Salt Lake Tribune's hit piece on Catholic priest departs from newspaper's typically evenhanded coverage

I’m used to good journalism coming from the Salt Lake Tribune, including news on the religion beat.

That’s why a recent story posted about a Catholic priest’s new parish assignment has me wondering if reporters ever leave their desks these days to do actual shoe-leather reporting.

The piece I’m singling out could have been — and probably was — done exclusively over the phone.

I’ve left out the first few paragraphs about the mother of one local Catholic family, preferring to focus on the priest in question.

Over the past year in her parish in the foothills of Salt Lake City — which includes St. Ambrose Church and J.E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic School — problems with priests have riled the small faith community and prompted some, like the Donnellys, to step away.

The previous priest there was charged last fall with patronizing a prostitute. The new priest starting this fall has a history of posting profane things online.

Previous priest Andrzej Skrzypiec, who pleaded no contest, is now being sent to another school. The Rev. Erik Richtsteig, who will replace him at this church, was counseled about his online posts that promote hate of LGBTQ groups and mock women, and will lead weekly Mass for children from 4 years old to 15.

More than 150 parents have signed a petition hoping to block Richtsteig’s move to their parish and school; he’s scheduled to start Thursday.

Various parents have documented Richtsteig’s social media posts.

In one image on his blog, Richtsteig edited an assault rifle into his hands. In a post on Facebook, he said that images shared by LGBTQ individuals in June (which is Pride month) look “like a gnome vomited” and promised he wouldn’t accept a friend request from those with a rainbow filter in their picture. In other places online, he’s liked or followed pages that include “Male feminists are pu-----” and “Right wing extremist” and “Obama has to go.”

He shared one meme about slavery that suggested a black U.S. senator, who has advocated for reparations, should perform oral sex on a man. He also posted an article about a cardinal who instructed members of the faith to stop calling priests “father.” Richtsteig added the comment: “Bite me, Eminence.”

He has since deleted many of the posts. Or, at least, hidden them from public view. When reached by The Salt Lake Tribune, Richtsteig said he had no comment.

Obviously this guy is no diplomat. But he had an uneventful previous 17 years at a parish in Ogden, so the bishop isn’t backing down in the face of parishioners’ demands to remove him.

I’ve included a video atop this post of Richtsteig giving a press conference after a shooting at his parish. I am curious why the Tribune reporter didn’t mention that this priest had been in the news before. And here’s an EWTN piece from 2007 about the same priest and his journey from growing up Mormon to becoming a Catholic priest. He sounds like an affable person during that interview. Why was there no mention of the multi-faceted nature of this priest’s life and work?

Instead, the reporter presents the priest as a one-dimensional hate-filled figure.

She did take the time to interview a lesbian couple who has daughters at the school and ran quotes from a recording of a private school board meeting last June. Most of the concern seems to be from parents of school kids, not from parishioners of the church. However, the priest is not the principal and it’s unclear how much time he’d actually spend at the school other than the weekly Mass.

Maybe this priest is a nightmare, Still, it’s strange — and sadly common, these days — that the reporter could not seem to find at least one person who defended him (other than the bishop). Why didn’t the reporter talk with parishioners at his former church in Ogden to get a feel for his sermons? Apparently the principal of the school he oversaw in Ogden was at this school board meeting but her remarks didn’t get noted by the Trib.

Instead, the story sounds like the reporter got phone calls from one dissatisfied group that provided her with a bucketful of information. But there’s no sign she tried approaching the priest in the parish rectory, made any effort to actually seek out differing points of view or even left the Tribune building to research this piece.

As LifeSite News said in this critique, the article “had room only for accusers.”

The reporter seems unfamiliar with Catholic teachings on homosexuality as well:

Richtsteig previously spoke out in 2007, too, when he protested a Catholic priest in Park City who was holding special Masses once a month for LGBTQ congregants and their families. He called same-sex attraction “a disorder” and “not something to be proud of.” He also protested a school performance of “Rent” in 2009 at Judge Memorial Catholic High because it included LGBTQ characters. He suggested that made it "morally destructive and offensive.”

Maybe the priest is being blunter than most, but the “disorder” part comes straight from official statements of the church. Judging by her Linked-In profile, the reporter is three years out of college. She wasn’t even born when Pope John Paul II came out with its 1986 letter on pastoral care of gay people, which included the phrase about homosexuality being an “objective disorder.” The reporter might want to read up on that.

The article continues with:

Other parents would like to see his talks checked first before he celebrates Mass. Some want him to promise not to mention anything about guns or LGBTQ individuals.

Does she mean homilies? This isn’t Ted talks here. And is she serious about parents wanting to censor his statements?

Since other publications are picking up this article, it’s clear more coverage is on the way. I hope the reporter gets in her car and drives to Ogden to get some firsthand information about this priest’s past instead of relying on informants. And visit the actual church, tell us what it looks like and listen to a sermon from Richtsteig.

You may come to the same conclusion but at least we’d know that you looked at more sides to the story than just one.

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