Catholic beat memo: Fuzzy math and the quest to estimate the number of gay priests

Catholic beat memo: Fuzzy math and the quest to estimate the number of gay priests

There is an old newsroom saying that I have found often holds true: journalist + math = correction.

This comical equation exemplifies how often people working in newsrooms just get math wrong in their stories. From polls and surveys to trying to quantify something by way of statistics, most reporters and editors find themselves befuddled — even fooled — by numbers.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been, especially in recent years, a large number of data journalists who excel in using math in their storytelling. Overall, that remains a small number. At least, I have found that to be the case anecdotally given my circle of former colleagues who work as general assignment reporters and news editors at mainstream news outlets.

What does math have to do with the Catholic church? Well, a lot if you’re trying to quantify how many priests are gay.

These days, the story about how much homosexuality has permeated the church at all levels — from cardinals and archbishops down to parish priests — remains very much a topic of much news coverage. Just how many men in the Catholic clergy are gay? Depends who you ask and who you read. Here’s where the math can be very fuzzy, a cautionary tale to anyone covering the events of this week and the sex-abuse scandal going forward.

The scandal remains very much in the news. The defrocking of former Cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick and the upcoming Vatican’s sex-abuse summit means rehashing many past allegations, a slew of fresh ones and lots of fuzzy math. If the 2016 presidential election taught us anything, it is that polls and surveys are often not to be trusted.

Journalists keep trying to do the math. In April 2017, Slate put the number of gay U.S. priests somewhere from 15 to 50 percent, which the article points out is “much greater than the 3.8 percent of people who identify as LGBTQ in the general population.” The 15 percent the article cites comes from a 2002 poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times. The 50 percent figure comes from a figure from the same year, reported by USA Today, as coming from “some church experts estimate.”

The article doesn’t elaborate — a great example of how a number not given proper context or sourcing can be repeated without hesitation by journalists, thanks to searches with Google or LexisNexis.

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Catholic beat memo: Don't ignore facts about church tradition when reporting on priest shortage

Catholic beat memo: Don't ignore facts about church tradition when reporting on priest shortage

When I worked as an editor, I always encouraged journalists covering a particular city, town or neighborhood to get a hold of church bulletins. Why? They are packed with information and, frequently, with hooks for local stories.

The weekly bulletin that awaits me every Sunday when I enter church is one of the ways my family and I connect with the parish. It’s the place where the pastor writes a short message, offers up a schedule of events and there may even be ads from local shops.

The bulletin that greeted me on the first Sunday of this month did not feature good news. Rather, it hit close to home with information about some of the many challenges the current Roman Catholic church faces.

The clergy abuse scandals stretching back to 2002 in the Boston diocese through the present in Texas has crippled the church’s moral credibility in the eyes of many Catholics and society as a whole. Add to that a shortage of vocations that has plagued the church for decades and you have a lethal combination. With such adversity, how can the church properly serve the lives of everyday people? 

My parish priests, writing in the Feb. 3 bulletin, revealed that Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio — head of the Brooklyn diocese (which covers two of New York City’s five boroughs) — informed them recently that a decision had been made to make my church a “one priest parish” later this year. It means fewer services on Sunday and more work for the sole priest now responsible for the people living in the surrounding zip codes. 

“However, it is a sign of the reality we face with the declining number of priests,” the letter said.

What is happening in my parish is an example of the struggles thousands of churches across the country now grapple with. The church sex-abuse scandal, coupled with dwindling vocations, have made priests a scarce commodity.

What’s the answer to this problem? The mainstream media’s response has been to try and get Pope Francis to talk about — and even endorse — the notion of married priests, with no regard for the Catholic church’s Roman rite traditions.

Nonetheless, when it comes to married priests, this pope has argued against lifting the celibacy requirement. One wouldn’t necessarily know that from the headlines of the past few weeks.

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A time for anger? Some Catholic bishops worked hard to limit exposure of their sins and crimes

A time for anger? Some Catholic bishops worked hard to limit exposure of their sins and crimes

It's impossible to step into the sickening whirlpool of that Pennsylvania grand-jury report, covering seven decades of Catholic priestly sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses, without feeling angry.

Right now, anger is the element of this story that I think will be the hardest for journalists to handle and to cover accurately and fairly.

First and foremost, there is the anger and grief of the victims and their families. That's a story.

Then, we also need to admit that journalists who have been on the beat for a decade or more face anger issues of their own. In many cases, reporters are facing a tough reality today -- they now know that they were often manipulated by bishops and diocesan staffs that were hiding hellish crimes.

Now they are seeing some bishops produce updated websites and public statements that -- let's face it -- look a lot like the PR campaigns of the past. Is this a story?

Also, what about the all-to-familiar flashes of anger and the sense of betrayal that many priests and bishops must be feeling today? Imagine what it feels like to be going to work right now while wearing a Roman collar.

Years ago, a friend of mine -- when he was ordained as an Episcopal priest -- said that he was shocked at how many people gave him looks of disgust when he walked the streets in black clerical clothing, thinking he was a Catholic priest. Having even one person spit at your feet is a shattering experience.

This is a story for many, many valid reasons, not the least of which is how these horrors will continue to shape efforts to handle the growing shortage of Catholic priests in parts of the world, including America.

With that in mind, read (hat tip to Rod "Benedict Option" Dreher) this remarkable set of tweets from a priest whose entire ministry has been surrounded by headlines about priests abusing children and teens:

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Here is a good question about something familiar: Why do Christian clergy wear black?

Here is a good question about something familiar: Why do Christian clergy wear black?

THE QUESTION: So, the question of why Christian clergy often wear black was posed to The Religion Guy during a conversation a while ago. The thought had never occurred to me. So this is a good example of things we tend to take for granted and don’t think about. Thus it makes a good “Religion Q & A” topic. (Please feel free to submit your own questions at any time by clicking right here.)

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER: Black is becoming the new black. In recent days we’ve seen members of Congress attending the president’s State of the Union address, and preening showbiz celebrities at the Golden Globe awards, wearing that color (or non-color) to proclaim their solidarity with victims of sexual harassment and the burgeoning #MeToo cause.

The House Democratic Women’s Working Group invited women and men of both political parties to participate. One leader, California Congresswman Jackie Speier, said “this is a culture change that is sweeping the country, and Congress is embracing it.”

One year ago this same Working Group urged members to wear white during President Trump’s address to Congress in order to broadcast their support for “reproductive rights” (the favored euphemism for abortion), Planned Parenthood, equal pay, paid maternity leave, and affordable health and child-care coverage from the government.

The black of 2018 carries a suggestion of sorrow, since black is the color traditionally worn by people in mourning or repenting of their past sins (the biblical sackcloth and ashes having long gone out of style).

Then we have the question at hand, that longstanding tradition of Christian clergy wearing black, not to demonstrate alignments but as everyday garb.

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Secret children of Catholic priests: Solid Associated Press report takes one very strange turn

Secret children of Catholic priests: Solid Associated Press report takes one very strange turn

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.

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Killing priests: Religion News Service digs into some details about tragic trend in Mexico

Killing priests: Religion News Service digs into some details about tragic trend in Mexico

Murders and other atrocities have become so common in places like the Middle East, we Americans often overlook them closer to home -- for instance, in our next-door neighbor Mexico.

Thankfully, the Religion News Service does not. An incisive, indepth feature this week logs the series of murders of priests there in recent years. This exemplary article not only covers the details of some of the deaths; it also traces the ingredients of organized crime, priestly activism and government antagonism that made the killings possible.

The RNS team didn't get to the bottom of the matter, and it doesn't totally work its sources. But we'll get to that in a bit.

The story begins with the "bullet-riddled body of the Rev. Jose Lopez Guillen," found in Mexico's violence-plagued state of Michoacan. But rather than merely checking off his name, it quotes a member of his parish saying how he was "an excellent priest and very devoted to the community." It's a vital human touch.

RNS then broadens the scope, saying at least 15 priests have been killed over four years -- and 31 over the last decade. And it wisely adds context:

The murders come at a time of strained relations between church and state in Mexico, in part because Catholic bishops recently supported mass protests against a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.
In the wake of the killings the church has also abandoned its normal reluctance to criticize the government and has publicly accused state officials in Michoacan and Veracruz of directing a defamation campaign against the priests.
Mexico is the country with the second-largest Catholic population in the world, with nearly 100 million people, or more than 80 percent of the population, identifying as Catholic. But the country has a long history of anti-clericalism and in the past century the government officially and often violently suppressed the church.

Sourcing for this story is impressive.

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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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Warning! Journalism maze ahead! When ministers are ministers but maybe not ...

Warning! Journalism maze ahead! When ministers are ministers but maybe not ...

First, my apologies for the fact that this week's "Crossroads" feature post is a day or two late. The world just keeps spinning out of control and it's hard to catch one's breath.

Second, I should warn readers that this week's podcast -- click here to tune that in -- deals with a topic so confusing that, several times, host Todd Wilken and I got a bit confused ourselves. In the end, we confessed that we totally understand that some journalists struggle in this complicated corner of the religion-news world (and thus make mistakes, such as this and even -- oh my -- this).

The topic? The language that various religious groups use to describe their leaders who are ordained, or in other cases not ordained. As I wrote several days ago:

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.

In addition to offering reporters and editors many, many chances to make factual errors, these ordained-on-not issues can affect a wide range of legal and even financial issues linked to religious life and practice.

Everyone knows that, when a Catholic priest hears confessions, this communication is -- stated in legal language -- "privileged" and protected communication. With America's heritage of church-state separation, the state has no write to ask this priest to violate his vows (a point of law that is, some are convinced, getting blurred as of late).

But how about a Catholic deacon who has a private conversation with a church member in which she or he divulges loaded information?

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