A tale of Twin Cities: Pioneer Press outdoes Strib with stellar story on bishop's meeting with abuse survivors

After I wrote in this space that the Minneapolis Star-Tribune 's over-reliance on SNAP marred an otherwise good story on Archbishop John Nienstedt's meeting with abuse survivors, I received an e-mail pointing me to the Pioneer Press's take on the same story.

The e-mail was from the meeting's organizer, Bob Schwiderski, and although he himself did not say which story he preferred, for me it is no contest. Pioneer Press columnist Rubén Rosario didn't look to SNAP, or any outside advocacy group, to tell readers how they should feel about the archbishop's meeting. Instead, he did all his reporting from the ground, gathering information only from those directly involved with the event. In this way, Rosario has composed an outstanding piece of journalism, hitting all the right notes while writing on a topic that is notoriously difficult to get right. What is more, he has achieved such balance even while being personally close to the issue, "[as] a victim of childhood sex abuse[, ...] raised Catholic." 

I could and will go on about some of the things about Rosario's article that particularly struck me, but I urge you to read the entire piece.

Like the Strib story, it begins with a dramatic vignette:

The two men, the embattled archbishop and perhaps his harshest critic, briefly walked around Crocus Hill before settling on a bench near the Cathedral of St. Paul.

There were no lawyers. There were no handlers. It was just two men conversing on a bench.

Bob Schwiderski, who prefers to call himself a survivor, and not a victim, of clergy sexual abuse, did most of the talking at the Aug. 20 meeting. John Nienstedt, who heads the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, did most of the listening.

Here we see the first of many significant differences between Rosario's article and the Strib's coverage: Schwiderski "prefers to call himself a survivor and not a victim." In making that observation, Rosario shows sensitivity in an area that is important to those who have suffered abuse. I suspect that for some readers, that phrase provides a teaching moment, showing that not all who have been victimized wish to bear the "victim" label.   

The article continues:

Schwiderski is a former altar boy from Hector, Minn. He was repeatedly molested in the early 1960s by a now long-deceased priest also suspected of victimizing others. ...

Schwiderski has over the years carved a niche as the state's most outspoken crusader for survivors like himself. ...

 He would like to see Nienstedt resign in the wake of publicly revealed mishandlings of recent clergy sex abuse cases.

Yet, when asked, Schwiderski willingly offered Nienstedt some advice on how best to connect and meet with survivors like himself. He couched his response in hunting terms that day.

"When I go pheasant hunting," Schwiderski said he recalls telling the archbishop, "I put on the appropriate clothes; I oil up the old shotgun, get my hunting license and go to where the pheasants are.

You, on the other hand, get to wear the pretty clothes, are given a new shotgun with ammunition and then you sit behind your desk in Crocus Hill and think the pheasants will come to you."

I have to pause to admire how Rosario got that great quote from Schwiderski and used it to enable the reader to be a fly on the wall at the encounter between the survivor and the archbishop.

Then the reporter gets to the nitty gritty:

Nienstedt apparently took the analogy to heart. On Saturday, inside a small conference room at Wayzata's downtown public library, Nienstedt met with nearly 20 survivors and relatives of survivors. As on the park bench last month, he mostly listened.

Fathers, sons, daughters, husbands and wives at the session spoke through tears but with moving passion and emotion about their own victimization and the ripple effects it caused them and their family. The ripples ranged from substance abuse, loss of jobs and broken or strained marriages to alienation from children and loss of trust in the church.

Most expressed what in biblical terms would be described as righteous anger.

"They have never sat down and shared their stories with a higher-up, no less the head of the church," said Schwiderski, who arranged the session. "Some told me it was the most emotional and also the most empowering support group meeting they have ever attended. I give Nienstedt some credit for showing up."

Before saying more the meeting, Rosario breaks away to bring inside information about the behind-the-scenes preparations. When he returns the reader to the meeting, he reveals a personal detail that must have caused some readers to do a double-take:

 As a victim of childhood sex abuse and a raised Catholic, I was invited as long as I did not identify survivors and relatives in the room or disclose identifying details.

I am impressed that Rosario makes his courageous self-revelation so briefly and places it so far down in the story. The temptation when writing a story in which one has a personal interest is to make it more about one's own feelings. Instead, Rosario makes every effort to keep the focus on Schwiderski and his fellow clergy-abuse victim/survivors:

Wearing street clothes and a dark Knights of Columbus polo shirt, Nienstedt sat between Schwiderski and the Rev. Tim Norris, pastor of the Ham Lake church. He had a pained look on his face as men and women seated across from him and around a long rectangular table took turns giving victim-impact statements. Some had written down their thoughts. Others said what came to them.

With those words, Rosario has done something subtle but extremely important. He has effectively given what is known as a trigger warning -- telegraphing that he is about to relate stories that might trigger painful memories for readers who have suffered abuse.

The reporter applies an interesting technique of alternately inhabiting the perspective of the victim/survivors and that of the archbishop taking in their painful stories, to powerful effect:

He heard from a young man who nearly destroyed his life with alcohol to kill the pain of the abuse. The man's father, who also attended, told Nienstedt he also was a Knights of Columbus member and was active in his church until his son disclosed what the family priest had done. He was disappointed that the church did little to the abuser and pretty much turned its back on his son when he reached out to officials for help.

"I'm no longer Catholic," he said.

"I'm so angry right now at you," said another man also abused by a priest. "But I also need to thank you for being here." ...

Nienstedt shared that he long wanted to be a priest while growing up. He never imagined that priests could do such things. He thanked the survivors for helping him to better understand "such evil from a gut level."

Go read the rest. Kudos to Rosario for writing a piece that can serve not only as a model to journalists, but also -- one hopes -- to dioceses looking to learn how to better help victim/survivors heal.

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A few of my favorite things -- in OC Register's story on Christ Cathedral

A few of my favorite things -- in OC Register's story on Christ Cathedral

In telling about the redesign of Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral, the Orange County Register sounds like it's imitating the song My Favorite Things:

GARDEN GROVE – Ceiling lights that mimic stars.

Dozens of crape myrtle trees.

A rebuilt organ.

Those are some of the elements included in the restoration of Christ Cathedral, according to plans announced Wednesday by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange and its architects.

Kinda singsong, dontcha think? But stay with it; the story turns out as light 'n' bright as the glass building itself. Especially compared with the heavier, wordier account in the Los Angeles Times.

The Register briskly sets out the more eye-catching changes in the already stunning, 78,000-square-foot structure. Those include petal-like shades for some of the glass panels; a lawn for outdoor Masses of up to 8,000; outside lights that will make the cathedral glow at night; and painting the walnut organ white, to keep from distraction attention from the altar.

Some sparkly words are sprinkled through the story as well. They include calling the shade panels "petals"; the cathedral as a "Box of Stars"; and the whole 35-acre campus as a "sacred heat map." Nice.

The latter phrase, by a principal architect, summarizes the planned experience of approaching the church:

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A BBC puzzler: Defense of a universal human right is now an 'evangelical' thing?

A BBC puzzler: Defense of a universal human right is now an 'evangelical' thing?

If there are readers out there in cyberspace who have been reading GetReligion for a decade-plus, the odds are good that they have heard of the the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially Article 18. That's the one that proclaims, in the name of the United Nations:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Long ago, this statement was considered a cornerstone on the political and cultural left. However, that is no longer (alas) always the case today. Here at GetReligion I have been asking the following questions in recent years, while probing some of the shallow labels that journalists often use with little or no thought. They are:

* What should journalists call someone who is weak, when it comes to defending freedom of speech?

* What should journalists call someone who is weak, when it comes to defending freedom of association?

* What should journalists call someone who is weak, when it comes to defending freedom of religion?

I'm not sure what the correct answer is, these days, but anyone familiar with the history of political thought in the West will know that the correct answer is not "liberal."

Why bring this up right now? Well, because of an absolutely bizarre statement at the end of a recent BBC report that ran under this strange (it's almost a fragment) headline: "Sudan apostasy woman Mariam Ibrahim 'to campaign'."

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So who speaks for Islam in a time of terrorism?

So who speaks for Islam in a time of terrorism?

THE RELIGION GUY interrupts this blog’s usual answers to posted questions and feels impelled to highlight a development that ought to receive far more attention than it has.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly Sep. 24, President Obama said “it is time for the world -- especially Muslim communities -- to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIL” (the group also called ISIS or “Islamic State”).

As if in response, that same day 126 Muslim leaders issued a dramatic 15-page “Open Letter” to ISIL’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers that denounced them on religious grounds.

Implicitly, the letter targets as well the tactics of al-Qaeda, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, and similar terrorist movements claiming Islamic inspiration. The technical argument relies on dozens of citations from the Quran, Hadith (accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s words and deeds), and Sharia (religious law).

The signers of this blunt challenge, all from the faith’s dominant Sunni branch, come from 37 nations including the U.S. 

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Beheading in Oklahoma: In this case, the religion ghost is right out in the open

Beheading in Oklahoma: In this case, the religion ghost is right out in the open

At the moment, it's easy to read the mainstream coverage of the beheading in Moore, Okla., and sense the tensions that journalists are feeling as they try to decide which post-9/11 news template to apply to this heartland drama.

There's the "workplace violence" template. This is used (think MSNBC) when a story has, you know, a religious angle that public officials really do not want to talk about. This template exists, in part, because -- with some justification -- officials fear that coverage of the attacker's connections to radicalized Islam will lead to unfair criticism of ordinary, mainstream Muslims. 

Then there is the "global terrorism" template. This is used (think Fox News, initially) when there is even the slightest reason to connect what could be a lone-wolf attacker to Jihadist networks at home or abroad. In this Oklahoma attack, here is what that kind of story looks like -- care of Breitbart.com.

Often, there is good cause to run with either of these templates. The key, however, is whether journalists are able to keep digging -- without prejudice -- for the basic facts that point one way or the other.

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Say what? The Catholic church now officially backs same-sex unions?

Say what? The Catholic church now officially backs same-sex unions?

Sometime -- was it this summer when I was away? -- homosexual acts lost their sinful character according to the Roman Catholic Church.

Surprised? So was I when I read an article published on Sept 15, 2014, in Brazil’s largest daily newspaper Folha de São Paulo.

True, the article Mais tolerante igreja cobra compromissos de candidates is in the paper’s Elections 2014 section. It looks at the interplay of politics and religion in the forthcoming presidential elections and not at the moral doctrines of the church. However, some of the assertions made by Folha de São Paulo presume that change is in the offing, if not already here.
Folha de São Paulo is not unique in assuming that a change is in the air. 

From the beginning of his papacy Francis has had an unusual amount of support from journalists in the secular press, who have contrasted his comments on morals with his predecessor. However, comments to reporters in the back of airplanes do not define doctrine and not everything a pope says or does is assumed to be without error.

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Pod people: Taking money OUT of the collection plate and more on the 'black mass'

Pod people: Taking money OUT of the collection plate and more on the 'black mass'

The "Money for Nothing" video accompanying this post has only a tangential connection to the subject matter.

Alas, I'm a child of the '80s, and that three-decade-old hit by the British rock band Dire Straits seemed like a good tune for a Friday afternoon.

As I noted earlier this week, about 300 members of a Chicago church received money for something — $500 each to spend, invest or give away.

In the post, I pointed out that WGNtv.com seemed to bury the lede at the end, reporting with no explanation that the church involved has a $50,000 budget deficit. 

On this week's episode of "Crossroads," the GetReligion podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discuss the Chicago story. 

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LATimes: Generic ancient, liturgical Christians are on the run in Iraq

LATimes: Generic ancient, liturgical Christians are on the run in Iraq

If news consumers in the United States have learned anything in the past decade or two, they should have learned that there is quite a bit of diversity inside Islam in the Middle East and around the world. The doctrinal differences between Shia and Sunni truly matter, for example. And there are crucial divisions among the Sunni that have often caused fierce, hellish conflicts such as the one between Saudi Arabia and the tribes forming the Islamic State.

If anything, the Christian churches in this troubled region are even more complex, with some divisions dating back to the early church fathers and others having roots in the past millennium or thereabouts. 

Take Iraq, for example. Even a short list of the Christian flocks in that war-ravaged land would have to include the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Armenian Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Christians with ties to Antioch and the Byzantine rite Catholic churches with ties to Rome. Yes, there are Latin rite Roman Catholics and various kinds of Protestants in these lands as well, including Anglicans.

At the moment, of course, these churches are united by one hellish condition -- persecution.

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NYT on anti-Semitism across Europe: a masterful though flawed report

NYT on anti-Semitism across Europe: a masterful though flawed report

For Rosh Hashana, which began at sundown Wednesday, The New York Times published a mostly masterful overview on the revival of anti-Semitism in Europe, with four reporters covering hateful words and deeds in five nations. I say "mostly," because the story has a few glitches.

Like what? Well, let's start at the end:

For Leonid Goldberg, the community leader of the Wuppertal synagogue, the emergence of a radical Islamic fringe is less a surprise. Just four days before the synagogue attack, someone had spray-painted “Free Palestine” on the front wall of the building. In recent years, Mr. Goldberg has used a celebration of Rosh Hashana at the synagogue — an event attended by elected officials and religious leaders of the city, including Muslims — to warn about rising anti-Semitism among extremist Muslims in the city.
“No one wanted to hear that,” he said.

Well, we readers did. Why run a story on Rosh Hashana, then include the only reference to the holiday just as you're wrapping up the article?

But let's be fair and acknowledge the achievement in putting together events and trends in a variety of places -- France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Hungary -- into an ominous pattern. This is what the Times does best:

SARCELLES, France — From the immigrant enclaves of the Parisian suburbs to the drizzly bureaucratic city of Brussels to the industrial heartland of Germany, Europe’s old demon returned this summer. “Death to the Jews!” shouted protesters at pro-Palestinian rallies in Belgium and France. “Gas the Jews!” yelled marchers at a similar protest in Germany.
The ugly threats were surpassed by uglier violence. Four people were fatally shot in May at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. A Jewish-owned pharmacy in this Paris suburb was destroyed in July by youths protesting Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. A synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany, was attacked with firebombs. A Swedish Jew was beaten with iron pipes. The list goes on.

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