Dallas Morning News offers newsworthy but superficial coverage of church sex abuse settlement

Dallas Morning News offers newsworthy but superficial coverage of church sex abuse settlement

I want to call attention to a story on today’s Dallas Morning News Metro & State section cover about a sex abuse lawsuit settlement involving Dallas Theological Seminary.

I have a rather simple point to make about the superficiality of the coverage.

But first, this important context might be helpful: In news reports everywhere, it’s difficult to miss the ongoing Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal. Just today, Pope Francis acknowledged that the mess is “outraging the Catholic faithful and driving them away.”’

However, if the Catholic scandal is a case of a massive church hierarchy mishandling and covering up countless rotten deeds, how can journalists wrap their minds — and their notebooks — around similar abuse in free-church settings?

Free-church settings are those where congregations — such as independent megachurches, Churches of Christ/Christian Churches or autonomous congregations that are part of a voluntary association such as the Southern Baptist Convention — operate outside the realm of a church hierarchy.

In other words, the buck stops — or fails to stop — with a local pastor or elder/deacon group, as opposed to a formal structure with real denominational control.

As GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly noted just recently:

(I)t is possible for evil leaders to hide in a church bureaucracy. But that same bureaucracy can, with good leaders, be used to confront evil and to document it. It's also easier for lawyers and public officials to attempt to force (think lawsuits aimed at pools of resources and shared insurance policies) larger, united church bodies into action.

It's true. It's rather easy to hide large problems in a great cloud of fog. A reporter with good sources may be able to nail down a problem in one local church. But how does one go about showing the larger picture in the world of independent and near-independent Protestant congregations?

Bad pastors can simply move on and there is no shepherd above them. Who warns the next independent church? Who keeps tracks of the wolves? There is no there, there.

So there is a big story here. But how does one report it, in an age of shrinking newsrooms and budgets to support skilled reporters working for weeks or months to verify information from legions of sources?

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Breaking news: Brett Kavanaugh uses the V-word, which used to be OK for Catholics

Breaking news: Brett Kavanaugh uses the V-word, which used to be OK for Catholics

Growing up as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid in Bible Belt Texas, I was quite familiar with the word “virgin.” (Click here for a dictionary reference, if you need one.)

It wasn’t a curse word and, for most people, it wasn’t a punch line. At the same time, it wasn’t something folks in my high school discussed in public very much. Yes, there were people who gossiped about who was doing or not doing what. However, as a nerd, bookworm and choral musician I wasn’t up to speed on all that. I was an uncool guy, even among the Baptists.

My point is that this wasn’t a mysterious word. No one needed to put the V-word inside “scare quotes” (dictionary definition here), as if it was a concept from an alien planet.

Take this USA Today headline, for example: “Brett Kavanaugh: He was a 'virgin' in high school and other takeaways from Fox interview.”

What, pray tell, is the purpose of the quotation marks around “virgin”? Is the point that (a) editors at Gannett are not sure about the meaning of the word or (b) that Kavanaugh — wink, wink — said that word so we are putting it inside quotation marks because, well, you know.

To make sure readers got the point, editors repeated this reference later in the story. This word was, apparently, the most important, the most shocking, takeaway from this interview.

Kavanaugh a 'virgin' in high school

The judge said he never had sexual intercourse "or anything close to (it)" until long after he left Georgetown Prep, the elite all-boys Catholic high school he attended in Rockville, Maryland.

“So you’re saying through all these years that are in question that you were a virgin?” MacCallum asked Kavanaugh.

“That’s correct," he replied.

She pressed on: “And through what years in college, since we’re probing into your personal life here?”

“Many years after, I’ll leave it at that," he answered. "Many years after."

Here is my question about that passage: Is the most important word in it “prep” or “Catholic"?

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Vatican-China agreement: As misguided as Rome's attempt to work with Nazi Germany?

Vatican-China agreement: As misguided as Rome's attempt to work with Nazi Germany?

Hear about last weekend’s provisional agreement between the Vatican and Beijing to end their decades-long dispute over the appointment of Catholic bishops in China?

China is, of course, arguably one of the world’s worst offenders when it comes to suppressing religious freedom — including for persecution of its estimated six-million strong, underground Catholic church.

You're excused if you haven’t seen coverage of this story, since the American media can barely keep up with the ongoing political explosions emanating from Washington these days. That means a great many international stories, while covered, often receive less overall attention than their long-term importance warrants.

This Vatican-Beijing development — ostensibly designed to unite the much persecuted, Vatican-loyal, underground Chinese Catholic church with the government recognized, and controlled, official Chinese Catholic church — falls into this category.

Given China’s current redoubling of its efforts to allow few, if any, ideologically rivals, religious or otherwise, it seems like an odd time to enter into any such agreement with Beijing.

Which to my mind means this agreement is, for the Vatican, pretty tenuous — as is every agreement held hostage to Beijing’s generally oppressive political power plays.

How will this agreement survive should Vatican officials decide to criticize one or another Chinese human rights violation? Or does China believe that by agreeing to the deal its gained a measure of Roman Catholic Church silence on such matter -- meaning this agreement is just another Chinese attempt to control religious expression?

Today it's China’s Uighur Muslims. It’s not so far fetched to image Beijing lowering the boom on its Catholic population tomorrow should the Roman hierarchy offend China’s politically paranoid sensibilities.

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New York Times offers bizarre twist on Benedict XVI letters, while Crux sticks to the facts

New York Times offers bizarre twist on Benedict XVI letters, while Crux sticks to the facts

So here is the journalism question I offer to you today: What does a letter from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI written on Nov. 23, 2017, have to do with the written testimony of Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, which exploded into public view at the end of August, 2018?

If you look at this as a matter of logic, the answer is clear: Nothing.

Well, I guess one could argue that Benedict could have had a prophetic vision of what Vigano was going to do. But I think that’s a bit of a stretch. How about you?

Anyway, in this case it really helps to report the contents of the Benedict letter and look for the news contained therein.

That’s what the team at Crux did, under this recent headline: “Benedict XVI hits back at critics in leaked letters.” Note: The retired pope is speaking to his own critics.

Now hold that thought, while we look at the amazing and bizarre New York Times report about the same Benedict letters. The headline proclaimed: “In Private Letters, Benedict Rebukes Critics of Pope Francis.”

You see, everything has to be about conservative Catholics attacking Pope Francis. Got that? Here is the overture, which opens with — you got it — the Vigano letter:

ROME — The remarkable letter last month calling on Pope Francis to resign for allegedly shielding an abusive American cardinal also served as a public call to arms for some conservative Catholics who pine for the pontificate of the previous pope, Benedict XVI. For years now, they have carried his name like a battle standard into the ideological trenches.

Benedict apparently would like them to knock it off.

In private letters published on Thursday by the German newspaper Bild, Benedict, who in retirement has remained studiously quiet through the controversies over Francis’ fitness to lead the church, says that the “anger” expressed by some of his staunchest defenders risks tarnishing his own pontificate.

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Monday Mix: Kavanaugh, Tennessee church shooting, Baptist women, rainbow-banner burning

Monday Mix: Kavanaugh, Tennessee church shooting, Baptist women, rainbow-banner burning

If you slept this weekend, developments in the fight over President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, kept coming at a lightning speed.

The details are not for the squeamish. Click here and here if you dare. And here if you’re skeptical of the claims.

Want a religion angle on Kavanaugh? Here is a New York Times story and one from Religion News Service.

Now, on to the Monday Mix, which focuses on headlines and insights you might have missed from the weekend and late in the week.

The fine print: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

Three weekend reads

1. "We get strength from being with each other, and we want this to be just a place of comfort, but will it ever be what it was?" The Tennessean’s Holly Meyer offers a one-year anniversary update on the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tenn.

That is the church where a gunman opened fire as the Sunday morning service was letting out a year ago, killing one woman and injuring seven other people, including the minister.

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When reporting on tragic trends in Latin America, don't leave out Catholics and Pentecostals

When reporting on tragic trends in Latin America, don't leave out Catholics and Pentecostals

The headline drew me instantly: “Latin America is the murder capital of the world.”

Appearing in the Wall Street Journal (which, being behind a paywall, is not accessible to non-subscribers so I’ll cut and paste what I can), the piece said the entire continent is in a crisis mode because of the non-stop murders that happen nearly everywhere.

With only a few exceptions (Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba), it’s become a horrible place to live and a risky place to visit. The question, of course, is how religion fits into this picture, in terms of the history of the region, as well as life there right now.

The piece begins with a description of how Acapulco, once the vacation spot for the rich and famous, has become a a sharpshooter’s gallery.

Acapulco’s days as a tourist resort with a touch of Hollywood glamour seem long ago. In a city of 800,000, 953 people were violently killed last year, more than in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Portugal and the Netherlands put together.

It’s not just Mexico. There is a murder crisis across much of Latin America and the Caribbean, which today is the world’s most violent region. Every day, more than 400 people are murdered there, a yearly tally of about 145,000 dead.

With just 8% of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for roughly a third of global murders. It is also the only region where lethal violence has grown steadily since 2000, according to United Nations figures.

Nearly one in every four murders around the world takes place in just four countries: Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico and Colombia. Last year, a record 63,808 people were murdered in Brazil. Mexico also set a record at 31,174, with murders so far this year up another 20%.

The 2016 tally in China, according to the U.N.: 8,634. For the entire European Union: 5,351. The United States: 17,250.

I guess there are SOME advantages in China being a police state. It does keep the murders down, although God only knows what really goes on in prisons and prison camps in that country where people disappear and never return.

In this story, everyone gets to die, starting with elementary school-aged kids to surgeons who botched a plastic surgery operation on a drug lord. The latter were found encased in cement.

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Catholic crisis thinkers: What details change, when looking from the left and then the right?

Catholic crisis thinkers: What details change, when looking from the left and then the right?

This weekend’s think piece is two think pieces in one.

As a bonus, I think I have found a foolproof way to determine how editors of a given publication have answered the crucial question: What is the decades-old Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal all about?

Well, let me qualify that a bit: This journalistic test that I am proposing works really well with the drama surrounding ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, since he has been accused of several different kinds of sexual abuse with males of different ages.

The editorial test: Search an article for the word “seminary” or variations on that term.

Let’s start with the Atlantic essay that ran with this headline: “The Sex-Abuse Scandal Is Growing Faster Than the Church Can Contain It.” Here’s a sample of the language:

“Many strands are coming together,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a historian of Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. “It does seem like we are reaching a watershed moment.” By Thursday, there had been so many new developments that she said she was having a hard time keeping up — and that the leaders at the Vatican probably were, too. “I think they’re scrambling. The news is coming on so many fronts. I think they don’t know quite what to do.” Here is some of what they nevertheless did this week.


The article does mention the controversial public testimony published by the Vatican’s former ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, without really getting into the details other than to its call for Pope Francis to resign.

There is another summary statement later:

Pope Francis on Wednesday summoned bishops from around the world to a first-of-its-kind meeting in Rome in February. The focus will be on protecting minors, and bishops will reportedly receive training in identifying abuse, intervening, and listening to victims.

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That old media-bias question again: What will NPR call someone who performs abortions?

That old media-bias question again: What will NPR call someone who performs abortions?

As your GetReligionistas have explained many times, abortion is an issue that isn’t automatically religion-beat territory. However, most public debates about abortion (and euthanasia) end up involving religious groups and the arguments almost always involve religious language.

Yes, there is a group called Atheists Against Abortion and there are other groups on the religious and cultural left, such as the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. I was converted to the pro-life position as a young adult through articles at Sojourners, including a famous essay by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

But in the mainstream press, liberal pro-lifers hardly exist, if they exist at all. You would never know that somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of Democrats (depending on how you word the question) hold positions on abortion that most journalists would call “anti-choice.”

Thus, questions about abortion have long been at the heart of surveys linked to religion and media bias, with journalists, especially in elite urban zip codes, consistently backing America’s current regime of abortion laws to a much stronger degree than the public as a whole. It’s been that way since I started studying the issue in the early 1980s.

If you were looking for a recent Armageddon moment on this topic (other than the current U.S. Supreme Court fiasco), it would have to be the media coverage, or non-coverage, of the criminal activity of Dr. Kermit Gosnell of Philadelphia.

Here at GetReligion, the blogging and chutzpah of M.Z. Hemingway played a key role in forcing debates about that topic out into the open.

In the past week or so, several GetReligion readers have sent me the URL of a commentary at The Daily Beast that ran with this headline: “Leaked NPR Emails: Don’t Call Kermit Gosnell an ‘Abortion Doctor’.”

This piece focuses on one of the key issues raised during the Gosnell trial — what professional title should reporters describe to this member of the abortion industry?

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Beyond 'administrative' affairs: Do bishops realize that anger in pews puts them in crosshairs?

Beyond 'administrative' affairs: Do bishops realize that anger in pews puts them in crosshairs?

In many ways, recent remarks by Cardinal Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga at the Spanish-language website Religion Digital are the perfect summary of where we are, right now, in the various scandals linked to the life and times of ex-cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick.

Not that you would know that, the first time you read the most important quotation in that report. This was one of those cases in which you had to read the quote three or four times — focusing on a few strategic turns of phrase — to understand what was going on.

It also helps to remember that Cardinal Maradiaga is the chair of the inner ring of cardinals who advise Pope Francis. This isn’t a quote from the Throne of St. Peter, but it’s very close.

Ready? Read carefully.

"It does not seem correct to me to transform something that is of the private order into bombshell headlines exploding all over the world and whose shrapnel is hurting the faith of many," said Cardinal Maradiaga, in a Religion Digital interview. "I think this case of an administrative nature should have been made public in accordance with more serene and objective criteria, not with the negative charge of deeply bitter expressions."

Now, what does the word “something” mean? This appears to have been a comment about the McCarrick case, as opposed to the wider world of clergy child-abuse scandals.

Apparently, this Francis insider believes that this case is “administrative” and “of the private order” and, thus, not something for public inquiry and headlines (or published testimonies by former papal nuncios to the United States). In my national “On Religion” column this week, I also noted this quote from Maradiaga:

On another "private order," "administrative" issue in church affairs, he said the "notion of a gay lobby in the Vatican is out of proportion. It is something that exists much more in the ink of the newspapers than in reality."

All of this, and much more, came up for discussion in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in). Think of it as our latest attempt to answer the question people keep asking: What is this Catholic mess really about?

 

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