gay priests

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.

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Once again, Pope Francis fails to make headlines (with conservative words on sex)

Once again, Pope Francis fails to make headlines (with conservative words on sex)

As a rule, controversial statements by the Pope of Rome tend to make news.

As a rule, controversial statements by the current occupant of the throne of St. Peter make news.

Do I really need to note that, as a rule, controversial statements by Pope Francis about sexuality almost always inspire headlines in major news sources?

With that in mind, raise your cyber-hand (leave a comment even) if you have read the following information reported in a mainstream news source in the past few days — especially in elite media, either printed on dead-tree pulp or in any electronic form.

Meanwhile, the following is from the Catholic News Service, as printed in the conservative National Catholic Register:

“The issue of homosexuality is a very serious issue that must be adequately discerned from the beginning with the candidates, if that is the case. We have to be exacting. In our societies it even seems that homosexuality is fashionable and that mentality, in some way, also influences the life of the Church,” the Pope says in the book The Strength of a Vocation, set to be released Dec. 3 in 10 languages.

In an excerpt from the book, released Friday by Religión Digital, the Pope said he is concerned about the issue of evaluating and forming people with homosexual tendencies in the clergy and consecrated life.

“This is something I am concerned about, because perhaps at one time it did not receive much attention,” he said.

Francis said that with candidates for the priesthood or religious life “we have to take great care during formation in the human and affective maturity. We have to seriously discern, and listen to the voice of experience that the Church also has. When care is not taken in discerning all of this, problems increase. As I said before, it can happen that at the time perhaps they didn't exhibit [that tendency], but later on it comes out.”

“The issue of homosexuality is a very serious issue that must be adequately discerned from the beginning with the candidates, if that is the case,” the Pope reiterated.

Wait, there is more to this nuanced, but still newsworthy, statement.

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'Geographic solution' for predators? Hide bad priests in parishes with lots of immigrants

'Geographic solution' for predators? Hide bad priests in parishes with lots of immigrants

Back in my Denver days in the late 1980s, I started work on a large project that, at first, was viewed with great favor by my editors at The Rocky Mountain News (RIP).

The starting point: The city included several growing Protestant churches, evangelical and Pentecostal, that were attracting many, many Hispanic believers. As you would expect, it didn’t take long to realize that most of them were former Roman Catholics or were the children of former Roman Catholics.

The goal was to report (a) why this was happening and (b) how this affected life inside large, extended families of Hispanics who now worshipped in radically different sanctuaries.

After a week or two of work, we dropped that first goal — because one of the most common answers was raising lots of questions that made editors uncomfortable.

Yes, many people were leaving the Catholic church for predictable reasons, from their point of view. They thought the preaching in evangelical/Pentecostal churches was stronger and “more biblical.” They liked the thriving Sunday schools for their children and youth programs for teens. They liked the contemporary church music, blending folk, pop and Latino themes.

But I kept hearing one more thing in many interviews: They wanted married pastors.

I would ask: “Married? Why was this so important?” Some were reluctant to discuss the details, but some were blunt: Their parishes were being sent too many gay priests. There were rumors and tensions. People were not sure they could trust the church. I kept hearing: Pastors should have wives and children of their own.

I wrote the divided-families story, but editors shied away from the “married” pastors angle.

I thought of that story when I heard about this strong National Public Radio report: “Immigrant Communities Were the ‘Geographic Solution’ to Predator Priests.”

Let me stress again (see this recent post) that there is fierce debate among Catholics over whether these two hot-button topics — large numbers of gay priests and decades of scandals linked to the abuse of teens and also prepubescent children — are connected. Many activists on the Catholic left and right salute the work of priests who wrestle with same-sex orientation, while living celibate lives and defending church doctrines on sexuality.

Here is the NPR overture:

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What are the odds of this Catholic clergy abuse study receiving some elite ink?

What are the odds of this Catholic clergy abuse study receiving some elite ink?

The next gathering of the U.S. Catholic bishops is only days away.

Obviously, the topic of clergy sexual abuse of teens and children is going to get lots and lots of attention from the press. There is the outside chance that the bishops may also talk — thinking about Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick about the abuse of seminarians and young priests by those who have power over them.

Thus, reporters are looking for stories right now — new information about these issues to serve as background for what is ahead.

So, the other day I sent a URL to some Catholics in journalism. The massive double-decker headline proclaims:

Is Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse Related to Homosexual Priests?

An interview with sociologist Father Paul Sullins, whose new study documents a strong linkage between the incidence of abuse and homosexuality in the priesthood and in seminaries.

One reporter’s reply went something like this: I predict this study will not be covered by The New York Times.

That’s a #DUH comment. For starters, check out this conservative priest’s mini-bio at The Ruth Institute. Spot any landmines?

Dr. Paul Sullins has a Ph.D. in sociology and is recently retired from teaching at the Catholic University of America. He is a married Catholic priest, and has written a book on that subject, Keeping the Vow: The Untold Story of Married Catholic Priests.

My question here is not whether this sociologist’s study — combining material from several different sources — is beyond debate. I am well aware that many Catholics will debate his conclusions.

That’s my point. The question is whether this study deserves mainstream press overage AND DEBATE.

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AP digs into 'gay priests' wars, starting with views of 'moderate' Father James Martin

AP digs into 'gay priests' wars, starting with views of 'moderate' Father James Martin

First things first: Let me point readers to a must-watch video feature that will be taking place in real time in an hour or so after this post.

At 2:45 p.m. Eastern Time, veteran Washington Post religion reporter will take part in a streaming video session focusing on the Pennsylvania grand jury report on Catholic Church sex abuse. Watch here: Watch here: https://www.twitch.tv/washingtonpost

Then, at 3:30 p.m. ET, Post editor Marty Baron will take part. The Post PR email said he will be talking about the "Boston Globe reporting and present day accountability in the Catholic Church." Baron was, of course, editor of the Globe during it's famous "Spotlight" project on clergy sexual abuse.

The Post media team said that video clips will be available -- hopefully on YouTube -- after the live stream.

Now, back to business. Needless to say, readers saw the Associated Press report that ran all over the place with headlines similar to this one, from Religion News Service: "Cardinal McCarrick scandal inflames debate over gay priests."

Yes, your GetReligionistas saw it, too. In fact, you would not believe the amount of email I am getting (lots of nasty "spiked" comments board stuff, as well) about how the mainstream editors and even GetReligion folks have downplayed the "gay priests are the problem" angle in this story.

It is certainly true that some elite newsrooms don't want to investigate the issue of sexually active gay priests -- period. However, as I stressed the other day, There are crucial voices on the Catholic left and right who agree that the "non-celibate gay priests" angle has to be seen in a larger, more complex context.

Please allow me to repeat my summary on that subject, included in a post the other day with this headline: "The must-cover 'Big Ideas' at heart of the complex Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis." I do this because I think that this is the clearest statement I have made, so far, on journalism about this hot-button topic:

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Is it big news these days when a Catholic priest announces that he is gay?

Is it big news these days when a Catholic priest announces that he is gay?

Sometimes the biggest problem we here at GetReligion have with a piece is not so much what’s said but what’s left out.

A good example is a piece that appeared in USA Today nearly a week ago about a gay priest that came out to his Milwaukee parish.

The story was originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee is known as a liberal diocese, home to former Archbishop Rembert Weakland, a social justice pioneer who came out as gay in 2009

Thus, a story about another priest in this archdiocese announcing he’s gay may not be as big a shock, as, say, a priest making a similar announcement in Lincoln, Neb., arguably the country’s most conservative diocese.

The Rev. Gregory Greiten told his congregation Sunday, "I am Greg. I am a Roman Catholic priest. And, yes, I am gay!"

The priest in the Milwaukee Archdiocese serves as the pastor of St. Bernadette Parish. On Monday, he came out to the rest of the world with a column in the National Catholic Reporter. He received a standing ovation from his parishioners when he made his announcement before the column's publication. 

Greiten said he was breaking the silence of gay men in the clergy so he could reclaim his own voice. 

While it is established that there are gay men who serve as priests, it is rare for a priest to come out to his congregation in this way. Greiten shares an estimate in his article that there are between 8,554 and 21,571 gay Catholic priests in the United States from "The Changing Face of the Priesthood." Church theology teaches that acting upon homosexuality is a sin. 

What the article doesn’t add at this point is there’s 37,192 Catholic clergy in the United States. So, if you use the higher estimate, that’s 58 percent of all Catholic priests. The lower number is 22 percent. Thus, the typical Catholic should expect that one out of every four priests they meet are gay, right?

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