Journalism

Friday Five: SBC wrap-up, Catholic hotline, #ChurchToo, abuse lawsuits, cult ranch, VeggieTales

Friday Five: SBC wrap-up, Catholic hotline, #ChurchToo, abuse lawsuits, cult ranch, VeggieTales

Southern Baptists in Birmingham. Roman Catholics in Baltimore.

Clergy sexual abuse scandals, obviously, high on the agendas in both places. Lots of reporters in the house, in both places.

Yes, the annual meeting of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and the spring general assembly of U.S. Catholic bishops made lots of headlines this week.

So we better dive right into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: The Tennessean’s Holly Meyer has a nice wrap-up of the SBC meeting, reporting on three ways churches will tackle abuse after the meeting.

The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey also has an interesting roundup, explaining that while the SBC took action, some question whether it’s enough.

Meanwhile, the Post’s Julie Zauzmer and Michelle Boorstein delve into the pros and cons of the Catholic bishops’ decision to create a hotline for reporting abuse.

Some of the GetReligion posts on the Baptists and Catholics this week:

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Those experts in Israel were on to something: Why secular-religious divide in Jewish state matters

Those experts in Israel were on to something: Why secular-religious divide in Jewish state matters

Earlier this year, I traveled to Israel with a group of U.S. religion journalists.

Through the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, a dozen of us spent a week exploring political, social and religious issues in the Middle East.

As I wrote in a column for The Christian Chronicle, our hosts said they hoped the experience gave us an enhanced understanding of issues in that part of the world and made us think about tough questions. It certainly did that.

Another thing it did: It piqued my interest in news from Israel. For example, one topic that we spent quite a bit of time exploring was the secular-religious divide in the Jewish state. In a front-page Christian Chronicle story, I noted:

Ironically, many religious Jews took issue with Zionism, the political movement that emerged in the late 19th century and advocated reestablishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

“Many Orthodox Jews were opposed to Zionism because (they believed) it hastened what should have been God’s work,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations. “The return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel usurped God’s domain and empowered human beings to achieve that.”

Today, deep religious divisions characterize Israel — a nation of 8.7 million people that occupies a geographic area the size of New Jersey. The overall population is about 81 percent Jewish, 14 percent Muslim, 2 percent Christian, 2 percent Druze and 1 percent other.

But often, the conflict is between Jews themselves, as secular and Orthodox Jews clash over what should happen when democratic values collide with Jewish law (halakha), according to a Pew Research Center study.

It turns out that the experts who kept referencing that conflict during our group’s visit were on to something.

I’m not sure that even they realized, though, how big an issue that it would become so soon in the battle over Israel’s future.

How big?

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Big journalism question: Would new U.S. bishops hotline have nabbed 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick?

Big journalism question: Would new U.S. bishops hotline have nabbed 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick?

I have talked to quite a few Catholics in the past year — laypeople and journalists, mainly — and I have read quite a bit of commentary by Catholic clergy and other insiders.

There are two questions that I keep running into over and over. Both are relevant in light of the vote by U.S. Catholic bishops to create a third-party anonymous hotline that will handle accusations of misconduct by bishops, archbishops and cardinals. Here is a Crux summary of that:

The reporting system will be managed by an independent body that will receive complaints that will be reported to the metropolitan (or regional) archbishop who, in accordance with Pope Francis’s new ‘motu proprio’, Vos estis lux mundi (“You are the light of the world”), is responsible for investigating claims against bishops.

Vos estis requires that local bishops’ conferences must establish a “public, stable and easily accessible” system for submitting abuse claims and also that the reports are sent to the metropolitans (or their senior suffragans if the report is against the metropolitan). In the United States, there are 32 territorial archdioceses (or metropolitans).

Here is the lede on the Washington Post story about that vote, which includes a blunt paraphrase of one possible implications of this decision, in terms of enforcement:

The U.S. Catholic bishops voted … to create the first national hotline for reporting sexual abuse committed by or mishandled by bishops. But they specified that the hotline send reports directly to other bishops, essentially demanding that the leaders of the scandal-plagued church police themselves instead of turning toward outside authorities.

Hold that thought.

This brings me back to the two questions that have haunted me over the past year. (1) Would abuse accusations against former cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick have reached the public without the existence of the Lay Review Board in the Archdiocese of New York? (2) Would the New York Times have published its bombshell stories about McCarrick — one of the most powerful U.S. Catholics ever, in terms of media clout — without the knowledge that this Lay Review Board existed and could report its findings?

The bottom line: Why is the involvement of laypeople such an important factor in the McCarrick story?

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Vatican ‘wags the dog’ on McCarrick and the American press is powerless against it

Vatican ‘wags the dog’ on McCarrick and the American press is powerless against it

Journalism isn’t what it used to be.

You hear a lot of people in the business — most of them over 40 — say things like that either in a newsroom or afterwards at the nearest bar at the end of a very busy day. The internet and layoffs are the two biggest culprits. The internet radically altered newsgathering methods and distribution of information. That “disruption” — as some have called it — led to financial loses and smaller staffs. That and digital advertising that drives many news consumers crazy.

Smaller newsrooms and dwindling budgets means fewer journalists. More importantly, it means fewer of them can travel. The ability to actually be in the place where something is taking place — rather than thousands of miles away in an office — does make a major difference. It’s why The New York Times and Washington Post produce such quality work from foreign correspondents.

This leaves most U.S. newsrooms reliant on wire services, most notably The Associated Press and Reuters, for international coverage. This brings us to the Vatican, which is located across the Atlantic from most newsrooms and Pope Francis, like pontiffs before him, has a penchant for traveling, it means having to rely on these news organizations for what’s going on/being said so far away.

Pope Francis is a great example of an international leader whose handlers like to control the message. Not too different from the White House press office, where access can often be very limited. That makes the papal news conference, the one that takes place aboard the pope’s flight on the way to Rome at the end of very trip, very important. President Donald Trump and his press shop get plenty of heat, and deservingly so, for sparring with reporters. He isn’t alone. Sadly, the slow death of local journalism in many once-thriving market across the United States has made it easier for town boards, mayors and even governors to get away with more.

Covering the pope is on a global scale, but some of the same problems afflicting local journalism can also be found here. The papal news conference, it turns out, isn’t what it used to be. What is it like these days? Here’s one recent observation from John Allen, a veteran Vatican reporter, in a piece for Crux. He noted that the most-recent news conference on June 2 after the pope’s return from Romania, was an example of how these gatherings “have been considerably less spicy, often serving up little more than reiterations of things Francis already has said, or excuses to allow the pope to say things that he or his advisers want on the record for one reason or another.” Here’s what Allen’s piece is about:

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'Why do you want Bishop Olson to be removed?' Yes, Texas newspaper's survey seems, um, one-sided

'Why do you want Bishop Olson to be removed?' Yes, Texas newspaper's survey seems, um, one-sided

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has a somewhat lengthy story out today reporting that “Hundreds of parishioners from across the Diocese of Fort Worth have begun the process to ask Pope Francis to remove Bishop Michael Olson.”

The story quotes in quite a bit of detail a canon lawyer named Philip Gray, who is president of The St. Joseph Foundation. The Star-Telegram says he “is advising the groups, gathering evidence and writing the petition.”

Strangely enough, though, the piece doesn’t quote a single upset parishioner.

So it’s only a minor surprise that the paper has a form at the bottom of the report asking for feedback from readers:

Do you want the Vatican to investigate Bishop Michael Olson or the Fort Worth Diocese? We want to hear your story.

But the wording of one of the questions in particular doesn’t seem entirely, um, impartial.

Here it is:

Why do you want Bishop Olson to be removed?

Not do you want Bishop Olson to be removed? But why do you want Bishop Olson to be removed?

That won’t skew the submissions at all, will it?

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Ready, set, go! The much-anticipated Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting starts in 3, 2, 1 ...

Ready, set, go! The much-anticipated Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting starts in 3, 2, 1 ...

Sex abuse. Women’s roles. Abortion.

All could make headlines at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, which starts Tuesday in Birmingham, Ala.

But as The Associated Press notes, the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the nation’s Protestant denomination for months is expected to dominate the yearly gathering.

That scandal started, of course, with a bombshell investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. The Texas papers have kept at the investigation and delivered a final piece of their series Sunday. That front-page report focused on “Baptist abuse victims’ battle: silence, survival, speaking out.” It’s certainly a worthy read in advance of the SBC meeting.

Just two years ago, someone (OK, maybe it was me) whined about reporters’ seeming lack of interest in the SBC’s meeting. But in 2019, the gathering is, no doubt, the journalistic place to be.

GetReligion’s own Richard Ostling offered a tip sheet last week for news writers covering the Baptist extravaganza, as he put it. And on Sunday, GR editor Terry Mattingly featured a think piece by the SBC’s Russell Moore.

Already, The Tennessean’s Holly Meyer — who is covering the meeting with her Gannett colleague Katherine Burgess of Memphis’ Commercial Appeal — has filed her first story from Birmingham.

Meyer reports from a pre-convention meeting of the denomination’s executive committee:

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee took steps Monday to make it clear that it can kick out churches that show a disregard for sexual abuse. 

While the ability to sever ties with such churches already exists, the executive committee voted to enshrine in the convention's constitution that addressing sexual abuse is part of what it means to be a Southern Baptist church

"In the culture, situations and issues arise from time to time where we need to make explicit what has already been implicit," said Pastor Mike Stone, chairman of the executive committee. "These actions are a confirmation of what Southern Baptists have always believed."

The top administrative body, which acts on behalf of the convention when it is not in session, also supported a bylaw change on Monday that would form a special committee to address misconduct allegations, including sexual abuse, against churches. 

The new panel would conduct inquiries — not investigations — into the allegations and make a recommendation to the executive committee about whether the convention should be in fellowship with the church in question. 

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Podcast puzzle: Why do editors send political reporters to cover complex religion stories?

Podcast puzzle: Why do editors send political reporters to cover complex religion stories?

It was the key moment in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast-radio session. Host Todd Wilken asked a relatively simple (you would think) question about mainstream news coverage of the Rev. David Platt’s decision to pray for President Donald Trump during a worship service at McLean Bible Church, a very influential D.C. Beltway megachurch.

This turned into a hot mess on Twitter (#NoSurprise). I wrote a GetReligion piece about the online controversy with this headline: “Praying for presidents? That's normal. Praying for Donald Trump? That fires up Twitter.

The initial coverage, of course, focused on the true religion in most American newsrooms — politics.

This brings me to the substance of Wilken’s question.

Toward the end of the first wave of coverage, Emma Green off The Atlantic wrote an essay — “On Praying for the President” — that paused and examined what actually happened at McLean Bible Church. She considered the history of pastors praying for presidents. She looked at the record of this particular minister. She also (#Amen) wrote about the actual contents of the prayer. In the body of the piece Green concluded:

What’s remarkable about this prayer is not that it happened, but that it shows how thoroughly the Trump era has opened the way for cynicism and outrage over even mundane, predictable Christian behavior. Within the world of evangelicalism, Platt does not roll with the hard-core Trump supporters; his prayer was studiously neutral, clear of boosterism and partisanship. While Trump has certainly amplified divisions among evangelicals over race, gender, and the rightful relationship between Christianity and politics, the choice to pray for a person in leadership is not a meaningful symbol of evangelicalism’s transformation under the 45th president.

Wilken asked this question: Why was Emma Green able to write that? Why did she “get” this story when many others did not?

The short answer is that Green is a religion-beat professional.

I could add, of course, that she is talented, works really hard and tries to accurately report the views of a wide range of religious believers, while working at a mainstream, left-of-center magazine of news and opinion. At this point, all of that goes without saying and Green consistently draws praise from religious conservatives as well as progressives. Anyone who reads GetReligion knows that, while we may debate with Green every now and then, this blog consistently praises her work. She often does more factual reporting in analysis pieces than others do in “hard-news” reports.

That’s the easy answer to Wilken’s question. In the podcast I used a rather long and complex sports metaphor (getting somewhat emotional in the process) that, I hope, went a bit deeper.

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Friday Five: Abortion, Catholic and Baptist scandals, Emanuel AME, disaster deacon, The Bachelorette

Friday Five: Abortion, Catholic and Baptist scandals, Emanuel AME, disaster deacon, The Bachelorette

Anybody seen any abortion-related headlines lately?

I kid. I kid.

They keep coming fast and furious — some stories better than others.

Here’s three that have come across my screen just today. I haven’t had time to read them yet:

Southern Baptists descend on Alabama, epicenter of abortion debate, by Holly Meyer of The Tennessean

Biden reverses long-held position on abortion funding amid criticism, from CNN

Poll: Majority Want To Keep Abortion Legal, But They Also Want Restrictions, from NPR

At the only abortion clinic left in Missouri, doctors live and work in uncertainty, from the Los Angeles Times

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: It’s been a week of big exposés concerning major religious institutions.

We highlighted the Washington Post’s bombshell investigative report on the lavish spending of West Virginia’s former Catholic bishop.

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Bombshell Washington Post report details alleged lavish spending by former Catholic bishop of W.Va.

Bombshell Washington Post report details alleged lavish spending by former Catholic bishop of W.Va.

“Bishop spent millions on self.”

That’s the crisp, concise way that the front page of today’s Washington Post boils down the newspaper’s bombshell report on the former Catholic bishop of West Virginia.

As The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher put it in a blog post titled “Bishop Bransfield’s Lush Live,” the Post “has the goods” on the bishop, who resigned last fall.

Yes, indeed.

Here’s a big chunk of the top of the story by religion writer Michelle Boorstein and two investigative reporting colleagues, Shawn Boburg and Robert O’Harrow Jr.:

In the years before he was ousted for alleged sexual harassment and financial abuses, the leader of the Catholic Church in West Virginia gave cash gifts totaling $350,000 to fellow clergymen, including young priests he is accused of mistreating and more than a dozen cardinals in the United States and at the Vatican, according to church records obtained by The Washington Post.

Bishop Michael J. Bransfield wrote the checks from his personal account over more than a decade, and the West Virginia diocese reimbursed him by boosting his compensation to cover the value of the gifts, the records show. As a tax-exempt nonprofit, the diocese must use its money only for charitable purposes.

The gifts — one as large as $15,000 — were detailed in a draft of a confidential report to the Vatican about the alleged misconduct that led to Bransfield’s resignation in September. The names of 11 powerful clerics who received checks were edited out of the final report at the request of the archbishop overseeing the investigation, William Lori of Baltimore.

Lori’s name was among those cut. He received a total of $10,500, records show.

The Post obtained both versions of the report, along with emails and financial records.

On Wednesday, in response to inquiries from The Post, Lori said he is returning money he received from Bransfield and is asking that it be donated to Catholic Charities “in light of what I have come to learn of Bishop Bransfield’s handling of diocesan finances.”

Lori acknowledged that the names of senior clerics were cut from the final report. “Including them could inadvertently and/or unfairly suggest that in receiving gifts for anniversaries or holidays there were expectations for reciprocity,” he wrote. “No evidence was found to suggest this.”

The full story is a whole lot to digest. I’m still attempting to do so. Let’s just say that the Post did its homework on this one. The result is strong, strong journalism.

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