I’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.
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.