Celibacy, NPR and Journalism 101

I'm no expert on the issue of celibacy and Catholic priests. Fortunately, I don't need to be to critique an NPR Morning Edition report headlined "Letter From Priests' Lovers Reignites Celibacy Debate." A Journalism 101 student could handle this post.

Let's start with the question posed by the GetReligion reader who passed along the link: "Isn't it standard journalistic practice to 'present both sides' when a story is news rather than an editorial?"

Um, good question.

Then again, as the perceptive reader noted, "In short, this report appears to be a thinly sourced piece of advocacy masquerading as a news story."

Here's the top of the report:

The church scandals spreading across the Catholic world are prompting a renewed debate on clerical celibacy.

In an unprecedented move, a group of Italian women who have had relationships with priests wrote an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI, saying that priests need to love and be loved.

In Italy, it's common to hear churchgoers say they have known priests with mistresses -- women who passed as housekeepers or cousins.

Fiorella di Meglio, 50, knew one in her small town a two-hour drive north of Rome.

"Years ago, we had a priest here, Don Giorgio, he was a schoolteacher. The kids liked him and so did their mothers," di Meglio says.

"When it came out he was having an affair with a woman, all the mothers rallied around him saying he was a good man. But all the people who didn't know him were scandalized, and of course he was sent away," she says.

OK, Journalism 101 students, what's missing from that first paragraph? Let's all say it together: "Attribution!" Give me a source. Or if you prefer, give me some evidence. Otherwise, I'm going to attribute the information to the reporter's personal opinion.

Ditto on "unprecedented move" in the second paragraph and "common" in the third paragraph.

Moving on, a priest is accused -- by name -- of sexual misconduct. Again, with absolutely no evidence at all to back up the accusation. Believe it or not, that's the only reference to that priest. We don't find out if he's dead or alive. The priest receives no opportunity to say whether he did or did not have an affair. But a woman told NPR that, so it must be true, right? Amazing.

NPR's attempt at a news peg:

In most cases, the priests' companions continue to live in the shadows -- until now. In March, some Italian women came out into the open after Benedict spoke of what he called "the sacred value of celibacy."

"And so we decided to tell people this is not a value, and this is not a sacred value, because sacred is the right of people to get married," says Stefania Salomone, an office manager in Rome.

Salomone started an Italian website for women in relationships with priests. Little by little, 40 women contacted her; yet only two others joined her in signing the letter.

OK, so this "unprecedented move" involves three women signing a letter. Oh, and 38 others who Salomone says contacted her. Great, we'll take her word for it. Come to think of it, wouldn't it be neat if NPR interviewed one of the many priests accused of clandestine relationships?

As for any kind of response from the Vatican or Catholic theologians, that is, apparently, asking too much. NPR makes no semblance of providing any kind of balance in this report. The only "expert" quoted is Richard Sipe, a favorite source of reporters looking for quotes critical of the Catholic Church hierarchy:

Richard Sipe is a mental health counselor for priests and a former Benedictine monk. He says the way celibacy is taught today is not in tune with contemporary reality. While studying in the monastic environment of the seminary, Sipe says, a priest can remain celibate for two to three years. But what happens when he goes out into the world?

"He does not know the psychological dynamics, the social dynamics of sex and what it means to be celibate," says Sipe. "If a man is going to be celibate, it's like a man who is an alcoholic and practicing sobriety. Every day he says, 'I'm going to be celibate today,' but that is not the way celibacy is constructed or taught."

Salomone is particularly angered by what she sees as the hypocrisy and secrecy imposed on priests by the Catholic Church.

What saith the Catholic Church about these allegations of hypocrisy and secrecy? Ha! Good one. Did I mention that this piece falls a bit short when it comes to balance and attribution?

Speaking of bias, I loved this paragraph (and I mean "loved" in the most sarcastic sense possible):

And sin is the judgment the Catholic Church assigns to nearly everything to do with sex outside marriage.

Is it just me or do you sense a bit of negativity in the way that line describes Catholic theology? As for accuracy, since that line mentions nearly everything, I'm curious: What sex outside marriage would the Catholic Church not consider sin? And should "between a man and a woman" be added to the end of the sentence?

The reader mentioned earlier asked, "Is there really anything newsworthy here?"

No, not in the NPR report. But it actually might be worthwhile for a true journalist to take the allegations -- priests' female companions living openly in the shadows -- and investigate them fairly and fully.

Who knows -- there might be a story here. A potentially great story. But at this point, all we've got is a bunch of hearsay and innuendo.

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