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Who will protect sheep from shepherds? Inquirer and Globe team spotlights sins of many bishops

Who will protect sheep from shepherds? Inquirer and Globe team spotlights sins of many bishops

I’m not sure that we’re talking about a true sequel to the massive 2002 Boston Globe “Spotlight” series about sexual abuse of children and teens by Catholic priests.

Still, there’s no question that journalists at The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Globe have — working together — produced a disturbing report documenting the efforts of many U.S. Catholic bishops to hide abusive priests or, at the very least, to avoid investigations of their own sins and crimes during these scandals.

The dramatic double-decker headline at the Inquirer says a lot, pointing readers to the key fact — that U.S. bishops keep stressing that only Rome’s powers that be can discipline bishops, archbishops and cardinals::

Failure at the top

America’s Catholic bishops vowed to remove abusive priests in 2002. In the years that followed, they failed to police themselves.

For the most part, this report avoids pinning simplistic political and doctrinal labels on Catholic shepherds who are, to varying degrees, involved in this story.

If you know any of the players mentioned in this report, you will recognize that it offers more evidence — as if it was needed — that this scandal is too big to be described in terms of “left” and “right.”.

I am sure that critics more qualified than me will find some holes and stereotypes. Experts will be able to connect the dots and see the networks that protected abusers or even produced them. Informed readers can do this, because the Globe-Inquirer team consistently names names. We will come back to one interesting exception to that rule.

Another point: It really would have helped if editors had acknowledged that there are valid theological, as well as legal, issues in this fight. Yes, there are bishops who have used centuries of theology about the role the episcopate plays in the church as a defense mechanism to hide their actions. However, this doesn’t mean that the theological issues are not real. Maybe call a theologian or historian — or several?

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Old questions about the headline you did not see: Why didn't press spot royal 'fetus bump'?

Old questions about the headline you did not see: Why didn't press spot royal 'fetus bump'?

For years, it was one of the most painful, divisive journalism questions faced by reporters and editors, a question that they couldn’t look up in the Associated Press Stylebook — the bible of most mainstream newsrooms.

The question: When is an unborn child an “unborn child” or a “baby”? When should reporters use the supposedly neutral term “fetus”?

Here is the top of a recent news story that serves as a perfect, and tragic, example of this journalism issue:

A grieving widower has revealed why he shared photos of his dead wife and unborn daughter after they were killed by an allegedly drunk driver.

Krystil Kincaid was eight months pregnant with her daughter, Alvalynn, when their car was struck on a California highway on Sept. 9. Her heartbroken husband, Zach, who lives in San Jacinto, Calif., decided he wanted the world to see the unsettling images of the 29-year-old mother and their little girl lying in a coffin together at their wake.

That’s a tragic example of this journalism issue.

Here is another new case study, drawn from current celebrity clickbait news. After all, it’s hard for journalists to ignore a royal baby bump.

In this case, the New York Times headline proclaims: “Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Announce She’s Pregnant.” The lede is where we see the “problem.”

LONDON — Another royal baby is on the way.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, are expecting a child in the spring, Kensington Palace announced.

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On the Society of St. John: Sometimes reporters (like me) just can't see the story

On the Society of St. John: Sometimes reporters (like me) just can't see the story

Although I’ve been blogging all summer about various scandals in the Catholic Church, I’d like to include a story in the past that was staring me in the face — yet I absolutely missed it.

It’s a news story about a religious order in northeastern Pennsylvania. Things sounded good in all their fundraising brochures, so I showed up in isolated Shohola, Pa., one day in the summer of 2000, to write them up.

I had no idea there was a ton of sexual abuse going on in their boys’ boarding school in Elmhurst, which was near Scranton. I believed everything told me about this order’s dreams of building a medieval village-style society in the foothills of the Poconos.

Fast forward 18 years to this NBC-TV story.

On Dec. 18, 2001, a desperate North Carolina dad wrote a letter to the Vatican asking the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church to discipline a group of priests at a Pennsylvania boys’ boarding school who he said took turns sexually abusing his teenage son.

The priests were members of an organization called the Society of Saint John, the father wrote, and Bishop James Timlin, then the head of the Diocese of Scranton, had allowed them to take up residence at St. Gregory’s Academy in Elmhurst, Pennsylvania.

“How long will the Bishop of Scranton tolerate this Society of Priests and promote them and their plans?” the father, whose name NBC News is not disclosing to protect his son’s identity, asked in the 2001 letter.

All roads, as we will see, eventually lead to an explosive grand jury report that came out of Pennsylvania this summer.

The answer turned out to be two more years. It was not until 2003, after the man’s son filed a federal lawsuit, that the Society of Saint John was finally disbanded in Scranton. The lawsuit accused two of the society’s priests of cultivating “intimate relationships with students” and of plying students “with alcohol, as well as sleeping with them.”

The society was singled out in the scathing grand jury report that Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro released in August, which included its leader and three members, along with 297 other Pennsylvania clerics that he branded “predator priests.” …

Speaking publicly for the first time since he and his parents filed a federal lawsuit against the Diocese of Scranton, Society of Saint John, St. Gregory’s Academy, Timlin, Urrutigoity and others in March 2002, which eventually led to the society’s demise, “John Doe” said that the abuse by three Society of Saint John priests from 1997 to 2000 nearly wrecked his life. All three were named in the grand jury report.

My Washington Times article on this order ran in August 2000. (Although my byline has been removed, I did write the piece.) Here is a snippet:

SHOHOLA, Pa. — There was a time when the Roman Catholic faith was found everywhere in medieval Europe, where faith and culture were one.

Today, in an American society where faith and culture are mostly at odds, a new order of priests and a handful of families plan to re-create a Catholic medieval city on a 1,025-acre tract on a small mountain overlooking the Delaware River.

With the help of the Internet and computerized mailing lists, the Society of St. John is busily raising $300 million for what could be one of 21st-century America's more unusual social experiments.

"This is not Utopia," the Rev. Eric Ensey, 34, tells visitors. "We are not building the perfect society. We are trying to bring people who are human so we can witness to the beauty of the lifestyle. We wanted to make it possible for people to have access to the sources of the faith, to beauty and a Catholic ambiance."

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Are Catholic hospitals being deceptive? The New York Times says, 'Yes'

Are Catholic hospitals being deceptive? The New York Times says, 'Yes'

The rush of recent news about sexually abusive priests and erring bishops has moved our critiques of other things Catholic to the side for several weeks.

Thus, I want to flash back and spotlight a story that ran Aug. 10 in the New York Times about Catholic hospitals.

Such hospitals do not offer direct sterilization, abortion, euthanasia or assisted suicide. They also don’t do hysterectomies for transgender people and tubal ligations. 

Here, readers learn, Catholic doctrine is not only the enemy but the cause of endangering womens’ lives. The opening salvo, about a hospital refusing to offer what could be life-saving care, is an attention-getter.

After experiencing life-threatening pre-eclampsia during her first two pregnancies, Jennafer Norris decided she could not risk getting pregnant again. But several years later, suffering debilitating headaches and soaring blood pressure, she realized her I.U.D. had failed. She was pregnant, and the condition had returned.

At 30 weeks, with her health deteriorating, she was admitted to her local hospital in Rogers, Ark., for an emergency cesarean section. To ensure that she would never again be at risk, she asked her obstetrician to tie her tubes immediately following the delivery.

The doctor’s response stunned her. “She said she’d love to but couldn’t because it was a Catholic hospital,” Ms. Norris, 38, recalled in an interview.

Experiences like hers are becoming more common, as a wave of mergers widens the reach of Catholic medical facilities across the United States, and the Trump administration finalizes regulations to further expand the ability of health care workers and institutions to decline to provide specific medical procedures for moral or religious reasons.

We learn that one in six hospital patients in the United States is in a Catholic hospital, but that in most cases, it’s tough to learn on the web sites of these hospitals just which services they do not offer.

The article definitely gave both sides their day in court but what struck me was the overall tone of the piece. It was that Catholic hospitals are restrictive places that forbid all manner of services and are deceptive about what they don’t offer, so buyer beware.

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Got those religious-liberty news blues: Nuns with charge cards buying birth control?

Got those religious-liberty news blues: Nuns with charge cards buying birth control?

So what has been going on, for the past couple of years, with the Sisters of the Poor and the federal health-care mandate requiring them, and many other religious institutions, to offer their employees health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives?

Journalists: Does anyone believe that these regulations require elderly nuns to go to a nearby drug counter, whip out the religious order's charge card, and purchase "morning-after pills"?

Is that what Attorney General Jeff Sessions meant when, in a recent speech on the rising tide of disputes about religious liberty, he said the following (which is typical of the language he has been using)?

"We’ve seen nuns ordered to pay for contraceptives. We’ve seen U.S. Senators ask judicial and executive branch nominees about their dogma -- a clear reference to their religious beliefs -- even though the Constitution explicitly forbids a religious test for public office."

What does he mean when he says the nuns have been ordered to "pay for" contraceptives, and lots of other things that violate the doctrines at the heart of their ministry?

So many questions! Was he talking about nuns using a charge card at the pharmacy? Or was Sessions discussing a requirement that they use ministry funds to offer a health-care plan that includes these benefits, requiring them to cooperate with acts that they believe are evil?

It's the latter, of course.

So what are readers to make of the language in the overture of this recent Religion News Service story (it does not carry an analysis or column label)?

(RNS) -- Standing beneath the cast aluminum statue of Lady Justice in the Department of Justice’s Great Hall, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a bold statement last week: “Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack.”

He spoke of Catholic nuns being forced to buy contraceptives. (Actually, the Affordable Care Act required the nuns to cover the costs of contraceptives in their employees’ health plans.)

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The discussion continues: You are a pastor and a reporter calls. What do you do?

The discussion continues: You are a pastor and a reporter calls. What do you do?

This week's "Crossroads" podcast -- recorded by telephone, with me here in Prague -- is extra long and should be of special interest to clergy and other religious leaders who have ever found themselves facing a journalist who is holding a pen and a notepad (or calling on the telephone).

Now, I am not saying that journalists will not be interested in this topic.

You see, this podcast is yet another response to that urgent question raised by my colleague Bobby Ross, Jr., about how pastors should or should not respond when contacted by the press. Click here to catch up on that thread.

What do reporters think when clergy refuse to talk? Do journalists understand why so many clergy are afraid of the press?

Yes, this fear does have something to do with clergy fearing that many journalists "just don't get religion." Clergy fear mistakes. They fear reporters yanking their words out of context. Hold that thought.

In this podcast, host Todd Wilken (a radio pro and a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, at the same time) and I talked about two very specific scenarios, when it comes to a reporter requesting an interview with a pastor.

Number 1: You are a minister and you return to your office and there is a message waiting for you. A journalist has called requesting an interview. The note does not include information about the subject of the story (something journalist should share right up front, in my opinion).

Do you return the call?

Well, in this case let's say that the minister KNOWS what the story is about and knows that it's about a problem that has emerged in this church, religious school, etc. Let's say a student has been disciplined and a circle of parents is mad. It's safe to assume that the parents called the newspaper or local television station.

In other words, this is a BAD news story, from the point of view of most pastors. Should ministers return these calls?

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U.S. mission groups stranded by Haiti unrest, and CNN — to its credit — reports on it

U.S. mission groups stranded by Haiti unrest, and CNN — to its credit — reports on it

Summer is prime time for faith-based mission trips.

Many U.S. church groups — often including teens and college students — travel all the world this time of year.

I just returned from a Christian Chronicle reporting trip to Puerto Rico, where I followed a Kentucky congregation helping with Hurricane Maria relief work. While there, I noticed the news about unrest in Haiti, a country I visited just a few months ago to report on water well drilling. 

Just weeks ago, I reported on political violence prompting the cancellation of dozens of church mission trips to Nicaragua. Not so many years ago, of course, ongoing concerns over drug cartels began curtailing mission work in Mexico. 

Not too often, though, do major news organizations cover the impact of the dangerous world on church mission trips, even though there's frequently a compelling story there.

That's why I was so pleased to see CNN tackle that angle amid the Haiti unrest:

(CNN) A number of US missionary groups are stranded in Haiti after protesters took to the streets following a fuel price hike ordered by the government.

One group described burning barricades preventing them from reaching the airport in the nation's capital, Port-au-Prince.

The US Embassy in Haiti warned its citizens Saturday to stay inside amid continued demonstrations in Port-au-Prince and a northern city.

Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant on Saturday announced a temporary stop to the price increases and appealed for calm. Prices for gasoline were to rise 38% while diesel prices were to go up 47% and kerosene 51%, the Haitian daily newspaper Le Nouvelliste reported.

Keep reading, and CNN offers several specific examples of groups caught in the conflict.

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BBC puts half the facts in its Trinity Western lede, adding note of confusion to this story

BBC puts half the facts in its Trinity Western lede, adding note of confusion to this story

When you look at prestige brand names in the world of news, it's hard to find institutions that can match the global impact of The New York Times and BBC News.

Journalists here in America are constantly aware of the impact of the Times, in terms of shaping the priorities of other newspapers from coast to coast. It's hard to find a small circle of journalists with more power than the editors who decide what goes on A1 in the Times.

However, anyone who has traveled around the world and gazed at hotel-room televisions knows that the BBC is omnipresent and very powerful just about everywhere.

Thus, let me add an editorial note to my GetReligion colleague Julia Duin's report -- "Trinity Western law school gets nixed, while the Canadian news coverage is mixed" -- focusing on how Canadian journalists covered the Trinity Western University decision at the Supreme Court of Canada.

In particular, I would like to focus on how this short report produced by the gatekeepers at the BBC handled a key detail in the community covenant (or as the CBC described it, the "so-called community covenant") that defines the doctrinal standards that guide life on that evangelical Protestant campus.

The headline on this report is certainly blunt, but it is accurate: "Canada's Supreme Court rules LGBT rights trump religious freedom." This brings us to the story's lede:

Canada's top court has ruled in favour of denying accreditation to a Christian law school that banned students from having gay sex.

Now, let me say right up front that this statement is accurate, sort of, and half-way true.

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'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze

'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze

Trust me on this: If you read the Joshua Pease essay, "The sin of silence: The epidemic of denial about sexual abuse in the evangelical church," you will be angry and you'll have questions.

The Washington Post labels this as a "Perspective" piece -- think "analysis," not pure opinion -- but it includes lots of on-the-record sources and information, as well as personal observations by Pease. The writer is identified as "a freelance writer, was an evangelical pastor for 11 years." I would have added some kind of reference to his book, "The God Who Wasn't There: looking for a Savior in the middle of pain." 

Yes, once again we are in "theodicy" territory, a common topic here at GetReligion.

The overture for this piece -- detailing abuse Rachael Denhollander suffered when she was seven years old -- is unforgettable, especially for parents who grew up in church. I wish I would quote it all, but this passage will have to do.

The man’s behavior caught the attention of a fellow congregant, who informed Sandy Burdick, a licensed counselor who led the church’s sexual-abuse support group. Burdick says she warned Denhollander’s parents that the man was showing classic signs of grooming behavior. They were worried, but they also feared misreading the situation and falsely accusing an innocent student, according to Camille Moxon, Denhollander’s mom. So they turned to their closest friends, their Bible-study group, for support.

The overwhelming response was: You’re overreacting. One family even told them that their kids could no longer play together, because they didn’t want to be accused next, Moxon says. Hearing this, Denhollander’s parents decided that, unless the college student committed an aggressive, sexual act, there was nothing they could do.

No one knew that, months earlier, he already had.

A few lines later there is a quick, passing reference to what I think is one of the crucial facts in this complicated story. The church in which this abuse took place has, in the years since that moral train wreck, shut down.

It's gone. Did the leaders learn their lessons? Who cares? It's gone. It's hard to hold anyone accountable when churches simply vanish.


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