Hypocrite, journalist, Catholic or what? You make the call

whistle.03I’ve been on the road again this week, only this time headed west to Phoenix to speak at the annual North American Christian Convention. This means I’ve been struggling to catch up with some news events that I wanted to get onto the blog for discussion.

One of the questions that journalists who are religious believers face all the time is whether to take part in covering stories that involved their own congregations or religious groups. I have known some — religion-beat specialists in particular — who decline to cover their own denominations. Where does one draw the line?

In my own life, I have never written about my own congregation — if I could possibly help it. There have also been times when, as a hard-news reporter, I felt I needed a co-writer to help me make sure the story is accurate enough for insiders and still coherent to outsiders. In a few controversial stories, I really wanted a co-writer to make sure that I didn’t get too involved in the story. In some cases, editors said: We’re on deadline. Write the story and we’ll read it extra close. I’ve heard of different reporters and editors handling this in different ways.

Last week, a friend of this blog got caught in precisely this kind of situation. Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News discovered what he believed was a major news story. The problem was that he was right in the middle of it, as a hyperactive Roman Catholic layman. This created a dilemma, which Dreher later described in an editorial column.

Troublemaking whistleblower or peacekeeping hypocrite — which would you rather be? I made my choice … when I helped reveal troubling information about Father Christopher Clay, an accused sexual abuser ministering in the Roman Catholic parish I was attending.

Dreher admired this priest and referred a friend to him for guidance in the faith. He wasn’t on the staff of the parish. Then it turned out there were twists and turns in the story of how he arrived in Dallas, after departing the Diocese of Scranton. Something didn’t add up.

Actually, Dreher feared that it did add up — to trouble. The results of a few Internet searches were not good. The bottom line: Father Clay was supposed to have been banned from active ministry.

What to do with this information? I wasn’t worried about Father Clay. I was worried about Father Allan Hawkins, the parish’s very fine pastor, and the good people of the congregation. I thought: Can’t this be handled quietly, so Father Hawkins and the parish aren’t embarrassed?

And then I thought: If I go that route, I am no better than the bishops and others I have criticized. They kept it in-house for the sake of the church and led us all off the cliff. Public exposure is the only sure way to handle Father Clay.

Why not let the Pennsylvania media do the dirty work? Dreher would be off the hook. But there were major problems — journalistic problems — with this approach.

If I do that, I thought, what do I tell my editors when they want to know why I didn’t tell reporters at my own newspaper? The answer would have been: Because I was protecting a parish and a pastor I didn’t want to see hurt. That is, because I am a hypocrite.

I couldn’t be a hypocrite. The protection of children must come first. I wrote down everything I’d learned and sent it to the religion desk.

The religion desk wrote the story. The Pennsylvania media have been following up on the story as well.

I’m interested in a different question. I think Dreher made the right decision, but there are clearly people — including lots of them in Roman collars — who think that his decision was wrong. They think he proved that he is more loyal to his newspaper than to his church. Dreher clearly believes that he had a decision that was consistent with his faith as well as the ethics of his profession.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://davidmorrison.typepad.com/sed_contra/ David Morrison

    In being loyal to his newspaper, Dreher was being loyal to his Church, both broadly and in his own parish. Secrecy, deeds done in darkness and allowed to remain in darkness, played an enormous role in getting us into this mess, in my opinon. The best antidote to this is simply telling the truth and letting the chips, or collars fall where they may.

    I am not anti-clerical, but I am firmly against coverup and for accountability.

  • mcmlxix

    The conflict in this particular example is that Dreher has been loosing objectivity for over a year in regards to the Catholic Church that has reached vigilante proportions. One of the results of this has been a loss of journalistic credibility. Having the ability to recant or make a correction is no basis for what amounts to running with shoddy, incomplete investigation and incendiary damage to reputation. In the confessional this is called presumption. How does one retrieve all of the feathers that they have scattered to the four winds well, they can’t.

  • Ken

    I am a former parishioner and still friend of the parish in question, so my comments may not be unbiased.

    Dreher did right, I think, in researching a little and turning the story over to the newsroom: it wass newsworthy. Moreover, the reporter wrote a fair and unbiased story, based on the information she had. For whatever reason, Frs. Clay and Hawkins declined to be interviewed for the story, so their side could not be included. The only fault I can bring is that Dreher failed to give the bishop of Fort Worth a chance to resolve the issue, as would have been charitable, and which would not have contradicted the possibility of a story in the Morning News. On another blog, he has stated that he just doesn’t trust bishops to do the right thing. This speaks, I think, to the objectivity and vigilantism to which mcmlxix refers, especially since Bp. Delaney of Fort Worth has an excellent record in dealing with this particular issue.

    In fact, Bp. Timlin of Scranton (retired) did clear Fr. Clay for ministry and had offered him a parish post before he came to Dallas. That doesn’t mean he should have, but it does at least raise questions.

  • http://www.doxos.com Huw Raphael

    A brother asked abba Poemen, “If I see my brother sin, is it right to say nothing about it?” The old man replied, “whenever we cover our brother’s sin, God will cover ours; whenever we tell people about our brother’s guilt, God will do the same about ours.”

  • Cris

    Dreher did the right thing, 100%. He heard a disturbing story, checked it as best he could by going to the people involved and, when he got stonewalled, made further inquiries. Then, and only then, did he turn the story over to one of his reporter colleagues, who did further reportage of her own. That’s responsible journalism. As a fellow Catholic (for now anyway), I’m grateful to him.

  • JohnH

    Could he not have given the information to the bishop at the police (if there was any possibility of laws having been broken) at the same time he gave it to his co-reporter. Then bishop may not have known anything, and possibly had come out with the information first – which the paper could then pick up with a head start.

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