Not that long ago, our own Mark Kellner took at look at the New York Times coverage of a rather prestigious Catholic school in the Bronx that did something very controversial, at least in the newsroom of the great Gray Lady. The leaders of Cardinal Spellman High School invited a Catholic priest to speak at the school for a specific purpose -- to defend Catholic moral teachings on sexuality. The earth trembled. How could a Catholic school dare do such a thing?
I read the coverage, read Mark's post and then moved on.
The problem, of course, is that there is more than one newspaper in the New York City area and, in this case, I later learned that it was crucial to pay attention to the coverage in The New York Daily News, as well. There have been several reports there on this controversy, but they are united by one truly horrible error.
You can see it right in this epic headline:
Spellman High School cancels talk by ‘pray away the gay’ preacher Donald Timone -- but it’s only temporary
Father Trevor Nicholls suggests anti-gay father will be back. Gay groups and some staff outraged.
First of all, there are quite a few Christian groups that minister to gays and lesbians who voluntarily walk through their doors (as opposed to groups that, theoretically, would go out on the streets and kidnap people). I have been covering issues linked to these groups for several decades and, truth is, there is quite a bit of variety out there in terms of the doctrines that they teach and the strategies that they employ.
There are groups, especially among Pentecostals, who truly believe that, over time, God can heal each and every person who seeks healing from same-sex attraction. However, I have never heard of anyone claiming that all someone needs to do is say a prayer and that's that. Not a single person. In fact, I don't think I have ever heard anyone claim that they prayed and prayed and were completely delivered from same-sex temptations. That's the thing about real temptations. They are real and they hang around.
Here's the key: In several decades of coverage of these issues, I have never heard anyone say that it is possible to "pray away the gay." I literally have never heard the phrase used, except by critics of these ministries. So when this phrase is used, if it is ever used by journalists, it is extremely important to attribute this damning quote to someone specific. That's an important rule in journalism, period, but especially when dealing with topics this controversial.
So if editors are going to start writing headlines such as, "'Pray Away Gay' priest at Cardinal Spellman," it's important to stop and ask the question: What did Father Donald Timone actually say and when did he say it?
So here is the top of the key story:
A Catholic high School has postponed a talk by a controversial priest who encourages teens to “pray away the gay” -- but the president of the Bronx school defied angry gay groups by saying the lecturer will be invited back.
Father Donald Timone was scheduled to speak Tuesday night at Cardinal Spellman High School about the Catholic group called Courage -- which encourages teens "struggling with same-sex attraction" to lead chaste lives.
Now, it is stated -- outright -- that Timone is part of a group called Courage and that he, or this organization, or both, encourage teens to "pray away the gay" -- in direct quotes. Most of the time, people "encourage" others to do something by speaking or writing the words in question.
So what does the story offer as proof that this is the case? What are readers told about Timone and his message, other than the fact that Courage urges young people to lead chaste lives.
Note the irony: Why does one need to lead a chaste life if one has only to pray away the gay? Why is chastity the main Courage option, the realistic option? In other words, the Daily News story contradicts itself in its first two paragraphs.
Back to Father Donald and his alleged message. There is this:
Opponents of Timone -- who say he treats homosexuals like addicts in a 12-step program -- will continue their fight. ...
OK, so the story quotes the opponents of Timone about his alleged beliefs. That not very kosher. And, as it turns out, that is the only material in the story that in any way addresses what Timone advocates, in terms of spiritual disciples related to the Catholic faith and the church's moral theology. That. Is. It.
So what does Courage say about itself? What are it's goals? Does it actually teach that the normative approach to this issue is to "pray away the gay"?
Warning: This material includes actual Catholic language about complex issues.
The following Five Goals of Courage were created by the members themselves, when Courage was founded. The goals are read at the start of each meeting and each member is called to practice them in daily life.
To live chaste lives in accordance with the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on homosexuality. ( Chastity )
To dedicate our entire lives to Christ through service to others, spiritual reading, prayer, meditation, individual spiritual direction, frequent attendance at Mass, and the frequent reception of the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist. (Prayer and Dedication)
To foster a spirit of fellowship in which we may share with one another our thoughts and experiences, and so ensure that no one will have to face the problems of homosexuality alone. (Fellowship)
To be mindful of the truth that chaste friendships are not only possible but necessary in a chaste Christian life; and to encourage one another in forming and sustaining these friendships. (Support)
To live lives that may serve as good examples to others. (Good Example/Role Model)
So, one more time I would like to ask this question to the team at The New York Daily News: Where did the "pray away the gay" direct quotation come from? Who spoke those words? If Timone, when and where? If someone else related to Courage, when and where?
If not, please print a correction. That will take courage, but it is possible to do the right thing every now and then. It is not good for journalists to directly attribute words to people who have not spoken them.