Killing priests: Religion News Service digs into some details about tragic trend in Mexico

Murders and other atrocities have become so common in places like the Middle East, we Americans often overlook them closer to home -- for instance, in our next-door neighbor Mexico.

Thankfully, the Religion News Service does not. An incisive, indepth feature this week logs the series of murders of priests there in recent years. This exemplary article not only covers the details of some of the deaths; it also traces the ingredients of organized crime, priestly activism and government antagonism that made the killings possible.

The RNS team didn't get to the bottom of the matter, and it doesn't totally work its sources. But we'll get to that in a bit.

The story begins with the "bullet-riddled body of the Rev. Jose Lopez Guillen," found in Mexico's violence-plagued state of Michoacan. But rather than merely checking off his name, it quotes a member of his parish saying how he was "an excellent priest and very devoted to the community." It's a vital human touch.

RNS then broadens the scope, saying at least 15 priests have been killed over four years -- and 31 over the last decade. And it wisely adds context:

The murders come at a time of strained relations between church and state in Mexico, in part because Catholic bishops recently supported mass protests against a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.
In the wake of the killings the church has also abandoned its normal reluctance to criticize the government and has publicly accused state officials in Michoacan and Veracruz of directing a defamation campaign against the priests.
Mexico is the country with the second-largest Catholic population in the world, with nearly 100 million people, or more than 80 percent of the population, identifying as Catholic. But the country has a long history of anti-clericalism and in the past century the government officially and often violently suppressed the church.

Sourcing for this story is impressive. It includes two activist priests, who struggle to stop the violence -- and have sometimes literally drawn fire for it. It also has valuable insights from the Rev. Omar Sotelo of the Catholic Multimedia Center and the Rev. Hugo Valdemar Romero, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City.

RNS notes that church-state relations improved after constitutional reforms in 1992. Pope Francis visited Mexico this past February, and made a point of visiting Michoacan. He also offered prayers for the murdered priests during an Angelus message at St. Peter's last month.

Why so many priest killings? The article doesn't say they are being targeted specifically for their faith -- not when they're among 150,000 victims in the decade-long war between Mexico and its drug cartels. Nor does it naively assume the priests simply got in the way of the drug lords.

The more subtle reason it offers -- perhaps the most tragic one -- is that the priests simply die in the line of duty, trying to better their parishioners' lives.

"Priests as a matter of course come into contact with a great variety of people, some of whom may be criminals," RNS says. It quotes the high-profile Rev. Jose Luis Segura Barragan saying that some priests draw the ire of drug traffickers by refusing to say Mass or perform a baptism for them.

Segura Barragan found himself dodging rocks and bullets for his ministry, RNS says. He voiced support for armed self-defense groups in La Ruana in 2013; then some locals turned on him for it.  He finally left four months ago.

At least, that's according to this priest. It's one of the few soft spots in this article: lack of multi-sourcing for controversial facets. I would have liked to read corroboration from local police or a government source or a community leader. Are their printed records in Mexico? Can one check them without getting harmed?

RNS also explores a rift between priests and their prelates; one activist cleric, the Rev. Alejandro Solalinde, accuses the bishops of focusing on sexual issues like same-sex marriage, rather than violence, injustice and corruption.

This implies a left-right divide on basic issues of doctrine. Is that true? The article also suggests that the bishops have gotten too cozy with the government, and more upset with their priests in the streets.

That section of the RNS story is both good and bad. Internal criticism is usually better than outside, because the critics are often better-informed. But the story should have gotten an answer from someone from the hierarchy, maybe Romero.

But government opposition may be helping to close church ranks, RNS says:

But attempts by prosecutors to link recently murdered priests with crime and criminals seem to have convinced church officials to speak out against the government.
Surveillance footage apparently showing Lopez entering a hotel with an underage boy was leaked to a media outlet in Michoacan. It caused an uproar until a woman on social media identified the pair as her ex-husband and son, not the murdered priest.
Similarly, State Attorney General Luis Angel Bravo Contreras was criticized for claiming the two priests in Veracruz had been drinking heavily with their killers before the crimes.

Why the government is doing this is not made clear in the article. RNS has Solalinde saying it's an "effort to contain the public outcry." An outcry against what, though? Crime or the government or social discrimination?

So the article paints activist priests as often targeted by criminals, sometimes framed by government lawyers and defended only reluctantly by their own bishops. Is there a way forward? RNS offers no answers there.

Maybe I'm asking too much for a story that’s already nearly 1,100 words. But the reporter already had access to two church higher-ups, Romero and Sotero. They may well have had a couple more insights.

I often complain that news articles give us facts but don’t help us understand. In this report, RNS goes far in imparting that understanding. Just maybe it could have gone a bit further.

ART: Traditional decorations for the Day of the Dead in Mexico.

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