USA Today hunts for 'The Priest Next Door,' in sex abuse feature that breaks little new ground

USA Today hunts for 'The Priest Next Door,' in sex abuse feature that breaks little new ground

If you follow mainstream news coverage of clergy sexual abuse cases in the Catholic church, you know that there are two common errors that journalists keep making when dealing with this hellish subject.

First, there is the timeline issue. Many editors seem convinced that the public first learned about this crisis through the epic Boston Globe “Spotlight” series that ran in 2002.

This may have been when Hollywood grasped the size of this story, but religion beat reporters and many other journalists had been following the scandal since the Louisiana accusations against the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, which made national headlines in 1984. Jason Berry’s trailblazing book “Lead Us Not Into Temptation” was published in 1992. Reporters covering the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops chased this story all through the 1980s.

Does this error matter? I guess it only matters if editors care about accuracy and they truly want readers to understand how long these horrors have poisoned life for many Catholics. After all, the cover-ups are as important as the crimes.

Thus, it’s disappointing to dig into the new USA Today feature on this topic — “The Priest Next Door” — and hit the following summary material:

During its nine-month investigation, the USA TODAY Network tracked down last known addresses for nearly 700 former priests who have been publicly accused of sexual abuse. Then, 38 reporters knocked on more than 100 doors across the country, from Portland, Oregon, to Long Island, New York, with stops in Philadelphia, Chicago, Indianapolis, Miami and more. They talked with accused priests, as well as neighbors, school officials, employers, church leaders and victims. They reviewed court records, social media accounts and church documents in piecing together a nationwide accounting of what happened after priests were accused of abuse, left their positions in the church and were essentially allowed to go free. 

Since the scandal first exploded into public view in Boston almost 20 years ago, the church has financially settled with thousands of victims, claimed bankruptcy at parishes across the country and watched disaffected congregants flee its pews. The church has promised change, with parishes posting guidelines aimed at protecting children and dioceses releasing names of credibly accused priests — many of whom were defrocked, or laicized, meaning they no longer work with the church.

The second problem that keeps showing up in stories of this kind? That would be covering sexual-abuse scandals among Catholics without mentioning that similar issues exist in other religious flocks — as well as in public schools, sports programs, nonprofit agencies (think Scouting) and other secular settings.

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Podcast thinking: Are mainstream reporters who ask doctrinal questions aiding Catholic right?

Podcast thinking: Are mainstream reporters who ask doctrinal questions aiding Catholic right?

If you have been reading GetReligion for a decade or so, you have probably seen references to the “tmatt trio,” a set of short questions I have long used to probe the doctrinal fault lines inside Christian hierarchies, institutions and flocks.

A dozen years ago or so, a website called “Religious Left Online” — it appears that site is now dead — even offered up a fun GetReligion drinking game that suggested that these topics, and others, could win readers a shot class of adult substances:

• Terry Mattingly mentioning his TMatt trio

• Someone taking a shot at contemporary Christian music, while also trying to defend it.

• Criticizing the evil, liberal agenda of the NYT and WP, while promoting the LAT.

Isn’t that wild? That was so long ago that The Los Angeles Times was an elite source for religion-beat news.

Why bring up the “trio” right now? Well, for starters because it was discussed during this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in). But here’s the news: Our discussion of the recent Amazonian Synod in Rome worked through the “trio” and then added a fourth doctrinal issue.

First things first: What are the “trio” questions? Let me stress that these are doctrinal, not political, questions that I have discussed over the years with many researchers, including the late George Gallup, Jr. The goal is not to hear sources provide specific answers, but to pay close attention to the content of their answers or non-answers. Here are the three questions, once again:

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Was this a real – even if mysterious – event in real time? Did it really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Is Jesus the Way or a way?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin? The key word is sin.

Now, there came a time — in the age of Gaia environmental theology — that I needed to turn the “trio” into a “quadrilateral.”

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Friday Five: Mexico massacre, German Catholics, Christian contraception, John Crist, wild shot

Friday Five: Mexico massacre, German Catholics, Christian contraception, John Crist, wild shot

Welcome to another edition of the Friday Five.

Usually, I offer a bit of extra information or at least a little wit before getting to the point.

But this week I’ll confess that I’ve got nothing, so let’s dive right in:

1. Religion story of the week: The Los Angeles Times’ Jaweed Kaleem was among those who reported on the massacre of a large Mormon clan in Mexico.

Also on the story: New York Times religion writer Elizabeth Dias, who contributed to coverage here and here.

Elsewhere, The Associated Press noted that the slayings highlighted confusion over Mormon groups. The Washington Post explained “How Mexico’s cartel wars shattered American Mormons’ wary peace,” and the Wall Street Journal reported on Mormon families gathering to mourn those killed.

Here’s one more: A stunning New York Times feature on the details of the attack itself and on-the-scene reporting about the families wrestling with grief and the details of how to respond. The reporting is deep and detailed — except that there’s no real sense of why these believers are in Mexico and what separates them from mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints life.

That seems like a rather important subject, in this case.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: Editor Terry Mattingly has our No. 1 commentary of the week, headlined “Washington Post: Catholics should follow Germany's gospel when seeking future growth.”

No, tmatt was not a fan of the Post’s very one-sided story:

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December Vatican I anniversary could prod press to ask: Is Christian reunification dead?

December Vatican I anniversary could prod press to ask: Is Christian reunification dead?

On Dec. 8, 1869, the feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception in the Catholic calendar, the resoundingly conservative Pope Pius IX opened the First Vatican Council. The following July 18, Pius and the gathering of global bishops climaxed a long-running church struggle and issued a constitution that defines papal authority in the strongest terms.

The upcoming 150th anniversary is a good moment for writers to tap ecumenists, historians, and theologians and ask them point blank: Is it a pipe dream to suppose the world’s Christians will someday, somehow reunite within a single fellowship?

The Second Vatican Council raised hopes with Unitatis Redintegrtio, its 1964 decree on ecumenism. The result is respectful talks and far friendlier relationships among separated churches, but perhaps that’s the best one can hope for. If so, Vatican I is the chief reason. Will your sources will think that’s an overstatement?

Those who’ve heard something about Vatican I will know it proclaimed that the pope is infallible. However, a pope exercises divinely given infallibility only when he defines “a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church” and “speaks ex cathedra.” That Latin phrase, literally “from the chair,” refers to formal exercise of his office’s authority. More broadly, Vatican II declared that Catholics must show “submission of will and of mind” to any authentic teachings by a pope.

In the usual understanding, infallibility applies only when a pope specifies this. This action has been very, very rare, with only one case since Vatican I. See this summary from the U.S. Catholic website:

There is no set list of ex cathedra teachings, but that’s because there are only two, and both are about Mary: her Immaculate Conception (declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854 and grandfathered in after the First Vatican Council’s declaration of papal infallibility in 1870) and her bodily Assumption into heaven (declared by Pope Pius XII in 1950).

But neither of these was earth-shattering to Roman Catholics, because these beliefs had been nurtured through devotion, prayer, and local teaching for centuries before becoming official papal teaching.

Importantly, Vatican I stated that such papal teachings are, and “not by the consent of the church, irreformable,” and pronounced an “anathema” against anyone who dissents.

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It's time for journalists to ask: What has happened to the Vatican press office?

It's time for journalists to ask: What has happened to the Vatican press office?

Let’s start with a loaded question. But it’s a questions that journalists really need to ask, because of trends during recent events in Catholic life.

So here goes: Is the Vatican’s press office helping to push a progressive agenda that could forever change the Catholic church?

Here’s the background: The Pan-Amazonian Synod that ended over a week ago wasn’t without controversy, to say the least. The recommendations put forth regarding bestowing Holy Orders to women in the form of making them deacons is something Pope Francis has to make a decision on by the end of the year. Toss in the theological debate over the Pachamama statues present at the Vatican and at a nearby Rome church and there was no shortage of fodder for reporters and columnists.

That takes us to the Vatican’s press office, the people on the front lines of getting out the pope’s message to the world’s media.

Like the White House in the age of Trump, so too does the Holy See’s messaging need some further examination. Former White House Press Secretaries Sean Spicer, followed by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, were all placed under the news media’s microscope for their statements and actions — and rightly so. The PR men and women behind Francis also deserve similar examination by the press.

Long gone are the days of Joaquin Navarro Valls. A “suave, silver-haired Spaniard,” as the Los Angeles Times described him in their 2017 obituary, Valls was both a close confidant of Pope John Paul II and served for more than two decades as chief Vatican spokesman. He defined what it was to be the pope’s press man. And he defended church teachings while doing it.

Navarro-Valls, a lay member of the conservative Catholic movement Opus Dei, had worked as a foreign correspondent for the Spanish newspaper ABC when the Polish pope offered him the job as director of the Vatican press office. He was the first journalist to hold the post. He was the right man at the right time for a globe-trotting pope at a time when mass media was growing.

Fast-forward to the present. The backlash to Francis by traditionalists is based on convictions that he has politicized the church, wanting to transform it into a social service agency.

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Death of a Latino astrologer pushes all the right buttons on gayness, drag queens and love

Death of a Latino astrologer pushes all the right buttons on gayness, drag queens and love

I am still not sure why the death of a Puerto Rican astrologer last weekend made headlines in a lot of elite newspapers, but there were stories everywhere this week about Walter Mercado.

The way he was written up, you’d think he was a reincarnated Jeane Dixon, so lavish was the praise. Among other things in his garish wardrobe, Mercado would sport a huge cross on a chain around his neck. Also, there was lots of God-talk involved in his work.

But you didn’t hear about any religion connections in all the obits, other than how Mercado had transcended all kinds of labels. What mattered was that, in an era in which drag queens are in fashion, Mercado was a forerunner in that culture. The Los Angeles Times said this:

Stars and fans of the late Puerto Rican astrologer and television personality Walter Mercado took to Twitter on Sunday morning to mourn the LGBTQ and Latino icon.

Mercado, who never publicly stated his sexuality, was an icon in the gay community for never conforming to traditional gender roles and challenging Latin America’s conservative television culture.

In an emotional thread, comedian Gabe Gonzalez shared his personal connection to the astrologer, who died Saturday of kidney failure.

I turned to the Remezcla site, which has a video of Mercado telling of paranormal experiences he had as a youth that led to him turning to astrology. He had more of those experiences — contacts with a “being of light” — at other points in his life, but he didn’t identify these experiences with any theological system.

It seems that this astrologer radiated, to his followers, far more love and acceptance than what leaders in organized religion were doling out.

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Washington Post: Catholics should follow Germany's gospel when seeking future growth

Washington Post: Catholics should follow Germany's gospel when seeking future growth

When it comes to Catholic demographics — think birth rate, membership and new clergy — researchers know where to look if they want to find the good news and the bad news.

It you are seeking new life and growth, all roads lead to Africa — where the Catholic population has grown by nearly 250% since 1980.

Anyone seeking bad news can examine trends in Europe.

Take Germany, for example. The Catholic church lost 216,078 members in 2018, according to the German Bishops’ Conference. Researchers at the University of Freiburg predict that Catholic membership totals will fall another 50% by 2060. How is the priesthood doing? Things were already pretty bad in 2005, with 122 diocesan priests ordained in Germany. That number fell to 58 in 2015.

So here is a question for journalists: If you were writing about the rising influence of German Catholic bishops in the bitter global debates about the future of Catholic doctrine, worship and tradition, how much material would your story need to include about the health of the German church? Would you assume that the Catholic world needs to be more like Germany, if the goal is growth and “reform”? Would it be wise — when discussing efforts to modernize the faith — to quote Catholic leaders from Africa (and Asia)?

This leads us to a fascinating report from the international desk of The Washington Post, with this headline: “German bishops want to modernize the church. Are they getting too far ahead of Pope Francis?

That headline says it all. The German bishops are the good guys, but it appears that they may be moving too fast and, thus, are hurting the “reform” efforts of the ultimate good guy. The story notes that the German bishops are plunging forward on four topics — church authority, the “priestly way of life,” the role of women in the church and various sexual morality issues.

The overture is a masterpiece of semi-editorial writing:

ESSEN, Germany — Among those who believe the Catholic Church must liberalize to save itself from perpetual decline, some of the staunchest advocates are church leaders here in Germany.

Some German bishops have spoken in favor of abandoning the celibacy requirement for priests and vaulting women into leadership roles that are now off-limits. Some have urged updating the Vatican’s stern stance on sexual morality, saying the church can’t afford to be out of touch or alienating.

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Trump, same-sex parents and religious charities: News coverage mostly predictable and left-leaning

Trump, same-sex parents and religious charities: News coverage mostly predictable and left-leaning

It’s the same old, same old, so I promise I won’t take up much of your time with this.

But I did want to acknowledge — for those still paying attention to such things — the news late last week that the Trump administration will allow faith-based foster and adoption ministries to operate in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Of course, that’s not the way you saw the story presented if you read it in a typical major media outlet.

Yes, as always, most mainstream news outlets treated this as a case of #discrimination — and not against the aforementioned religious charities.

Instead, this was the headline and subhead at the New York Times:

Adoption Groups Could Turn Away L.G.B.T. Families Under Proposed Rule

The Trump administration seeks to roll back an Obama-era rule that classified sexual orientation and gender identity as classes protected from discrimination.

The Washington Post put it like this:

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Thinking along with Douthat and Burge: Where are the empty pews and why are they empty?

Thinking along with Douthat and Burge: Where are the empty pews and why are they empty?

I have been traveling the last few days — a national college media conference and a baptism involving family — and I failed let GetReligion readers take a look at some interesting Ryan Burge graphics linked to two of the dominant religion-news stories of our time.

One of the stories is, of course, the collapse of the safe, vague ground in the middle of the marketplace of American religion. It’s an equation that comes up at GetReligion all the time, with traditional forms of religion holding their own (signs of slow decline and slight growth in some sectors) while the rise of the religiously unaffiliated gets lots and logs of ink (with good reason).

In the middle of all that is story No. 2, which is the demographic death dive of the old world of mainline, liberal Protestantism.

So take a look the chart at the top of this post — especially that dramatic “X” created by the rise of the nones and the fall of the mainline middle.

So, some will say: This is just a projection, not a set of carved in stone facts. True, that. However, Burge is only attempting to project trends 10 years into the future. That’s not a giant leap, when you are using trend lines dating back four decades. (I’d like to see that chart enlarged to 1960 or so, which would give us the true peak of old Mainline power and cultural prestige.)

Now, keep that chart in mind while reading the following column by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat — “The Overstated Collapse of American Christianity.” Here’s a crucial piece of the intro:

… (The) new consensus is that secularization was actually just delayed, and with the swift 21st-century collapse of Christian affiliation, a more European destination for American religiosity has belatedly arrived. “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace” ran the headline on a new Pew Research Center survey of American religion this month, summing up a consensus shared by pessimistic religious conservatives, eager anticlericalists and the regretfully unbelieving sort of journalist who suspects that we may miss organized religion when it’s gone.

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