We've said it before: Negative posts about media coverage of religion are so much easier to write than positive ones.
When critiquing a less-than-perfect story, there are flaws to point out. Unanswered questions to raise. Bias to criticize.
But when a story hits all the right notes — compelling subject matter, fair treatment of all sides, no sign of where the reporter stands — it's tempting to say, simply, "Hey, read this!" and move along.
That's the case with Godbeat pro Manya Brachear Pashman's in-depth report on whether a Chicago priest should return to ministry after revelations of teen misconduct:
Should a priest's sexual misconduct as a youth bar him from ministry? That's the question facing Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich.
For decades, the Rev. Bruce Wellems, a Roman Catholic priest with the Claretian Missionaries, has served as a father figure for young men in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood.
But when revelations of his sexual misconduct as a teenager resurfaced in 2014 shortly after his religious order transferred him to California, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez removed him from ministry immediately. He returned to his former neighborhood to resume work as a youth advocate and community organizer.
Now Cupich must decide whether the popular priest can wear a collar, celebrate Mass and officially return to active ministry. Wellems, 58, admits to the abuse, though his recollection of the details and how long it lasted differs from the victim's.
"These allegations had nothing to do with who I was as a person," Wellems said in an interview with the Tribune. "In my adult life I've done nothing against children. There's nothing that's ever come up."
The contrast between the actions in Los Angeles and Chicago highlights a gray area in the church's policies on clerical sexual abuse of children and a stark difference in how two archdioceses have handled the issue. Rules adopted by America's Catholic bishops in 2002 apply to priests and deacons who commit even a single incident of abuse, but they give dioceses considerable discretion on how to apply the church's zero-tolerance policy.
Another temptation with a story like this is to copy and paste every word. But at 2,800 words, that would make for a long post. And I'd get myself into copyright trouble.
So I'll try to explain what I like about this story. It's not the subject matter per se. Sexual abuse doesn't make for cheerful reading.
But the issue is important, and the Chicago Tribune gives it the space it deserves.
At the same time, the writer and her newspaper provide a full, fair hearing — both for the accused priest and his victim. Other sources include sexual abuse treatment experts and a victims' advocate.
The following section spoke, in particular, to the newspaper's effort to cover all bases. It won't make total sense out of context, but it highlights my point:
After that inquiry, Wellems confided in his peers. He already had confided in his spiritual director, Sister Irene Dugan, a member of the Cenacle Catholic community of religious women at Loyola University's Institute for Pastoral Studies.
"She taught me to use my experience as motivation to serve people," he said.
Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, said that is often the right approach. Minors often don't sexually offend again, as opposed to adult sex offenders, for whom recidivism rates are greater, she said. But that's hard for people to grasp. People who can forgive others for mistakes they made in their youth often draw the line at sexual abuse, she said.
"There is a very moral aspect to sexual behavior and there is an egregiousness to it that shapes people to look at sexual offenders very differently than people who have offended in other kinds of ways," she said.
"You don't define kids by the worst thing they've ever done and hold them to that standard for the rest of their life," Christopher said. "If somebody is contributing to the community, we can put things in place that allow them to contribute to the community that does everything possible to ensure their safety, that can capitalize on that success and ensure that people aren't at risk of getting hurt."
Peg Duros, clinical director for Chicago's Center for Contextual Change, counsels victims of sexual abuse and perpetrators. She said determining whether people like Wellems should serve in a position often depends on whether they completed a reputable sex offender treatment program.
"The truth is now, in this day and age, that is a reportable offense, especially because of the vast age difference," Duros said. "However, knowing that he was also a survivor is significant. In our professional realm, what we would call that is 'sexually reactive behavior.' He was perpetrating on someone else probably something similar to something done to him. That doesn't take away from the seriousness of it. It certainly doesn't take away from the impact it may have had on his victim."
Go ahead and read the whole story. It's an excellent piece of journalism.
Kudos to Pashman and the Tribune.