’s governor signing the anti-abortion bill into law.

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There are must-read stories, and then there's this incredible story on 'The search for Jackie Wallace'

There are must-read stories, and then there's this incredible story on 'The search for Jackie Wallace'

Ted Jackson calls the response to his story on "The search for Jackie Wallace" unreal.

Yeah, you might say that.

As of the moment I'm typing this, Jackson's Twitter post sharing the story has been retweeted 127,641 times and received 273,000 likes. 

"This might be the most amazing bit of reporting I've seen in years," veteran religion writer Bob Smietana said in his own tweet. "There are stories that haunt journalists for years. This is one of them."

This is one of those cases where, if you insist, you can keep reading my post. Or, and I promise  you won't hurt my feelings if you choose Option No. 2, you can proceed immediately to the story in question and devour it just like Smietana and I did. It really is that good.

I mean, there are must-read stories, and then there's this incredible tale.

It's a lengthy read but so, so worth it. Here's the nuts-and-bolts summary from the Times-Picayune, the New Orleans newspaper where Jackson worked as a staff photographer for 33 years and won a Pulitzer Prize:

A New Orleans football legend reached the pinnacle of the sport.
Then everything came crashing down.
This is the story of his downfall, redemption — and disappearance.

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New podcast: Breaking bread, while listening for hints of Godtalk, in Waffle House America

New podcast: Breaking bread, while listening for hints of Godtalk, in Waffle House America

To put things in country-music terms, this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to listen to that) is about pain, sorrow, alcohol, divorce, blue-collar families, coffee, hard times, opioids and God.

Oh, and waffles.

If you don't live in Waffle House America, let me explain. We are talking about a chain -- in 25 states -- of old-school, Southern-style dinners that serve breakfast 24/7 and attract large numbers of workers and rural folks who don't work normal schedules.

If you want to laugh about the Waffle House world, you can listen to the country-fried tribute song by Stephen Colbert (a native of South Carolina) and alt-country star Sturgill Simpson, entitled, "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Knuckleheads."

But the podcast isn't really about laughter. It's about the complex issues that affect ministry to many hurting people in this slice of the American people.

My chat with host Todd Wilken focused on my "On Religion" column this week -- which is about a United Methodist pastor in Alabama who is doing some interesting things while trying the reach working-class people. His name is Pastor Gary Liederbach and he uses his local Waffle House as his unofficial office on weekday mornings.

This anecdote sets the tone:

One recent morning, Liederbach sat down at the diner’s middle bar, where the line of side-by-side chairs almost requires diners to chat with waitresses and each other. He didn’t see the empty coffee cup of a rough, 50-something regular whom, as a matter of pastoral discretion, he called “Chuck.”
When Chuck came back inside from smoking a cigarette, he lit into Liederbach with a loud F-bomb, blasting him for taking his seat.


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Anti-clickbait 2.0: Warning! This post asks readers to think about messy life in Russia

Anti-clickbait 2.0: Warning! This post asks readers to think about messy life in Russia

Alas, it's true. As our own Bobby Ross Jr. mentioned earlier today, nothing seems to push readers away from a news-driven blog quicker than headlines about complex stories on the other side of the world.

Well, culture-wars readers on left and right might click to read something about a Pope Francis statement attacking President Donald Trump's refusal to put gender-neutral bathrooms at gateway facilities in a new border wall. Maybe. Just thinking out loud about that one.

So USA Today had an international story the other day that I ran into on Twitter, before I saw coverage of this topic elsewhere. The headline: "Russia parliament votes 380-3 to decriminalize domestic violence."

Now, that's a rather shocking headline, especially when we are talking about a culture that leans toward the authoritarian, to say the least. However, when I read the overture to the piece I found the details a bit more complex and nuanced than I expected.

Russia's parliament voted 380-3 ... to decriminalize domestic violence in cases where it does not cause "substantial bodily harm" and does not occur more than once a year.
The move, which eliminates criminal liability in such cases, makes a violation punishable by a fine of roughly $500, or a 15-day arrest, provided there is no repeat within 12 months. The bill now goes to the rubber-stamp upper chamber, where no opposition is expected. It then must be signed by President Vladimir Putin, who has signaled his support.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists that family conflicts do "not necessarily constitute domestic violence."

Now, I am no expert on Russia. Most of what I know is from books, from other Orthodox believers (my current parish includes more than a few Russians) and from an intense two weeks in Moscow a few days after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union (click here for info on that).

When I read that lede, as opposed to the headline, I immediately had several reactions as a journalist:

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Former Episcopal bishop Heather Cook is off to prison, but who took the financial fall?

Former Episcopal bishop Heather Cook is off to prison, but who took the financial fall?

It certainly appears, at this point, that the sad drama of former Maryland Episcopal bishop Heather Cook is over, at least the public part of this tragedy. She has been sentenced to seven years in prison for killing cyclist Thomas Palermo in a crash in which she was driving while drunk and distracted by the act of texting on her smartphone.

The Baltimore Sun report on the sentencing opens with gripping personal material about Cook and the Palermo family, and it's hard to fault the newspaper's staff for doing that.

But keep that smartphone in mind, because we will come back to it. You see, there was huge news in this story for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and the national Episcopal Church, but the Sun editors elected to bury it deep, deep, deep in the text.

I thought the following, near the top, was the most powerful passage, jumping right into the theodicy -- Where was God? -- angle of the story:

Prosecutors said Cook was far above the legal limit for alcohol and sending a text message as she drove her Subaru Forester in Roland Park on the afternoon of Dec. 27. She struck and killed Palermo, a 41-year-old software engineer and father of two young children, as he enjoyed a ride. She left the scene twice, a fact that weighed on judge Timothy J. Doory.

"Your leaving the scene at that time was more than irresponsibility, it was a decision," Doory said.

Cook, 59, pleaded guilty last month to automobile manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident and other violations.

Patricia Palermo told the court that she had asked God many times why he let her son die -- until she had a revelation.

"God didn't do this," she said. "Heather Cook killed Tom."

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Baltimore Sun still ignoring obvious national Episcopal Church story in its own back yard

Baltimore Sun still ignoring obvious national Episcopal Church story in its own back yard

Obviously, my personal relationship with The Baltimore Sun has changed in the past few weeks.

As I sit here at my home office desk, looking out into an East Tennessee forest, I no longer have a copy of the Sun sitting nearby, retrieved from my front yard. Every few days, I get one of those computer-driven emails from the Sun circulation department proclaiming, "We want you back!" or words to that effect. I filled out my ex-subscriber online feedback form the other day and it was totally about cyber-issues, without a single question on news content.

Nevertheless, I am trying -- sorting through the online summaries and waves of pop-up ads -- to keep up with some of the important, ongoing religion stories in Maryland.

Take, for example, the obvious Baltimore angles in the national Episcopal Church gathering out in Utah. I have been looking for references to two important Episcopalians -- former bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook and current Maryland Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton. You just know that Episcopalians have been talking about the DUI bishop case and the state of legal affairs in Maryland. Right?

The Sun team did, leaning on Associated Press wire copy, run a short story about the election of the church's new presiding bishop, noting a strong Baltimore connection. That little story began like this:

The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, the first African-American to lead an Episcopal diocese in the southerm United States and a former rector in Baltimore, will become the first black presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

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In NYTimes piece, bias against AA is a hard habit to break

In NYTimes piece, bias against AA is a hard habit to break

Sometimes our readers are sharper than us professional word pushers. One of them just dismantled a New York Times feature with the skill of a soldier field-stripping a rifle. The article in question looks at the Center for Motivation and Change, an anti-addiction program that favors secular counseling, therapy and medication. Well and good, as far as that goes.

But the article also notes how CMC shuns the 12-step method of Alcoholics Anonymous. No, more than that. It tries again and again to prove the superiority of the secular method, via biased wording, cherry-picking research and mainly quoting one side.

Again and again, CMC is held up as the enlightened, proven, "evidence-based" approach to kicking substance abuse:

It is part of a growing wing of addiction treatment that rejects the A.A. model of strict abstinence as the sole form of recovery for alcohol and drug users.

Instead, it uses a suite of techniques that provide a hands-on, practical approach to solving emotional and behavioral problems, rather than having abusers forever swear off the substance — a particularly difficult step for young people to take.

And unlike programs like Al-Anon, A.A.’s offshoot for family members, the C.M.C.’s approach does not advocate interventions or disengaging from someone who is drinking or using drugs. “The traditional language often sets parents up to feel they have to make extreme choices: Either force them into rehab or detach until they hit rock bottom,” said Carrie Wilkens, a psychologist who helped found the C.M.C. 10 years ago. “Science tells us those formulas don’t work very well.”

We'll get to that question of how well the CMC works in a moment. For now, let's note the code words of "strict" and "traditional," as if AA and Al-Anon are based on some Amish settlement. Those and other forms of gaming raised the ire of our friend Jean Lahondere.

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