When it comes to the religion beat, there are stories that contain minefields and then there are stories that contain minefields so big that they are almost impossible to survive with the story intact. Ask Jeffrey Weiss and Brooks Egerton of The Dallas Morning News, who I think did an admirable job handling their feature story on the 75th birthday, and probable retirement, of Bishop Charles Grahmann of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Dallas.
The story leaves the reader with no doubt that this is a man (photo from here) who has deeply divided his diocese and, to be really frank about it, his many questionable decisions during this latest round of clerical sex scandals is only one of the mines in this minefield. I get the impression that the News could have done an entire second feature on the tensions between Grahmann and Bishop Joseph Galante, who arrived as coadjutor bishop of Dallas in 1999 and never got to rise into the top job. As the News article bluntly states:
Such transitions usually take less than a year, and some local Catholics hoped that would be the case here. But Bishop Grahmann refused to step aside early, and he and Bishop Galante wound up barely speaking to one another.
Then there are the tensions between the bishop, his staff and the traditionalist Catholics in the diocese, which I sampled in a Scripps Howard News Service column a few years ago. My telephone interview with the bishop's spokesman was one of the strangest encounters I have ever had with a media professional representing a mainstream religious group.
If you visit the bishop's "welcome" page, you'll get the general impression. This is not a shepherd who has embraced the candor and openness of the Internet age. As this recent Crunchy Con post from Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher notes, the bishop has never had a graceful touch when it comes to media relations.
Now, put yourself in the shoes of Weiss and Egerton. You have a major piece that must be written about a pivotal development in the life of a highly divisive religious leader in your community. You also know that, at some point in the story, you are going to have to handle the following reality. Hang on, because this gets wild:
The stalemate between the two bishops, along with continuing controversy about Bishop Grahmann's handling of sexual abuse allegations, led The Dallas Morning News to publish an editorial in November of that year calling for Bishop Grahmann's resignation. James M. Moroney III, publisher of The News, went to the bishop's office the day before the editorial ran to tell him about it.
"He was very surprised, disappointed, upset to some degree," recalled the publisher, who is Catholic. "He asked me if we would reconsider."
Mr. Moroney said he replied that the newspaper would not reconsider. Bishop Grahmann, he said, "told me if he were me, he wouldn't want to have this issue to deal with when it came my time to face my judgment day. ... I felt like I was listening to one of my third-grade nuns at Holy Trinity."
Yes indeed, this must have been a tricky story to research and write.
Kudos to Weiss and Egerton for managing to get voices from both sides of the Dallas divide into their story. It was tough work and somebody had to do it.