A strange 'story' for strange times: Fox 29 in Philly decides to follow a priest around ...

It's time to look at a very, very strange "news" story. If it's a "news" story, which is the whole point.

In a way, it's fitting to start my day with a strange story in light of all the strangeness that your GetReligionistas went through yesterday, when we were caught up in what appears to have been a crashed server at one of the nation's major internet-services companies. These things happen. But, to paraphrase Steph Curry, we are back.

If you have lived in a major metropolitan area, one in which the competition between local TV-news operations is rather intense, then you know that some very strange "news" stories can end up on the air (and even in special promotions).

Well, is it "sweeps month" in Philadelphia at the moment? Here is why I ask:

CAMDEN, N.J. -- The Diocese of Camden has opened an investigation of one its priests after FOX 29 Investigates raised questions about his actions.
The probe has been under way for nearly three weeks. How did this story get started? Investigative Reporter Jeff Cole explains that a parishioner of his former church urged us to take a look at where Father Joel Arciga-Camarillo spends his time away from the church. Here's what we saw.

The soap-opera-esque commentary continues:

It's just past 2 p.m. on Wednesday, April 13, and we're keeping an eye on a light-green, four-door Volkswagen tucked behind this multistory, bright-yellow home in Camden.
We sit and watch for about an hour and see a man in a T-shirt and ball cap emerge from the back of a van with a female driver and small children, some in Catholic school uniforms. They go in the home.
We return in the early evening, and there's the green Volkswagen again, along with the guy in the cap. This time, he's working on a vehicle in back and moving about the yard. 
Why are we looking? Because we've seen the VW before, parked in the lot of the Divine Mercy Catholic Church in Vineland, N.J. 
But on this April day, the car is tucked behind the back of a home owned by Maria Rojas-Rodriguez, a divorced mother of four. We leave but make a spot-check after midnight where the vehicles appear to be parked in the very same positions as when we left hours earlier.

OK, you can probably see where this is going, or at least where the Fox 29 team assumes that it is going.

There are several journalistic questions that need to be raised in this case, starting with: Does this report prove that this priest is having an affair with this woman, that he is breaking the vow, or promise, of celibacy that he took in his ordination rites?

Well, if you endure this entire hushed-voice report, you will see that things don't look very good in this regard. When asked some rather direct questions, this priest is not anxious to answer.

But here is the larger question: Why is Fox 29 investigating this? Has a crime been committed? Has there been some misuse of tax-exempt church funds? Is this priest a public figure, a crucial leader in his diocese on an issue (let's say he was the leader of the office in charge of marriage counseling) that would make these alleged sins particularly newsworthy?

Or is this an issue simply because we are talking about the possible sins of a Roman Catholic priest and that's ultra-sexy because of the celibacy thing and all of that?

Wait a minute. Will Fox 29 be following clergy in other faiths around with cameras, investigating their private affairs that violate their vows, but not the laws of the state? Will Fox 29 be chasing down similar rumors about the private lives of all of the region's public officials, public-school teachers, sports figures and maybe even presidential candidates who pass through the area? Is adultery now news, in and of itself?

One interesting detail: If the priest is hiding this relationship, the report makes it very clear that he is not hiding it from quite a few adults and children. This is a very, very poorly kept secret.

Thus, later in this "news" report there is this exchange with reporter Jeff Cole during an ambush interview:

Camarillo: "She was my former secretary. It was many years ago when I was working at Saint Joseph Pro-Cathedral." ... 
Cole: "Father, what is your relationship with this woman? Wouldn't that be inappropriate?"
Camarillo: "No, it's not inappropriate. She's my friend. She has been my friend for many, many years.
Cole: "But do you spend the night with her?"
Camarillo: "No."

But the VW was behind the house for several hours. Viewers know what that means!

At one point, Camarillo simply says: "But I have the right to have friends."

Now, is this an issue that the Diocese of Camden should investigate? As an active churchman in another flock, I would say "yes." Has the diocese ignored comments from parishioners concerned about this relationship? That is possible, but readers-viewers really don't know.

From the viewpoint of Fox 29, the payoff is this:

We called the Diocese of Camden to ask what it knew of the relationship, brought to our attention by the parishioner, and offered to show officials some of our video. It repeatedly declined and instead released a statement: "The Diocese of Camden takes seriously any credible accusation against a priest. In response to media interest in Fr. Joel Arciga-Camarillo, the diocese is conducting an investigation into the nature of his relationship with an adult female friend."
The statement added, "We also respect the priestly relationships with people in their care often evolve into stable, chaste and supportive friendships. These friendships are incredibly important in the lives of priests, religious and laity, and shouldn't be considered, at face value, scandalous."

Once again, here is the key question: What is the news value that drove the production of this report (assuming again that no laws were broken) and will this same news value be applied to the private lives of other citizens who are not public figures?

Oh, and the Fox 29 team might want to consider this lesson from the past:

The "sweeps" months, when local TV news promotions and "special reports" are at their most over-the-top, have become a routine annoyance to discerning television viewers. Less than a week into the current November sweeps period, they've taken a tragic turn.
The Rev. Brent Dugan, pastor of Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon, committed suicide last week after KDKA-TV aired a series of promotions for a Marty Griffin report that suggested Dugan was involved in illicit behavior.
Some viewers sent ... understandably emotional e-mails that were as hyperbolic as the TV news promos they decry (one subject line: "KDKA's Assassination of Ben Avon Pastor"). That goes too far. It was Dugan's choice to overdose on aspirin and alcohol in a Mercer County motel. But this tragic outcome ought to make reporters and news directors in all newsrooms, particularly KDKA management and Griffin, take a contemplative look at the impact salacious, fear-mongering sweeps-month promos and reports can have.

Would the leaders at Fox 29 be concerned about this? Maybe if the priest, or the divorced woman, committed suicide that would really be good for ratings?

Just asking.

Please respect our Commenting Policy