All journalists who hold jobs in which they have to write hard-news stories on tight deadlines -- in wire-service newsrooms, for example -- know about the challenge of writing short, accurate summary paragraphs that package lots of facts into very few words.
My college mentor, the famous J-prof David McHam, used to put it this way: A journalist is someone who can write a solid 500-word story in 20 minutes, even with a headache.
You really have to watch out for the transition paragraphs, however, the ones in which you try to give readers a big idea in a punchy sentence, or two. You can end up with strained logic, or worse. Hold that thought, because we will return to it later.
Recently, a careful reader of this blog sent me the URL for an Associated Press story that ran at Crux focusing on a complex and very difficult subject. The headline is rather calm, considering the scandalous subject: "Pope’s advisers on sex abuse also take up children of priests." Here is the overture:
VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis’s committee of advisers on protecting children from sexually abusive priests is expanding its workload to include the needs and rights of children fathered by Roman Catholic priests.
Committee members told The Associated Press ... that a working group is looking into developing guidelines that can be used by dioceses around the world to ensure that children born to priests are adequately cared for.
“It’s a horrendous problem in many cultures, and it’s not something that is readily talked about,” commission member Dr. Krysten Winter-Green said.
Indeed, for centuries the Church often has tried to keep such children secret, because of the scandal of priests breaking their vows of celibacy.
Obviously, there are other tricky and often horrible issues linked to this topic, and this Associated Press report does a pretty solid job handling them, especially in a short wire story.
The bottom line: The church wants to avoid scandal, while also trying to honor the obvious responsibility to provide financial aid the mother and the child. How does one provide that kind of help in a way that protects the privacy of the woman and her child? At the same time, the story notes that trying to maintain secrecy, in many cases, creates a stigma that -- for the children -- can lead to depression and other mental-health issues.
A key player in this story is Vincent Doyle, an Irish psychotherapist who -- late in life -- learned that his real father was a priest. Working with the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, he created an online project for these children called “Coping International.”
To add to the pain associated with this topic, there is the fact that -- in many cases -- this topic is linked to another ongoing scandal, one that has received more press coverage. In other words, not all of these children are the result of secret, but consensual sexual relationships. Thus:
Doyle said ... he was pleased the issue was now on the agenda of the pope’s advisory commission, and said there is a very real connection between the children of priests and victims of sexual abuse: He said many of the mothers in question were raped as girls or teens by priests, and are therefore themselves victims of sexual abuse.
“It’s not always The Thorn Birds,” Doyle said of the classic story of a young woman’s love for the family priest. “More often than not, there’s rape and pedophilia involved.”
So what was the problem here? What caused our media-pro reader to dash off an angry email and click "send"?
OK, just to be safe, you should put down that cup of coffee (or other workplace beverage) before checking out this short transition paragraph late in this AP report, one that addresses an obvious question: How common is this problem?
The number of children known to be fathered by Catholic priests isn’t known, but there are about 450,000 Catholic priests in the world and the Catholic Church forbids artificial contraception and abortion.
Is this a paraphrased quote? Did the reporter trim lots of factual material until the result was this one punchy, but rather strange, statement?
Our reader noted, focusing on where that sentence began and where it ended:
Talk about a non sequitur. ... I'm sorry, but I can't quite figure out what the one has to do with the other.
Uh, so the point is that there must be lots of clergy children out there because, well, you know? Or is it that there would be fewer of them alive to hide and take care of if the church wasn't so backward on contraception and abortion and that would be a good thing?
Anyone else want to parse that sentence for me? Like our reader, I'm a bit confused.