In Chicagoland, a tombstone for Catholic mom who 'supported priest rapist victims' sparks dispute

In Chicagoland, a tombstone for Catholic mom who 'supported priest rapist victims' sparks dispute

In the Chicago area, the family of a deceased Catholic mother is fighting with the diocese that owns the cemetery where she is buried. The matter in dispute: the wording on the woman's tombstone.

That certainly sounds newsworthy to me, so it's not surprising that the Chicago Tribune jumped on the story.

This is a case where precise language is needed to explain the positions of both sides, and the Tribune provides it.

The lede lays out the basic facts:

Marguerite Ridgeway was a fervent Catholic until her faith was shaken when church sex abuse scandals came to light, particularly a decades-old trauma recounted by her daughter-in-law.
Now Ridgeway’s son wants to install a marker at his late mother’s gravesite in Wheaton bearing the inscription “She supported priest rapist victims.”
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Joliet, which owns Assumption Cemetery, has objected to what it calls the “explicit language” of the epitaph.
Ridgeway’s son, Jack Ruhl, of Kalamazoo, Mich., recently sent a rendering of the planned marker to the cemetery, along with a $350 check to cover the installation fee.
“I ask that you do not dishonor the memory of my mother by further delay in installation of her grave marker,” he said in an email to officials with the diocese earlier this month.
An attorney for the diocese in an Oct. 6 letter proposed removing the word “rapist” and substituting softer language, such as “She supported clergy sex abuse victims,” or “She supported victims of clergy sex abuse.”
The letter described the word rapist as “graphic, offensive and shocking to the senses.”

Keep reading, and the story identifies the attorney and offers additional insight on the diocese's official position:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Secret children of Catholic priests: Solid Associated Press report takes one very strange turn

Secret children of Catholic priests: Solid Associated Press report takes one very strange turn

All journalists who hold jobs in which they have to write hard-news stories on tight deadlines -- in wire-service newsrooms, for example -- know about the challenge of writing short, accurate summary paragraphs that package lots of facts into very few words.

My college mentor, the famous J-prof David McHam, used to put it this way: A journalist is someone who can write a solid 500-word story in 20 minutes, even with a headache.

You really have to watch out for the transition paragraphs, however, the ones in which you try to give readers a big idea in a punchy sentence, or two. You can end up with strained logic, or worse. Hold that thought, because we will return to it later.

Recently, a careful reader of this blog sent me the URL for an Associated Press story that ran at Crux focusing on a complex and very difficult subject. The headline is rather calm, considering the scandalous subject: "Pope’s advisers on sex abuse also take up children of priests." Here is the overture:

VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis’s committee of advisers on protecting children from sexually abusive priests is expanding its workload to include the needs and rights of children fathered by Roman Catholic priests.
Committee members told The Associated Press ... that a working group is looking into developing guidelines that can be used by dioceses around the world to ensure that children born to priests are adequately cared for.
“It’s a horrendous problem in many cultures, and it’s not something that is readily talked about,” commission member Dr. Krysten Winter-Green said.
Indeed, for centuries the Church often has tried to keep such children secret, because of the scandal of priests breaking their vows of celibacy.

Obviously, there are other tricky and often horrible issues linked to this topic, and this Associated Press report does a pretty solid job handling them, especially in a short wire story.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Christian Zionist gathering during Sukkot takes on international tone, says The Atlantic

Christian Zionist gathering during Sukkot takes on international tone, says The Atlantic

Only religion-beat professionals used to know about the annual Feast of Tabernacles celebration in Israel that was more Christian than Jewish and involved all sorts of odd folks waving Israeli flags on the streets of Jerusalem.

Fortunately, the Atlantic sent Emma Green to cover the 2017 version of this Sukkot festival with the angle that these days it’s not just American evangelicals populating the place -- 90 percent of the crowd is made up of internationals. And that the local Jewish population is truly OK with them being there.

From the front lines of a conference center in Jerusalem, here's what she wrote:

JERUSALEM -- The scene was like a contemporary Christian music concert, but with a lot more Jewish swag. European pilgrims wore Star of David jewelry as they swayed among the palm trees of Ein Gedi, an oasis in the Judean desert. Spanish delegates sported matching “España loves Israel” T-shirts. A tiny woman from China jogged around waving a person-sized flag bearing a Hebrew word for God, while another Chinese woman periodically blew a giant shofar, the ram’s horn that is sacred in Judaism. The crowd sang songs from the Psalms, following transliterated Hebrew on giant television screens. As night fell, their chorus of “holy, holy, worthy, worthy” seemed to fill the desert.
This was the opening ceremony for the 2017 Feast of the Tabernacles, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem’s annual celebration held during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. More than 6,000 Christians from all over the world had come to show their love for Israel, and I tagged along with ICEJ spokesperson David Parsons and his wife, Josepha. “It’s like a pre-celebration before Moshiach comes,” she explained, using the Hebrew word for messiah.

I remember interviewing Parsons 17 years ago when some of us came to Jerusalem in the closing days of 1999 to record what a new millennium looked like from the Mount of Olives and to write news stories about some of the crazies who thought the Second Coming was imminent.

Christian Zionism typically involves a belief that Jews must return to Israel in order to fulfill biblical prophecy. While the movement long predates the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, it got new energy from the American religious right in the 1980s. Now, according to Daniel Hummel, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the movement is undergoing a transformation, both theologically and geographically.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Former NPR CEO visits Jesusland! Returns with sobering media-bias truths for left and right

Former NPR CEO visits Jesusland! Returns with sobering media-bias truths for left and right

Oh my. What's a GetReligionista to do?

There are so many journalism and Godbeat think pieces from the past week that I would like to run in this Sunday slot. Some of them are going to turn into daily pieces, methinks. Some are headed into my large "file of guilt" for later.

But let's start with a very unusual byline atop an op-ed essay at The New York Post. This byline is so strange that the copy desk decided to celebrate it right there in the headline: "Former NPR CEO opens up about liberal media bias."

Then again, it helps to know that former National Public Radio CEO Ken Stern is about to release a major-publisher book with this title: "Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right." An essay in the libertarian Post made lots of sense.

Now, as a non-Republican, I care little about the political language of the book title. As someone who has spent his life studying media bias issues linked to religion coverage, I am interested in the methodology that Stern used.

Brace yourselves. He went out into flyover country (also known as "Jesusland") and talked to people.

Journalists -- hopefully on the left, as well as the right -- will want to know that his stated motive for writing this book was his horror at the current state of public discourse in our nation. This is not a "Yea Trump!" essay. It's an essay by someone who is concerned about the press and its old -- now dying, I fear -- role as a fair-minded middle ground in American life. Here is a key passage:

Spurred by a fear that red and blue America were drifting irrevocably apart, I decided to venture out from my overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhood and engage Republicans where they live, work and pray. For an entire year, I embedded myself with the other side, standing in pit row at a NASCAR race, hanging out at Tea Party meetings and sitting in on Steve Bannon’s radio show. I found an America far different from the one depicted in the press and imagined by presidents (“cling to guns or religion”) and presidential candidates (“basket of deplorables”) alike.

Now, what does this have to do with religion-beat work?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Is this the 'fastest-growing Christian group in America,' and perhaps the world?

Is this the 'fastest-growing Christian group in America,' and perhaps the world?

Back in August, a memo by The Religion Guy outpointed the value of the “Ethics + Religion” section at theconversation.com, where scholars reconfigure their  research in terms lay readers can grasp.

A good example is an October 11 item about what two professors claim “is the fastest-growing Christian group in America and possibly around the world.” The authors are Biola University sociologist Brad Christerson and Richard Flory, senior research director at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

Their label for this is the “Independent Network Charismatic” or “INC” movement, described in detail in their recent book “The Rise of Network Christianity: How Independent Leaders Are Changing the Religious Landscape” (Oxford University Press).

Props to colleague Bob Smietana for grabbing the importance of this for an August 3 interview with the two authors at christianitytoday.com, which interested writers will want to peruse.

INC is a particular subset of the independent, non-denominational congregations that are the growing edge of U.S. Protestantism. The authors calculate that over four decades ending in 2010, regularly attending Protestants of all types declined by an average .05 percent per year, which is “striking” since the U.S. population was growing by 1 percent per year.

Meanwhile, adherents of “independent, neo-charismatic congregations,” the category that includes INC groups among many others, grew an average 3.24 percent per year. So INC is a distinct sub-category within an already thriving segment of U.S. Protestantism that shuns traditional forms and provides a particularly intense form of Pentecostal-flavored experience.

The movement has expanded for the most part under the radar. Have you seen many news stories about such influential INC personalities as Che Ahn, Mike Bickle, Bill Johnson, Cindy Jacobs or Chuck Pierce, or about Bethel Church, Harvest International Ministries (HIM), or International House of Prayer (IHOP)?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Maybe there's a story here: Lutherans on left, right share some common decline issues

Maybe there's a story here: Lutherans on left, right share some common decline issues

If you hang out in the world of organized religion for several decades -- either as a participant, a reporter-outsider or both -- then you reach a point where there is something refreshing about reading an honest report by a faith-based group that's trying to address a real problem.

It's so easy to ignore problems, year after year, until you look up one day and your pews contain a dozen or so people over the age of 70. The next thing you know, you're trying to see how many nonprofits can lease space in your building so that you can keep the heat on and the doors open.

Sound familiar? Plot lines linked to declining numbers and aging sheep have been getting more and more prominent in recent decades, especially among the oldline Protestant churches on both sides of the Atlantic. That's an old story. We talked about that story in this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), but only because it was linked to something more complex and, I think, more interesting.

You see, many churches on the doctrinal right are facing some -- repeat "some" -- of the same issues as those on the left. Yes, there is some truth to the claims that American Catholics have been able to hold things together because of rising numbers in Hispanic parishes (while also importing some priests from the Global South). Southern Baptists have drifted into a slight decline, facing numbers that are not as staggering as those seen in the "Seven Sisters" on the Protestant left, but they are bad (especially when it comes to baptisms). The old-guard SBC knows that continued growth among African-American and Latino churches is crucial.

So this brings me to a report that I bumped into last year published (.pdf here) by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in its Journal of Lutheran Mission. What's it about? It's about the 40 years or so of decline in membership in the churches of this conservative synod, a decline that is quite similar to that seen on the left.

Want to see some candor? Check out these bullet points from the introduction to the Journal package:

* ... (A)ll denominations gain the overwhelming majority of their membership from natural growth: from children of adult members raised in the faith. Thus, the retention of baptized and confirmed youth is a key area on which to focus.
* The LCMS’s persistent, long-term decline manifests itself both in a massive decrease in child baptisms (down 70 percent since their peak in the late 1950s) and a smaller but still significant decrease in adult converts (down 47 percent since their peak, again in the late 1950s).

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The New Yorker profiles Pence, but only gets half the man (and guess what is missing)

The New Yorker profiles Pence, but only gets half the man (and guess what is missing)

Certainly I was interested in reading about the unlikely match between the "coarse New York billionaire and the prim Indiana evangelical" that is now running our country, which is why I quickly reached for the New Yorker's piece on Vice President Mike Pence.

With a headline of "The Danger of President Pence," I knew where the article was going, but I hoped there might be solid, factual, even fair-minded gleanings about Pence's faith and how his God connection guides what he does. 

The bottom line: I found little there that other writers hadn't already covered. The feature began like this:

On September 14th, the right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, who last year published a book titled “In Trump We Trust,” expressed what a growing number of Americans, including conservatives, have been feeling since the 2016 election. The previous day, President Trump had dined with Democratic leaders at the White House, and had impetuously agreed to a major policy reversal, granting provisional residency to undocumented immigrants who came to America as children. Republican legislators were blindsided. Within hours, Trump disavowed the deal, then reaffirmed it. Coulter tweeted, “At this point, who doesn’t want Trump impeached?” She soon added, “If we’re not getting a wall, I’d prefer President Pence.”

The piece goes on to describe how little attention has been paid to Pence (who refused to be interviewed for the piece) until now, when people are longing for anyone, anything to replace Trump. And that Pence, with his political experience, conservative moorings and connections, may be as dangerous as his boss or even more so (you know, all that religion stuff).

The New Yorker then went on a long digression about Pence’s connections with billionaires Charles and David Koch. (Not surprisingly, the reporter, Jane Mayer, did not mete out the same criticism to multi-billionaire George Soros and his contributions to Democrats but then again, this part of the piece is recycled from her recent book “Dark Money” about conservative fat cats ).

Any fresh religious content is surprisingly skimpy, when you consider that this is a profile on a very devout man. Starting in his college days:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

In 2,500 words on abusive psycho-spiritual group, New York Times buries crucial four-letter word

In 2,500 words on abusive psycho-spiritual group, New York Times buries crucial four-letter word

Anyone who has followed the history of new religious movements in the United States and elsewhere knows that, since the 1970s, the word "cult" is one four-letter word newspapers have often been loath to apply to controversial groups.

That wasn't the case before and after the 1978 Jonestown massacre, when newspapers saw cults under almost every rock.

But now, there's a great reticence at using this particular four-letter word in many news organizations. What, however, can a newspaper do when a group really and truly has the markings of a, well, cult, at the level of sociology and human behavior? Do you use the word or bury it?

For an answer, consider this front-page story from The New York Times, which reports on what can easily be considered a psycho-spiritual group, called NXIVM (pronounced neks-ee-um). In some cases, this organization literally leaves its mark on adherents, according to the story, headlined "Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded."

Read this longish excerpt to understand the scene being set:

ALBANY -- Last March, five women gathered in a home near here to enter a secret sisterhood they were told was created to empower women.
To gain admission, they were required to give their recruiter -- or “master,” as she was called -- naked photographs or other compromising material and were warned that such “collateral” might be publicly released if the group’s existence were disclosed.
The women, in their 30s and 40s, belonged to a self-help organization called Nxivm, which is based in Albany and has chapters across the country, Canada and Mexico.
Sarah Edmondson, one of the participants, said she had been told she would get a small tattoo as part of the initiation. But she was not prepared for what came next.
Each woman was told to undress and lie on a massage table, while three others restrained her legs and shoulders. According to one of them, their “master,” a top Nxivm official named Lauren Salzman, instructed them to say: “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The most famous Mormons you've never heard of — or maybe I'm the only one not familiar with Studio C

The most famous Mormons you've never heard of — or maybe I'm the only one not familiar with Studio C

Besides its world-class financial reporting, the Wall Street Journal does some fantastic pieces on the most quirky of subjects.

Today's Exhibit A: the WSJ's feature this week on a popular sketch comedy troupe out of Mormon-affiliated Brigham Young University. 

I mean, this story is just lovely from top to bottom — with plenty of relevant details tied to the troupe's religion.

The lede — wow! — sets the scene in a remarkable way:

Conan O’Brien and his family were out to dinner in Santa Monica last year when his daughter began to screech, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”
“I thought a Cessna had just plowed into the sidewalk and burst into flames,” the late-night TV host recalls. “Then my son started to freak out and he was like, ‘They’re crossing the street! They’re crossing the street!’”
The source of the pandemonium was the arrival of what Mr. O’Brien’s children deemed some bigger celebrities: a few mild-mannered Mormons. The late-night TV host, who soon took a picture with them, recognized them as the stars of Studio C, a sketch comedy show out of Brigham Young University.
Studio C has achieved sizable popularity on the internet, despite—or perhaps because of—its super-scrubbed brand of clean humor, such as a skit about a soccer goalie named Scott Sterling who accidentally, and agonizingly, blocks shots with his face.

The writer's mastery can be seen in the juxtaposing of the unlikely fan who exclaims "Oh my God!" in the lede with this later note:

Please respect our Commenting Policy