Kissing second cousins? A priest repents ...

Trust me. It is rare for your GetReligionistas to receive email from readers complimenting mainstream news stories about Catholic sex scandals. However, this Mercury News piece about the fall of Father Michael Manning -- leader of the Wordnet television ministry -- was hailed by several readers as exceptionally balanced and fair. In part, this is due to a crucial element in the story itself -- repentance.

In this case, the priest has been open in talking about his sins and their impact on others. The newspaper quoted him extensively on this subject, thus adding a depth that is rarely seen in reports on similar subjects. Here is the opening of the piece:

SAN BERNARDINO -- A Roman Catholic priest with a worldwide television ministry based here has admitted to having a sexual relationship with his cousin, a county schools superintendent on California's Central Coast.

The Rev. Michael Manning confirmed by phone that he had the relationship with Monterey County Superintendent of Schools Nancy Kotowski, when questioned about copies of correspondence sent to this newspaper that appeared to point to the two breaking off the relationship more than two years ago.

"We've been such good friends and there's a deep love we have for each other," Manning said. "The sexuality was secondary. It's very hard when you care for someone, but I love my priesthood more. I admit the fact of my sinfulness. I've done wrong. That's why I've stopped."

In addition to the on-the-record quotes from the 70-year-old Manning, Kotowski is also quoted in the piece about their relationship, which the newspaper noted spanned several decades.

"Father Mike Manning is a very dear and close friend of mine," Kotowski said when reached at an anti-gang conference in Washington, D.C. "Our friendship has grown over 30 years, and we share a deep commitment of faithful and dedicated life of service in our respective work. I have nothing more to publicly say about this personal and private matter."

All compliments aside, this report does raise another interesting issue related to newspaper style or, some would insist, on a matter of simple accuracy. I am referring, of course, to that hot-button word in the lede -- "cousin." The report does a good job of explaining the legal complexities surrounding marriages and sexual relationships between cousins, which vary from state to state.

However, further down in the report it is made clear that Manning and Kotowski are not, strictly speaking, cousins but are, instead, "second cousins." What's the difference? Here's a typical online set of definitions for these terms:

Cousin (a.k.a "first cousin")

Your first cousins are the people in your family who have two of the same grandparents as you. In other words, they are the children of your aunts and uncles.

Second Cousin

Your second cousins are the people in your family who have the same great-grandparents as you, but not the same grandparents.

The Associated Press Stylebook does not address this issue in any way, which would mean that common dictionary definitions would apply. Now, does this distinction between a "first" and "second" cousin make any difference in the nature of the priest's sin? No. Does it mean that the lede contains a factual error, on that makes the affair a bit more flashy and salacious? That's the question some are asking. Personally, I can see the logic of that complaint.

Meanwhile, the story does offer an unusually detailed and matter-of-fact depiction of the priest's torn state of mind and his knowledge of this own sins. This passage is typical:

The correspondence appears to reveal a conflicted priest struggling to remain faithful to his calling.

"The reality is I was living two lives: one as a priest who was vowed to celibacy and another life as a sexually active man in our sexual intimacy," Manning wrote.

He told Kotowski that he battled hypocrisy, and deception was heavy on his heart as he feared people finding out about the relationship. "The burden of deception in hotels, and with the community with whom I work and live has become overwhelming," he wrote.

Manning said he and Kotowski realized their sexual relationship was wrong.

"I think we're all sinners and I'm not above admitting we're sinners," Manning said in the phone interview. "The important factor is what do you do after you sin? Can you accept forgiveness? And I've been able to accept forgiveness for what I've done."

Will the priest continue in his ministry while wearing a collar? While he is considering taking a break, the answer appears to be "yes." The details, however, are between the priest and his confessor. The spokesman for the archdiocese -- John Andrews -- made that clear, in so many words.

"It's unfortunate that this has happened, and that is not the conduct that we expect from the priests and it's not consistent with the vows a priest takes," Andrews said. "At the same time, in our faith, you always have an opportunity to seek forgiveness from God and reconciliation. Father Manning has done that and we support him in that 100 percent."

Yes, I am sure that many readers will want to know what Kotowski thinks about this and whether she was the person who sent to newspaper the correspondence. I, for one, wanted to know if she is or ever has been a practicing Catholic and whether the answers to some of these painful questions remain sealed in her relationship with a confessor.

In other words, this is a very complex story. This story did a fine job of getting an unusual amount of this highly personal story into print.

Obviously, please focus your comments on the Mercury News coverage, not your own personal opinions of this priest and/or the Catholic Church. In other words, this remains a journalism blog.

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