seminaries

Whistleblower priests and seminarians are finally talking to reporters, but suffering major consequences

Whistleblower priests and seminarians are finally talking to reporters, but suffering major consequences

Back in the days when I was digging around after rumors about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s rumored sexual predations, I’d run into priests and laity who told me about all of the dark secrets that they knew. But they didn’t want to go public because, for the priests, it was a career-ender to spill the church’s dirty secrets.

Most, like Robert Hoatson, a New Jersey priest, were simply pushed out. Only now is he being vindicated.

But some even told me they were afraid of being killed. One former employee for the Archdiocese of Washington said that if she told me everything she knew, she’d end up at the bottom of the Potomac attached to some concrete blocks.

She insisted that she wasn’t joking.

Back in 2004, I wrote in the Washington Times of the fate of whistleblower Father James Haley, who went public with some really nasty goings-on in the Diocese of Arlington, Va. Haley was kicked out of the diocese and to this day lives in ecclesiastical exile. No other bishop would touch him. I wrote about him and another whistleblower, Father Joseph Clark in 2008. Clark, who was forced into retirement, gave me this haunting quote:

"The political reality is that Rome doesn't like to go against its bishops. If there is some question as to the virtue of your bishops, the whole house crumbles. The local 7-Eleven clerk has gotten more protection than I receive. Justice in the church is supposed to supersede that in the civil quarter, but that didn't happen."

So I was glad to see how the Washington Post recently ran this story about whistleblower seminarians and how — despite all the recent headlines about corruption among U.S. bishops — they are often forced out the door.

As the GetReligion team has stressed for several years now, everything begins with this word — seminary.

The text from Stephen Parisi’s fellow seminarian was ominous: Watch your back.

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Praying to plants: Twitter explodes when Union Seminary holds one of its interfaith rites

Praying to plants: Twitter explodes when Union Seminary holds one of its interfaith rites

Yes, this was click-bait heaven.

Yes, this was an oh-so-typical Twitter storm.

Yes, this was a perfect example of a “conservative story,” in a niche-news era in which social-media choirs — conservative in this case — send up clouds of laughs, jeers and gasps of alleged shock in response to some online signal.

I am referring, of course, to that climate-change confession service that happened at Union Theological Seminary, which has long been a Manhattan Maypole for the doctrinal dances that incarnate liberal Protestant trends in America.

It’s important to note that the spark for this theological fire was an official tweet from seminary leaders. Here is the top of a Washington Examiner story about the result:

Students at Union Theological Seminary prayed to a display of plants set up in the chapel of the school, prompting the institution to issue a statement explaining the practice as many on social media mocked them.

"Today in chapel, we confessed to plants," the nation's oldest independent seminary declared Tuesday on Twitter. "Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?"

The ceremony, which is part of professor Claudio Carvalhaes’ class “Extractivism: A Ritual/Liturgical Response,” drew ridicule from many on Twitter, some of whom accused the seminary and students of having lost their minds.

OK, let’s pause for a moment to ask a journalism question: Would there have been a different response if this event have inspired a front page, or Sunday magazine, feature at The New York Times?

What kind of story? A serious news piece could have focused on (a) worship trends on the revived religious left, (b) this seminary’s attempt to find financial stability through interfaith theological education, (c) the history of Neo-pantheistic Gaia liturgies in New York (personal 1993 flashback here) linked to environmental theology and/or (d) all of the above.

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Some blunt Leon Podles comments on Benedict XVI's statement on sex-abuse crisis

Some blunt Leon Podles comments on Benedict XVI's statement on sex-abuse crisis

It isn’t everyday that you get to point readers toward a think piece written by a pope, even if we are talking about a retired pope, in this case.

It also helps that retired Pope Benedict XVI wrote about the hottest of hot-button topics in Catholic life — the ongoing scandal of Catholic priests sexually abusing children, with the vast majority of the victims being teen-aged males. That has created all kinds of hot topics to debate or to attempt to avoid debating.

Reactions to the letter have been predictable, to say the least, renewing discussions of the church of Pope Francis and the church of Pope Benedict XVI. The same has been true in the press, with this New York Times story being so predictable that, at times, it verges on self-parody. This Washington Post story hows evidence that reporters tried to gather cheers and boos that were linked to the crucial passages in the retired pope’s text. Here’s the Post overture:

ROME — Breaking years of silence on major church affairs, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has written a lengthy letter devoted to clerical sex abuse in which he attributes the crisis to a breakdown of church and societal moral teaching and says he felt compelled to assist “in this difficult hour.”

The 6,000-word letter, written for a small German Catholic publication and published in translation by other outlets Thursday, laments the secularization of the West, decries the 1960s sexual revolution and describes seminaries that became filled during that period with “homosexual cliques.”

It helps, of course, to read the actual text of “The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse.” Click here for an English translation, care of Catholic News Agency.

The key is that Benedict — returning to a theme voiced throughout his long public life — warns believers that they are living in an age in which the basics of Christian faith are under attack (even in seminaries). Thus, Christians in a smaller, embattled, church must be prepared to get back to the basics of doctrine and sacraments. Just going to Mass will not be enough. Note this passage:

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Thinking about the United Methodist future and (parts of) the Southern Baptist past

Thinking about the United Methodist future and (parts of) the Southern Baptist past

GetReligion readers who have been around a while may recall that I grew up as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid in Texas. Then I did two degrees at Baylor University in Waco, long known as Jerusalem on the Brazos.

This was all before the great Southern Baptist Convention civil war broke out in the late 1970s. That all went down as I was breaking into journalism and then into religion-beat work.

Looking back, I would say that I was raised on the conservative side of “moderate” SBC life and then went way over to the liturgical “moderate” left — but only on a few political issues (I was very pro-abortion rights, for example). I never was a “moderate” in terms of doctrine. That’s what pushed me over into Anglo-Catholicism and then on to Orthodoxy. You can see signs of that in this 1983 magazine piece I wrote entitled, “Why I Can No Longer Be A Baptist: Giving the Saints the Right to Vote.”

While at The Charlotte Observer, I wrote one of the first stories about the formation of the “moderate” alliance against the more conservative SBC establishment.

Now, if you lived through all of that the way I did, you know this name — Nancy T. Ammerman. Writing as a sociologist of religion, she became one of the go-to scholars who interpreted the SBC civil war and, thus, a popular source for reporters in elite newsrooms (see her “Baptist Battles” book).

If you spoke fluent Southern Baptist, it was easy to see that she was totally sympathetic to the moderates on the losing side of this fight. Still, her views were interesting and often quite perceptive.

That brings us to this weekend’s “think piece,” an Ammerman op-ed for Religion News Service entitled: “How denominations split: Lessons for Methodists from Baptist battles of the ’80s.” Here is a very typical Ammerman summary of the thesis:

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Next big news story: After 40 years of war, is United Methodist establishment ready to bargain?

Next big news story: After 40 years of war, is United Methodist establishment ready to bargain?

The late Lyle E. Schaller was always popular with journalists because he had the rare ability to dig deep into statistics and demographics, while speaking in direct-quote friendly language. But it was always hard to know what to call him. He was an expert on church-growth trends. But he was also a United Methodist. Wait for it.

Schaller used to laugh whenever he was called a “United Methodist church-growth expert,” in part because of that flock’s serious decline in membership over the past quarter-century or more. If he was a church-growth pro, why didn’t his own denomination listen to him? It was something like being an expert on Baptist liturgy, Episcopal evangelism or Eastern Orthodox praise bands.

But when Schaller talked about the future, lots of people listened. Check out this material from a column I wrote about him entitled, “United Methodists: Breaking up is hard to do.

One side is convinced the United Methodist Church has cancer. The other disagrees and rejects calls for surgery. It's hard to find a safe, happy compromise when the issue is a cancer diagnosis. …

So it raised eyebrows when United Methodism's best-known expert on church growth and decay called for open discussions of strategies to split or radically restructure the national church. Research indicates that United Methodists are increasingly polarized around issues of scripture, salvation, sexuality, money, politics, multiculturalism, church government, worship and even the identity of God, said the Rev. Lyle E. Schaller of Naperville, Ill.

Many people are in denial, while their … church continues to age and decline, he said, in the Circuit Rider magazine for United Methodist clergy. Others know what's happening, yet remain passive.

Sports fans, That. Was. In. 1998.

Schaller told me that he was basing his diagnosis on the open doctrinal warfare that began two decades earlier, in the late 1970s. He was very familiar with a prophetic study that emerged from Duke Divinity School in the mid-1980s, entitled “The Seven Churches of Methodism."

Do I need to say that Schaller’s words are highly relevant in light of the acid-bath drama in yesterday’s final hours at that special United Methodist conference in St. Louis (GetReligion posts here and then here)?

But this is old news, really. Activists on both sides of this struggle have been doing the math (see my 2004 column on that topic) for four decades.

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Priests trapped in closets: The New York Times offers updated talking points for Catholic left

Priests trapped in closets: The New York Times offers updated talking points for Catholic left

At this point, there is no reason to expect a New York Times story about sexuality and the Catholic Church to be anything other than a set of talking points released by the press office at Fordham University or some other official camp of experts on the Catholic doctrinal left.

This is, of course, especially true when the topic is linked to LGBTQ issues.

New York City is a very complex place, when it comes to Catholic insiders and experts. However, it appears that there are no pro-Catechism voices anywhere to be found in the city that St. Pope John Paul II once called the “capital of the world.”

We had a perfect example this weekend of the Gray Lady’s role in defining the journalistic norms for covering Catholic debates (as journalists prepare for the Vatican’s global assembly to discuss sexual abuse by clergy). Here’s the epic double-decker headline:

’It Is Not a Closet. It Is a Cage.’ Gay Catholic Priests Speak out

The crisis over sexuality in the Catholic Church goes beyond abuse. It goes to the heart of the priesthood, into a closet that is trapping thousands of men.

Looking for a news story that offers viewpoints from both sides of this issue? Forget about it.

Looking for complex, candid thoughts from gay Catholics who actually support the teachings of their church? Forget about it (even though they exist and are easy to find online.)

Looking for any point of view other than the Times gospel stated in that headline? Forget about it.

So what is the purpose of this story?

Simple stated, the goal here is to define this debate for legions of other journalists. Here is how Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher describes this role in the journalism ecology in the Theodore McCarrick era:

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Vatican shocks U.S. bishops, while some journalists keep tight focus on child abuse -- alone

Vatican shocks U.S. bishops, while some journalists keep tight focus on child abuse -- alone

It seems like an easy question: What are the sex scandals in the Catholic church all about?

If you look at the coverage, week after week, it’s clear that many journalists covering the latest wave of news about the scandals are still wrestling with this issue.

Obviously, the scandals center on acts of sexual abuse and harassment by Catholic clergy. The question, apparently, is this: Who are the victims? Reporters have to answer that question in order to get to the next big question: What sacred and secular laws are being broken?

After decades of following this story, and talking to activists on the Catholic left and right, the basic facts are pretty clear.

The vast majority of the victims are young males between the ages of 11 and 18. Then there are significant numbers of prepubescent victims, male and female, being abused by criminals who can accurately be called “pedophiles.” Also, there are many adult men (many are seminarians) and women involved in sexual relationships with priests and bishops, some consenting and some not. The size of this last group is assumed to be large, but there are few facts available.

With this in mind, pay close attention to the lede of the latest New York Times update on the Vatican’s shocking move to stop U.S. Catholic bishops from taking actions to discipline bishops accused of various sins and crimes.

BALTIMORE — Facing a reignited crisis of credibility over child sexual abuse, the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States came to a meeting in Baltimore on Monday prepared to show that they could hold themselves accountable.

But in a last-minute surprise, the Vatican instructed the bishops to delay voting on a package of corrective measures until next year, when Pope Francis plans to hold a summit in Rome on the sexual abuse crisis for bishops from around the world.

Many of the more than 350 American bishops gathered in Baltimore appeared stunned when they learned of the change of plans in the first few minutes of the meeting. They had come to Baltimore wanting to prove that they had heard their parishioners’ cries of despair and calls for change. Suddenly, the Vatican appeared to be standing in the way, dealing the bishops another public relations nightmare.

What is the crisis all about? The answer, throughout this article, is “child abuse,” and that’s that.

It’s interesting to note that the article does not include references to two crucial words in this latest wave of scandal ink — “McCarrick,” as in ex-cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick — and “seminaries” or “seminarians.”

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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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Ken Woodward, former Newsweek scribe: The 'double lives' elephant in the Catholic sex crisis

Ken Woodward, former Newsweek scribe: The 'double lives' elephant in the Catholic sex crisis

If you are a religion-beat professional of a certain age, or a religion-news consumer with a solid memory, then you absolutely know this name — Kenneth L. Woodard.

Woodward’s byline at Newsweek — like that of our GetReligion colleague Richard Ostling, of Time — was a key part of the news environment when I broke into religion-beat work in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Religion-beat pros looked forward to seeing the cover stories by these two men, because — to be blunt — they helped us lobby our own editors for serious coverage of certain subjects.

At the same time, Woodward has a feisty style all his own. He was, and this is a compliment where I come from, “a piece of work.” His writing had attitude. And he has also written a memoir entitled “Getting Religion.” So there.

The bottom line: If you see a Kenneth L. Woodward byline on a Commonweal Magazine essay under this headline — “Double Lives” — it’s pretty easy to figure out that this veteran scribe has taken a deep dive into the recent flood of news about his home territory, which is life in American Catholicism.

This is a must-read weekend think piece, to say the least. Woodward starts with some thoughts on that hellish Pennsylvania grand-jury report. But then he makes a statement about an “elephant” in this Catholic “living room” that many editors need to take seriously:

Such reports remind us of something we cannot afford to forget about the U.S. church’s recent history, but they should no longer surprise us.

The unmasking of ex-Cardinal McCarrick as a sexual predator is a far more consequential event.  I say this for several reasons.

First, his outing was the result of a church investigation, instead of a journalistic exposé.

Second, the McCarrick case has prompted demands that cardinals and bishops who are sexually abusive, or who cover up for any other cleric guilty of such crimes, be subject to automatic procedures similar to those the American hierarchy has already imposed on abusive priests, including dismissal from the ministry. The creation of such procedures would necessarily involve decisive action by the pope and require changes in canon law. Any outcome short of this would be a huge betrayal of the people of God, not to mention an invitation to civil authorities everywhere to press for further investigations into possible cover-ups by bishops past and present.

Third, McCarrick’s history of sexual abuse raises in a very concrete way the issue of homosexuality within the Catholic priesthood — although not in the way that many conservative Catholic writers suggest.

As your GetReligionistas have been saying for years, one of the key facts about this issue is that very few crimes and sins reporting during this multi-decade Catholic scandal can accurately be described with the word “pedophilia.”

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