Pope Francis

What did Francis know? When did he know it? In Zanchetta case, can the pope answer questions?

What did Francis know? When did he know it? In Zanchetta case, can the pope answer questions?

There are few relationships in the world of mainstream religion that are more private, and often mysterious, than the bonds between a priest and a penitent who comes to Confession.

This is especially true when the priest hears the same person’s Confessions over and over for years — even taking on the role of people a believer’s “spiritual father” and guide in life.

So what happens when a priest becomes a bishop? Bishops, cardinals and even popes need to go to Confession and some may even retain ties with their “spiritual fathers” as they climb the ecclesiastical ladder.

Why do I bring this up?

I do so because of a fine detail way down in an Associated Press report that — for a moment, forget teens in MAGA hats and Twitter storms by journalists — may turn out to be a crucial turning point in the complicated story of Pope Francis and wayward bishops involved, in various ways, with sexual abuse.

We will get to the Confessional in a moment. Here is the long, but crucial AP overture:

The Vatican received information in 2015 and 2017 that an Argentine bishop close to Pope Francis had taken naked selfies, exhibited "obscene" behavior and had been accused of misconduct with seminarians, his former vicar general told The Associated Press, undermining Vatican claims that allegations of sexual abuse were only made a few months ago.

Francis accepted Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta's resignation in August 2017, after priests in the remote northern Argentine diocese of Oran complained about his authoritarian rule and a former vicar, seminary rector and another prelate provided reports to the Vatican alleging abuses of power, inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment of adult seminarians, said the former vicar, the Rev. Juan Jose Manzano.

The scandal over Zanchetta, 54, is the latest to implicate Francis as he and the Catholic hierarchy as a whole face an unprecedented crisis of confidence over their mishandling of cases of clergy sexual abuse of minors and misconduct with adults. Francis has summoned church leaders to a summit next month to chart the course forward for the universal church, but his own actions in individual cases are increasingly in the spotlight.

The pope's decision to allow Zanchetta to resign quietly, and then promote him to a new No. 2 position in one of the Vatican's most sensitive offices, has raised questions again about whether Francis turned a blind eye to the misconduct of his allies or dismissed allegations against them as ideological attacks.

Yes, “naked selfies” in a Vatican story. Were these photos sent to others or kept for — oh well, whatever, never mind.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Religion-beat veteran draws blood while dissecting Penn grand-jury report on clerical abuse

Religion-beat veteran draws blood while dissecting Penn grand-jury report on clerical abuse

Last weekend was complicated for me, in large part because I needed to get from East Tennessee to New York City for the first half of my Journalism Foundations seminar at The King’s College. Throw in some interesting weather and Sunday was a long day.

So what’s the point? Well, the weekend think piece that I was planning was never posted. In this case, that really matters because this Commonweal piece was an important one, featuring a byline — a New York Times scribe from my era on the religion-beat — that offered instant credibility. And the journalism hook was strong, strong, strong — leading to a Religion News Service column from Father Thomas Reese about the massive Commonweal essay.

So let’s start with the RNS summary:

“Grossly misleading, irresponsible, inaccurate, and unjust” is how former New York Times religion reporter Peter Steinfels describes last August’s Pennsylvania grand jury report in its sweeping accusation that Catholic bishops refused to protect children from sexual abuse.

The report from a grand jury impaneled by the Pennsylvania attorney general to investigate child sexual abuse in the state’s Catholic dioceses has revived the furor over the abuse scandal, causing the resignation of the archbishop of Washington, D.C., and inspiring similar investigations in other states.

Steinfels argues that it is an oversimplification to assert, as does the report, that “all” victims “were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect abusers and their institutions above all.”

Writing in the Catholic journal Commonweal, Steinfels acknowledges the horror of clerical abuse and the terrible damage done to children, but he complains that no distinctions have been made in the grand jury report from diocese to diocese, or from one bishop’s tenure to another. All are tarred with the same brush.

Here’s a crucial theme: Steinfels noted that the report — which created a tsunami of ink in American media — failed to note the small number of abuse cases that were reported as having taken place AFTER the 2002 Dallas Charter, by clergy who are still in active ministries. The Dallas document radically changed how Catholic officials have dealt with abuse claims — at least those against priests.

The Commonweal piece is massive and it’s hard to know what sections to highlight. Journalists (assignment editors included, hopefully) are just going to have to dig in and read it all.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Why was Karen Pence's Christian school choice worthy of all those Eye of Sauron headlines?

Why was Karen Pence's Christian school choice worthy of all those Eye of Sauron headlines?

Let’s play a headline-writing game, inspired by the fact that one of the world’s most important newsrooms — BBC — wrote a blunt headline about You. Know. What.

Yes, this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) takes another look at the great scandal of the week — that the wife of Vice President Mike Pence returned to her old job teaching at an evangelical Protestant school. This is the kind of small-o orthodox school that has a doctrinal code for teachers, staffers, parents and students that defends ancient Christian teachings that sex outside of marriage is a sin. We’re talking premarital sex, adultery (Hello Donald Trump), cohabitation, sexual harassment, same-sex behavior (not orientation), the whole works.

Thus, the BBC headline: “Vice-president's wife Karen Pence to teach at anti-LGBT school.”

Now, that BBC report didn’t make the common error of saying that this policy “bans” gay students, parents, teachers, etc. There are, after all, gays and lesbians, as well as people seeking treatment for gender dysphoria, who accept traditional Christian teachings on these subjects. There are some careful wordings here:

Second Lady Karen Pence, the wife of the US vice-president, will return to teaching art at a school that requires employees to oppose LGBT lifestyles.

The school in Springfield, Virginia, bars teachers from engaging in or condoning "homosexual or lesbian sexual activity" and "transgender identity". …

"I understand that the term 'marriage' has only one meaning; the uniting of one man and one woman," the document states.

My question is this: For the journalists that wrote this headline, what does “anti-LGBT” mean?

If that term is accurate in this case, would it have been accurate for BBC to have used this headline: “Vice-president's wife to teach at anti-LGBT school for Christian bigots”? Is the judgment the same?

Now that I think about it, in many news reports it certainly appeared that editors assumed that banning homosexual behavior is the same thing as banning LGBT people. If that is accurate, then why not write a headline that says, “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that bans gays”?

Then again, looking at the content of the school policies, journalists could have used this headline: “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that defends Christian orthodoxy.” OK, but that doesn’t get the sex angle in there. So, let’s try this: “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that opposes sex outside of marriage.” That’s accurate. Right?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

This week's podcast: What's better for Catholic leaders, silence or hanging your own lantern?

This week's podcast: What's better for Catholic leaders, silence or hanging your own lantern?

The body blows just keep coming.

That’s how many Catholics — on both left and right — have to feel right now, after the daily meteor shower of news about falling stars in their church. All of this was, logically enough, the backdrop to the very open-ended, wide-ranging discussions in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast” (click here to tune that in).

One minute, and it’s new revelations linked to the wide, wide world of ex-cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. In the latest chapter of this drama, there were revelations at the Catholic News Agency and in the Washington Post that — forget all of his previous denials — Washington, D.C., Cardinal Donald Wuerl did know about the rumors swirling around McCarrick and his abusive relationships with boys and seminarians.

Want to guess which of these newsrooms dared to note that this fact was a key element of the infamous expose letters released by the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano? You got it. It was a branch of the alternative Catholic press (must-read Clemente Lisi post here) connecting those controversial dots — again.

Then, on the other doctrinal side of the fence, there were the revelations about Father C.J. McCloskey, a popular conservative apologist from Opus Dei. Here’s how Phil Lawler of CatholicCulture.org opened a post entitled “A bad day’s lament.”

Yesterday was “one of those days” — a day that found me hating my work, wishing I had some other sort of job.

The first blow, and by far the worst, came with the news, released by the Washington PostMonday evening, that an old friend, Father C. J. McCloskey, had been disciplined for sexual misconduct involving a married woman, and that Opus Dei, of which I was once a member, had (not to put too fine a point on it) botched the handling of his case. Father McCloskey has done great things for the Catholic Church, drawing many converts to the faith and encouraging many cradle Catholics like myself to deepen their spiritual lives. The charges against him, however, reinforce my fear that every “celebrity priest” is vulnerable to special temptations, and just one misstep away from scandal. …

But long ago I resolved that I want to hear all the truth, good and bad. It will be a painful process, exposing all the rot within our Church. But it’s the only way to begin the necessary process of reform.

All of this left me thinking about a question that I hear — year after year, decade after decade — whenever I have private meetings with clergy and religious leaders.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Some sins deserve more secrecy? Compare and contrast cases of McCloskey and McCarrick

Some sins deserve more secrecy? Compare and contrast cases of McCloskey and McCarrick

The tragic (viewed from the right) and spectacular (viewed from the left) fall of Father C. John McCloskey, a popular Catholic apologist, from Opus Dei, continues to get quite a bit of ink.

Let me stress: As it should.

Before I get to a fascinating update at The Washington Post, let me pause and make an observation, or two.

No. 1: Consider this question: Looking at the American Catholic church over the past two or three decades (and at Catholic life in Washington, D.C., in particular), who was the more powerful and significant player — Father McCloskey or former cardinal Theodore McCarrick?

That’s a bit of a slam dunk, isn’t it?

Now, in terms of doing basic journalism, it appears that it has been easier to crack into the heart of the McCloskey case than it has the McCarrick case. Why is that? Is it accurate to state that Catholic officials linked to the McCloskey case have been a bit more forthcoming than those in the powerful networks linked to the former cardinal? Hold that thought.

No. 2: Over and over, people ask me why clergy sexual abuse stories in Protestant settings — evangelical flocks, in particular — receive so much less mainstream ink than Catholic scandals. There are several reasons for this:

— Many mainstream news editors think that Catholic stories are more newsworthy than those in other churches — period. I even ran into that attitude, long ago, in Charlotte, N.C., of all places.

— Catholicism has a clear structure and clear lines of authority. This is comforting to reporters who see the world through a political lens. The largest, most influential forms of Protestantism in our culture are — when it comes to polity — more chaotic and “congregational.” That’s more of a challenge for newsrooms without a skilled, experience religion-beat pro.

— As someone who HAS covered more than a few Protestant/evangelical clergy-sex stories, I think it is safe to say that many of them, if not most, center on sexual relationships and even abuse that are linked to temptations present in face-to-face “pastoral counseling.” Consider the following, from a column I wrote after the death of Dr. Louis McBurney, an evangelical with psychiatric credentials from the Mayo Clinic.

Ministers may spend up to half their office hours counseling, which can be risky since most ministers are men and most active church members are women. If a woman bares her soul, and her pastor responds by sharing his own personal pain, the result can be "as destructive and decisive as reaching for a zipper," McBurney said.

Viewed from this perspective, it appears — so far — that McCloskey got into trouble when he could not control his feelings/actions with women who had sought his help, via “pastoral counseling.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Political reporters take note: There are Catholics on both sides of hot immigration debates

Political reporters take note: There are Catholics on both sides of hot immigration debates

The country is divided. You already knew that.

People are going to argue like crazy about whatever President Donald Trump says no matter that he says. You already knew that, too.

Why America is divided and the issues and people that drive that division on both sides is key to understanding our present situation. Consider, of course, immigration — and specifically the construction of a border wall — that not only shut down the federal government last month, but continues to be a source of debate between Trump and his allies (who want a wall) and Democrats (who do not).

The religion angle? The immigration debate, on the whole, has lacked adequate mainstream media coverage when it comes to how various faiths play a policy role.

Aside from the occasional message from Pope Francis calling on wealthy nations to open their arms and stop the policy of separating families, you don’t see much mention of Catholics — or religion in general — when it comes to this polarizing issue. After all, many of those in Congress who favor and oppose the wall are Catholic and a great many of those seeking asylum share those same religious beliefs. While the border wall remains a thorny issue that has recently dominated news coverage, the media has largely been on the fence when it comes to committing resources that actually looks at the issue from a faith-based perspective of those who favor stricter border enforcement.

The unreported story here is that there are many good Catholics (both politicians and voters) who support efforts to build a wall along the southern U.S. border in order to keep out other (mostly Central American) Catholics.

The truth is there are fissures within the church, the clergy and everyday Catholics (voters to politicians) when it comes to the issue. Those internal debates are a big reason why the overall electorate in fractured on the immigration debate and why Republicans and Democrats have been battling one another for months. This has led to a partial government shutdown and stalemate with Trump over border enforcement funding. Remember when some Democrats mangled the Christmas story to make a point on the issue?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The age in which we live: Readers seeking Asia Bibi news may need to look in op-ed pages

The age in which we live: Readers seeking Asia Bibi news may need to look in op-ed pages

It was nearly 16 years ago that GetReligion.org opened its cyber doors (with our next birthday just ahead on Feb. 2).

That is an eternity in Internet years.

Anyway, one of the things that co-founder Doug LeBlanc and I decided right up front is that — with very few exceptions — we would focus on hard-news coverage of religion in the mainstream press. Even then, there was all kinds of interesting stuff running on op-ed pages and in magazines that offered a mix of news and editorial comment. The World Wide Web was already a pretty wild place.

Over time, we started pushing “think pieces” to the weekend — pointing readers to commentary pieces that directly addressed issues relevant to religion-beat pros and news consumers who focused on religion news, broadly defined. Eventually, we sought out veteran reporters — think Richard Ostling and Ira Rifkin — to write memo-style essays addressing where they thought trends in the news were heading.

But something else was happening at the same time. To be blunt, opinion pieces cost way less than news coverage. In recent years, it has become common to see major stories “broken” in commentary pieces. Sometimes, if you want updates on actual news stories, you need to look in the editorial columns.

Lately, I have had some readers send me emails wondering what has happened with the case of Asia Bibi, the Catholic mother in rural Pakistan who was accused of blasphemy. It made headlines when she was found not guilty. Then she went into hiding, as mobs threatened to kill her. Attempts to find asylum in other lands have been futile.

So what’s going on? Where’s the news coverage?

Well, click here for this week’s “think piece” — which actually contains background on the news. The headline, in tis recent opinion piece at The Washington Post: “My client’s death sentence for blasphemy was overturned. She still cannot leave Pakistan.”

My client? The author is Saif ul Malook and here is the description of the editorial process:

Saif ul Malook, a lawyer, represented Asia Bibi in the successful appeal of her blasphemy conviction. Mehreen Zahra-Malik, a former Reuters correspondent based in Islamabad, assisted in the preparation of this op-ed.

If you want an actual summary of recent events, this is not a bad place to start — even though this is not, of course, a news piece. Here is a sample:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Preparing for the global Catholic sex-abuse summit: What would 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick do?

Preparing for the global Catholic sex-abuse summit: What would 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick do?

Has anyone heard from Archbishop Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick lately?

Actually, the fallen cardinal has been in the news in recent days. But some may ask if this new news about the old McCarrick news breaks new ground. The bottom line: With the world’s Catholic bishops poised for a headline-grabbing February summit focusing on the sexual abuse of children, does it matter what is happening with McCarrick?

I would argue that McCarrick still matters, in part because of the ties that bind him to key Catholic leaders steering efforts to solve the abuse puzzle. That’s a key theme in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in). Another question: Did the silence that surrounds the McCarrick scandal (Hello Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano) play any role in the sudden exit of Vatican press maestro Greg Burke? Hold that thought.

Let’s start with the Associated Press report from those relatively dead news days last week: “Lawyer: McCarrick repeatedly touched youth during confession.” Did anyone see that headline in their local newspapers a few days after Christmas? Here are key parts of the overture:

The Vatican’s sexual abuse case against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has expanded significantly after a man testified that the retired American archbishop sexually abused him for years starting when he was 11, including during confession.

James Grein testified … before the judicial vicar for the New York City archdiocese, who was asked by the Holy See to take his statement for the Vatican’s canonical case, said Grein’s attorney Patrick Noaker. …

Grein initially came forward in July after the New York archdiocese announced that a church investigation determined an allegation that McCarrick had groped another teenage altar boy in the 1970s was credible. Grein’s claims, first reported by The New York Times, are more serious.

A crucial new claim is that some of the abuse took place during the sacrament of confession. What, pray tell, does Catholic canon law say about that?

Let’s keep reading, before we return to material addressed in this week’s podcast.

Grein also gave “chilling” details about alleged repeated incidents of groping during confession — a serious canonical crime on top of the original offense of sexually abusing a minor. Grein had previously not made public those claims, but Noaker confirmed his testimony to The Associated Press. Grein also allowed McCarrick’s defense lawyers to listen to his testimony by telephone.

Grein testified that McCarrick — a close family friend who baptized Grein — would take him upstairs to hear his confession before celebrating Mass for the family at home.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Tea leaves in Rome: That timely Vatican press office shake-up is causing a lot of chatter

Tea leaves in Rome: That timely Vatican press office shake-up is causing a lot of chatter

I realize that it’s rare for me to run a think piece during the week. But let’s face it, the Paul Moses essay at Commonweal must be discussed — as journalists try to figure out what’s happening in, well, the Loggia.

We are talking about some very important tea leaves linked to the biggest religion-news story in the world, which is the Vatican’s ongoing efforts to handle interlinked scandals linked to clergy sexual abuse of some children, lots of teens and significant numbers of seminarians.

When watching the action unfold, I suggest that journalists keep asking this question: What would that great Catholic politico — Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick — do in this situation?

The Commonweal headline references one of those stories that religion-beat pros just know is important, but it’s hard to explain to editors WHY it’s so important.

‘Like Cleaning a Sphinx with a Toothbrush’

Greg Burke Resigns from the Holy See Press Office

Before we get to Moses and the tea leaves, here is a typical statement of the basic news, care of the National Catholic Reporter, on the left side of Catholic media.

ROME — The director and vice-director of the Vatican's press office have resigned together, in a move that appears to indicate sharp tensions at the top of the city-state's complicated communications structure.

The resignations of American Greg Burke and Spaniard Paloma García Ovejero seemed to catch their supervisor, Italian Paolo Ruffini, by surprise. In a statement, Ruffini said he had "learned" of the decision, and called it a "free and autonomous choice." …

Burke and García's resignations were announced with a short note in the Vatican's daily bulletin Dec. 31. Pope Francis appointed Alessandro Gisotti, an Italian who had been serving as the head of social media for the communications dicastery, as new interim director of the press office.

No reasons were given for the shake-up.

Click here for a similar story on the other side of the Catholic news world, care of the Catholic News Agency. This Burke quote jumped out at me:

“I joined the Vatican in 2012. The experience has been fascinating, to say the least,” he continued.

Please respect our Commenting Policy