Ethics

Washington Post editorial writer is back with more 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick scandal news

Washington Post editorial writer is back with more 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick scandal news

Attention all Catholic readers and other news consumers who want to keep up with news reporting about the life and times of ex-cardinal Theodore “Uncle Teddy” McCarrick: It appears that you are going to need to read the opinion pages of The Washington Post.

Yes, the opinion pages.

McCarrick is, of course, the man at the center of this latest earthquake in the decades-old Roman Catholic crisis linked to the sexual abuse of children, teens (almost always males) and adults, mostly seminarians. While headlines linked to Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano’s blast at the Vatican (text here) have centered on his call for Pope Francis to resign, the heart of the document centers on McCarrick and a network of cardinals and bishops who have protected, promoted or depended on him.

This brings us back to the work of Post editorial-page columnist Elizabeth Bruenig.

The last time we heard from her — in terms of the Catholic crisis — she was committing this act of journalism, seeking an actual interview with McCarrick:

… A little before 9:30 on Monday evening — likely a little later than is fair to an elderly man, I admit — I knocked on his door. I was dismissed by another person, via a muted conversation through a windowpane, but left a note and a business card. Hearing no word, I returned Tuesday afternoon and found my card still on the windowsill where I had left it. I suspected my efforts to contact the former cardinal might not be getting through, and so resolved to try a little more persistence this time, waiting on his doorstep for roughly an hour, with a letter I had brought.

But it seems my contact information had made it to authorities: After I left, a representative from the Washington archdiocese called my editor to complain about my presence. I was surprised to learn I had caused sincere alarm — I don’t present an imposing figure, and nobody ever so much as opened the door to ask me to go away — but my insistence, the ringing and knocking, had clearly inspired fear.

Have the D.C. Catholic powers that be called any other editors? At this point, it’s impossible to know. However, it was very journalistic of Bruenig to seek an answer to this basic question: Are the accusations true?

Now, Bruenig is back with another opinion-page piece with this headline: “He wanted to be a priest. He says Archbishop McCarrick used that to abuse him.” It’s must reading for, well, people looking for news on this topic. Here is the overture:

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So an anonymous seminarian, and folks who talked to seminarians, said that Cardinal Cupich said ...

So an anonymous seminarian, and folks who talked to seminarians, said that Cardinal Cupich said ...

It’s hard to imagine a topic that causes more debates in newsrooms than this one: Under what circumstances should reporters and editors trust second-hand quotes?

Here’s the context: What do you do when sources on only one side of a debate will talk with you? Or what about this: There is a crucial meeting and the powers that be will not include reporters. Do you print direct quotations based on the memories of participants (who almost always have an axe to grind, or they wouldn’t be talking to the press in the first place)?

If you’ve worked in Washington, D.C., you know that journalists sit around after the release of each Bob Woodward book (yeah, like this one) and discuss the status of his second-hand or even third-hand material — that ends up inside quotation marks as verbatim quotes.

Most of the time, reporters (including me every now and then) argue that this is a first-person quote about what a person heard someone say to them or these were words spoken in their presence. It may be is acceptable to quote them if you give the reader precise information about the identity of the person providing the second-hand quote and their link to the story.

But what about anonymous quotes of second-hand material?

Editors at The Chicago Sun-Times ventured deep into this minefield the other day on a high-profile story linked the the scandal surrounding ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick and his friends and disciples in the halls of Catholic power. The headline: “Cupich on scandal: ‘We have a bigger agenda than to be distracted by all of this’.

Spot the journalism questions in this overture:

The young man studying at Mundelein Seminary to become a Catholic priest seemed anguished as he vented to Cardinal Blase Cupich about the clergy sex-abuse scandal that threatens to topple Pope Francis and drive more people away from the faith.

“I’m hurting, I can’t sleep, I’m sick,” the seminarian told Cupich during an Aug. 29 gathering at which the cardinal spoke to about 200 future priests enrolled at the seminary, according to another person who was there and spoke with the Chicago Sun-Times but asked not to be identified.

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Spot the ghost: Idealistic doctor from Catholic college seeks to build hospital near Ave Maria

Spot the ghost: Idealistic doctor from Catholic college seeks to build hospital near Ave Maria

If you have followed GetReligion for a decade or so, you know that one of our goals is to spot "religion ghosts" in mainstream news coverage.

What's a "ghost"? Click here for our opening post long ago, which explains the concept. The short version: We say a story is "haunted" when there is a religious fact or subject missing, creating a religion-shaped hole that makes it hard for readers to understand what is going on.

I received a note the other day, from a longtime reader, that pointed me to a perfect example of this concept. In this case, we are talking about a solid, timely New York Times story about an effort to build a new hospital in a rural corner of Florida that certainly appears to need one. Here's the double-decker headline on this long feature:

A Rural Town Banded Together to Open a Hospital. Its Foe? A Larger Hospital.

Even when a town wants to open a new hospital to make up for a lack of health care, the challenges can be enormous.

Here is the overture. Can you spot the ghost?

IMMOKALEE, Fla. -- Not long after Beau Braden moved to southwest Florida to open a medical clinic, injured strangers started showing up at his house. A boy who had split open his head at the pool. People with gashes and broken bones. There was nowhere else to go after hours, they told him, so Dr. Braden stitched them up on his dining room table.

They were 40 miles inland from the coral-white condos and beach villas of Naples, but Dr. Braden said that this rural stretch of Collier County, with tomato farms and fast-growing exurbs, had fewer hospital beds per person than Afghanistan.

So when he proposed starting a 25-bed rural hospital to serve the 50,000 people who live in the farming town of Immokalee and the nearby planned community of Ave Maria, people rallied to the idea. They envisioned a place where mothers could give birth and sick children could get 24-hour help -- their own novel solution to an exodus of hospital care from rural America.

Wait a minute. Is that THE controversial Ave Maria community that has been at the center of so much news coverage through the years? 

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Medium opines on training of young abortionists, but is there another point of view missing?

Medium opines on training of young abortionists, but is there another point of view missing?

The publishing platform Medium is a social journalism site started in 2012 by a co-founder of Twitter. It makes no visible attempt to be objective on culture wars issues and thus inhabits a left-leaning focus stemming, no doubt, from the millennials who run the site.

I began getting it in my mailbox several years ago and was fascinated with its curated content. I liked all the reporting on offbeat topics I couldn’t read about elsewhere, especially the astronomy pieces.

Unfortunately, it has little to nothing on religion and certainly nothing that looks on it favorably. Which is why I wasn’t surprised to see an article by a freelancer on a “new generation” of abortionists moving up the ranks. He actually used the term “abortionists;” that's a wording I’ve never seen in left-of-center milieux. 

A sign in the lobby of the Philadelphia hotel read:

THERE ARE NO EVENTS SCHEDULED FOR TODAY
Please enjoy your day!

Meanwhile, in the ballroom upstairs, a significant portion of America’s current and future abortion providers were eating breakfast. The fake-out sign was one of multiple security measures, but the atmosphere at the Medical Students for Choice (MSFC) national conference still hummed with energy. Over the course of a day and a half, 450-plus medical students tried to absorb as much information as possible about providing abortions, information that -- depending on where they go to school -- can be extremely difficult to get…

Would this, I wondered, be another “Handmaid’s Tale”-tinged fear piece about the specter of a Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination that will take abortion back to the back alleys? Also, for GetReligion, there is this question: Will this story deal with any of the religious and ethical questions that haunt this line of work?

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For High Holy Days coverage, consider a look at major Jewish thinker -- Leon Kass

For High Holy Days coverage, consider a look at major Jewish thinker -- Leon Kass

If you’re scouting for a feature pegged to Judaism’s High Holy Days that begin at sundown Sept. 9, consider a high-end piece profiling what they used to call a “public intellectual,” now often thought to be a dying breed.

The Religion Guy is thinking of Jewish philosopher Leon R. Kass and his recent book “Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times” (Encounter), certainly a timely Holy Days theme. These essays are lauded in National Review as “a crowning achievement” that caps this polymath’s decades of reflection. Topics include love and courtship, friendship, the Internet, biotechnology and scientific peril, death and mercy-killing, and of course religion.

The 72-year-old retiree long taught at the University of Chicago’s elite Committee on Social Thought, where he pursued the book’s title mostly through analyzing literary classics. Though he’s not a credentialed Bible scholar, he added  years of informal student seminars and then a not-for-credit course on the biblical Book of Genesis. His approach is unorthodox, indeed un-Orthodox.

The result was “The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis” (Free Press, 2003), praised by Kirkus Reviews as “wonderfully intelligent.” Rather than focusing on matters of faith that are central for Bible believers, Kass’s philosophical approach asks us to ponder what ancient Jewish tradition provides for modern-day justice, sanity and contentment. That feeds into his other writings that seek human happiness through recovery of the West’s old-fashioned values and verities.

Kass says he was raised in a Yiddish-speaking but “strictly secular home without contact with scripture.” There’s considerable unexplained turf an interviewer could pursue regarding Kass’s own personal belief and practice, and whether and how the specifically religious aspect of the Jewish heritage might remain relevant in the 21st Century. 

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) posts a good essay about Kass that can guide journalists. A bit of the basic bio: Kass earned bachelor’s and medical degrees at the University of Chicago, where he met his late wife and intellectual collaborator Amy, and then migrated to Harvard for a second doctorate in biochemistry.

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Time for a big think on Catholicism’s moral authority and culture of dissent  

Time for a big think on Catholicism’s moral authority and culture of dissent  

That didn’t take long.

On August 2, the Vatican’s doctrine office announced that Pope Francis ordered a revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to proclaim that “the death penalty is inadmissible” and the church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”  

On August 15, 45 Catholic conservatives joined in a bold public appeal to all members of the College of Cardinals, beseeching them to convince Francis to “withdraw” the teaching and end “this gravely scandalous situation.” In ensuing days, dozens added their endorsements by e-mailing appealtocardinals@gmail.com.

The dramatic rebuke of the pope’s teaching occurred one fortnight after the 50th anniversary date of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical defining birth control as immoral (apart from the natural or “rhythm” method), which sparked  far broader dissent worldwide.  

Reporters will observe that liberals contend the birth-control decree undermined the church’s moral authority because so many lay parishioners could not agree -- and still do not. Conservatives argue that maintaining traditional teaching is necessary to uphold the church’s moral credibility. Another angle here is that opposition to executions has hardened partly due to Catholicism's "pro-life" concerns over abortion and mercy-killing. 

There’s been similar conservative angst over Francis’ ambiguous suggestion of openness toward communion for divorced Catholics in second marriages. 

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Not all religions are the same, you know: Can a faith be good if it’s not true?

Not all religions are the same, you know: Can a faith be good if it’s not true?

THE QUESTION:

Are various religions good for individuals and for society even if, as skeptics contend, their beliefs are not really true?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Time for a skepticism update. Never before in history has there been such a concerted effort to question the value of religious faith like we now see across the West’s free societies (as distinct from artificially enforced atheism under Communist tyrannies).

For instance, the common conviction that religion is important for shaping youngsters’ morals is questioned in a recent qz.com article by Annabelle Timsit, a writer on early childhood. “Parents who decide to raise their kids without a religion shouldn’t worry,” she assures us. “Studies have shown that there is no moral difference between children who are raised as religious and those raised secular or non-believing. Moral intuitions arise on their own in children.”

Admittedly, terrorism by Muslim cults raises doubts about the moral credibility of religion in general. Yet even Timsit acknowledges there are “well-documented” potential benefits from religiosity, such as “less drug, alcohol, and tobacco use; lower rates of depression and suicide; better sleep quality; and greater hopefulness and life satisfaction.” Faith also provides a “buffer” against stress and trauma, she says, not to mention fostering “better test scores” for students.

Stephen T. Asma, philosophy professor at Columbia College Chicago, takes a similar stance. The above question is The Religion Guy’s blunt distillation of the intriguing scenario in his new book “Why We Need Religion” (Oxford University Press). He summarized it in a June 3 nytimes.com opinion piece “What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t).”

Say that again: “We need religion.”


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Catholic drama is epic tragedy: Why is Willow Creek meltdown so important?

Catholic drama is epic tragedy: Why is Willow Creek meltdown so important?

At this point, two of America's hottest religion-beat stories have become wedded at the hip, at least in my mind.

I am talking about the latest round of the four-decade scandal in the Roman Catholic Church centering on clergy sexual abuse of children and teens -- the vast majority of them male. Now we have a new #MeToo angle, with numerous reports of sexual abuse and harassment of seminarians and young priests, and some of the attackers have ended up in the episcopate.

The poster-male for this story, of course, is former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the American hierarchy's most powerful networkers and media stars over the past 50 years.

Then there is the #ChurchToo fall of the Rev. Bill Hybels, a superstar megachurch leader who helped create the "Seeker Friendly" evangelical movement of the past couple of decades.

But you know all of that, and I wove those subjects together the other day in a post with this headline: "Who you gonna call? New York Times offers a spiritual piece of the Bill Hybels puzzle."

It will not surprise people who listen to "Crossroads" that host Todd Wilkins and I returned to these topics in this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Look, everyone knows why -- in terms of news -- the Catholic crisis is as has hot at Hades. This is the biggest religion game in town. It's the religion-news Olympics. But why is the Willow Creek story so massive?

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Who you gonna call? New York Times offers a spiritual piece of the Bill Hybels puzzle

Who you gonna call? New York Times offers a spiritual piece of the Bill Hybels puzzle

It would be hard to imagine darker days for believers who truly want to see repentance and reform on issues of sexual abuse in religious institutions.

Are you a supporter of traditional forms of church life, in part because you believe that local pastors and churches need supervision and structures of accountability?

Uh, consider the pain, confusion and fog surrounding the fall of Theodore "Uncle Ted" McCarrick. Are the top Catholic shepherds doing a good job protecting the sheep?

Are you a supporter of free-church evangelicalism, because you believe ancient forms of Christian faith are cold and locked into patterns of decline?

Well, that brings us back to the ongoing efforts at Willow Creek Church to learn what did or did not happen behind closed doors during interactions between women and the church's founder and superstar preacher Bill Hybels.

How do the leaders of an independent megachurch investigate the private affairs of the man who created their empire? Who has the authority to discipline a superstar? You can see that struggle at the top of the latest New York Times story about this ongoing drama:

Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago announced ... that it plans to launch a new independent investigation into allegations that the Rev. Bill Hybels, the church’s influential founding pastor, sexually harassed female co-workers and a congregant over many years.

The announcement came one day after The New York Times reported on accusations from Pat Baranowski, Mr. Hybels’s former executive assistant. She said that Mr. Hybels had sexually and emotionally abused her while she worked at the church and lived with him and his family in the 1980s.

Heather Larson, one of two top pastors at Willow Creek, said in a statement: “It was heartbreaking yesterday to read about the new allegation against Bill Hybels in The New York Times. We have deep sadness for Ms. Baranowski. The behavior that she has described is reprehensible.”

The church’s other top pastor, the Rev. Steve Carter, resigned on Sunday. He said he could no longer work at Willow Creek in good conscience.

So, who you gonna call?

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