child pornography

Strange, uh, Times: Praise for on-the-record Catholic quotes about a clergy sex case!

Strange, uh, Times: Praise for on-the-record Catholic quotes about a clergy sex case!

What strange times we live in, in terms of mainstream journalism about religion.

It feels strange to praise a New York Times news story because it contains perfectly normal, clearly attributed response material from an organization like the Vatican and other officials -- at various levels -- in the Church of Rome.

In a way, my praise for this particular story -- "Amid Pornography Case, Vatican Recalls Priest From Washington Embassy" -- is a commentary on tensions that still exist in many Catholic offices about investigations of the sexual abuse of children and teens by clergy. At the same time, there are tensions between the Times and many Catholic leaders.

Nevertheless, this story doesn't contain the gaping holes we saw the other day in news coverage of another clergy sexual-abuse case. Click here for that post, which noted some mainstream news stories that lacked quotes -- any quotes, at all -- from:

* The Vatican.
* Legal representatives of the church, at any level.
* The local archdiocese in which this newsroom is located.
* Conservative Catholics who are highly critical of how many church officials have handled clergy-abuse cases.

I noted -- this was really bizarre -- that the stories didn't even include references that told readers reporters tried to reach church officials, as in: "Leaders of so-and-so group declined repeated requests for interviews."

So what did Times professionals -- and church leaders -- get right in this basic news story on what remains a hot-button, controversial subject?

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How far back should coverage go in clergy sex scandals? Two Penn newspapers differ

How far back should coverage go in clergy sex scandals? Two Penn newspapers differ

Child porn charges against a Pennsylvania priest are yielding coverage with a different kind of ghost" -- the specter of past crimes illustrated with a literal list in a newspaper. But is such a focus always warranted? Do journalists use this with the Catholic sins, alone?

After a Faithful Reader brought this up, I looked at the examples sent in. Here's what I saw.

The focus is retired Monsignor John S. Mraz, charged with collecting and viewing child porn on two laptops. Two local newspapers do a fine job on the story -- to a point. 

Both of them do what newspapers do best: narrating the chilling details. Take the Reading Eagle account:

A senior Allentown Catholic Diocese priest who began his career in Reading was caught with child pornography on his computer, Lehigh County District Attorney James B. Martin said Tuesday.
Officials said Monsignor John S. Mraz admitted that he sought out and viewed the images for his sexual gratification. They said the investigation began after a parishioner of Mraz's Emmaus church reported uncovering a file with a name along the lines of “naked little boys” while performing maintenance the priest had requested.
Mraz, 66, is the former pastor of the Church of St. Ann, a neighborhood church with an on-campus elementary and middle school. He taught at the former Reading Central Catholic High School from 1975 to 1980 and was an assistant superintendent of the diocesan school system.

The 1,000-word story is a model of fact, narrative and multisourcing. It includes the story of how the volunteer found the images on Mraz's machines, then reported that to the diocese. In turn, the diocese reported it to law enforcement authorities, who investigated and indicted Mraz.

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Correction please: Concerning that Catholic 'ordained minister' arrested for child porn

Correction please: Concerning that Catholic 'ordained minister' arrested for child porn

For me, one of the most fascinating (and complex) parts of working on the religion-news beat has been learning the many theological, technical and even legal differences that exist between the roles played by "clergy" in different religious movements.

Let me stress that I put the word "clergy" inside quotation marks for a non-scare-quote reason.

When it comes to history, some religious movements insist that they don't have ordained clergy -- yet clearly they have leaders who play some of the roles that ordained clergy play in other flocks. Remember all the controversies a few years ago about GOP White House candidate Mitt Romney and his time as a "bishop" in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Suffice it to say that a Mormon bishop is not the same as a Pentecostal bishop, or a United Methodist bishop, or a Lutheran bishop, or an Anglican bishop, or an Eastern Orthodox bishop. Reporters need to understand these kinds of facts, when dealing with stories that involve clergy or other "ministers" in various religious traditions.

This brings me to a bizarre religious language issue in a story that ran the other day in The Huntsville Times in Alabama. It focuses on the arrest of a man named John Lindbergh Ellar Martin, who has been accused of possession and dissemination of child pornography. The headline: "North Alabama Catholic church staffer arrested on child porn charges."

Note the word "staffer." What, precisely, does that mean? Read carefully.

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