Some stories take time to unfold

Maroon Bells   Before 6 1 04 021While working at the Rocky Mountain News, I was able to visit a private facility on the western side of Colorado that specializes in counseling pastors and their spouses whose marriages have hit the rocks. I had a chance to profile the counselors and to talk with some of the people who were there for counseling. A few alumni of the program went on the record.

The facility is called Marble Retreat Christian Counseling and the founders are Louis and Melissa McBurney. I mention them here — they work with a great deal of privacy and confidentiality — simply because I want to repeat one of the major themes of the story that I wrote long ago about their work. Louis McBurney stressed that, in almost all of the cases that he had handled, any sexual sins or struggles that threatened these marriages were symptoms of other issues.

It’s sad that clergy almost always have to crash and burn before the people around them see the signs of these larger problems. These kinds of deep wounds take time to develop, and if healing takes place, that takes time, too.

I thought of that statement while reading the latest Stephanie Simon update for the Los Angeles Times on the Pastor Ted Haggard case. The headline sets the tone: “Haggard was no saint, fellow pastors determine — A church board looking into his fall from grace see a pattern of troubling behavior that went unnoticed.”

Well, obviously. If you have read anything about clergy stress and workaholism you know what’s coming.

Simon’s story is up to her usual high standard, and it’s a great example of something that the mainstream media do not do enough of — careful follow-up reporting in the weeks, months and, dare I say it, years after a major story. This is especially important on the religion beat, where institutions, careers and conflicts tend to evolve and morph over time. It’s hard to find the one big, definitive moment when things change forever.

But that isn’t what happens very often on complex stories. You have to read the signs early and often and, eventually, that work pays off. In the case of the Haggard story, Simon is following up on a moment — a statement — that produced one of those headlines that sounded good, but didn’t mean anything.

So here is the heart of this much-needed update story:

Shortly after his confession, Haggard and his wife, Gayle, spent three weeks at a secular counseling program in Arizona. A member of the church’s board of overseers, the Rev. Tim Ralph, told a reporter that Haggard emerged from the treatment convinced “he is completely heterosexual.”

Ever since, Haggard’s friends and mentors have been disavowing that quote.

“The true characterization is that Mr. Haggard had a weakness and he continues to work to strengthen himself,” said the Rev. H.B. London, a member of the three-man team overseeing Haggard’s spiritual recovery.

Even the most ardent proponents of therapy to change same-sex attraction say it is a lifelong struggle, demanding constant vigilance and sacrifice — a price that they find reasonable to avoid relationships they consider sinful.

The key idea there is “lifelong,” as in years and decades. That isn’t the kind of snappy material that makes editors very happy, but it’s the truth.

Meanwhile, the “completely heterosexual” quote inspired waves of headlines, but it didn’t make any sense. That quote may have inspired some cheers on the far right and jeers on the left, but no one who knows anything about the debates over human sexuality could take those words seriously.

So I am thankful that Simon is staying on the story. I hope her editors are patient, because some stories take time to unfold.

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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.

  • Mollie

    I thought this was another fantastic piece from Simon, too. There is something about her writing style that is amazingly well-suited to religion writing.

    She quotes a lot, which is key. But she summarizes in an even and balanced tone.

  • Eric

    I agree that the article was well-done. I’d like to know more about the warning signs that were present (as might members of various church boards). Obviously, the writer wasn’t able to do that, but hopefully will be able to do so in a later follow-up.

  • Pastor Jeff

    When the story broke I was struck by one picture showing a large portrait of Haggard on display in the church foyer. More and more, evangelicalism encourages the pastoral superstar. I think it’s an unhealthy trend which discourages the kind of accountability that was lacking at New Life.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    I like longterm reporting, but I disagree on this piece. In a sense, I even take what might be considered Ted’s “side.” Why is this news? A guy trying to get on with his life? A church trying to cover its butt? New Life was news when Ted was in charge and it had influence in national politics, but now this is at best a local story.

    I’m afraid that as good a reporter as Simon is, this piece functions as either a) voyeurism into the troubled life of a man who’s no longer newsworthy; b) an opportunity for the charge to chase him a little further out of town. To make the case that there was a “troubling” pattern before this, one would need to go a lot further. How about Ted’s preaching habit of lisping when he wanted to imitate presumably effiminate liberals? How about his — and Brendle’s — controversial contention that sexual sin outweighs any other? How about his statements to Ayelish McGarvey, of The American Prospect, that keeping secrets is ok? None of that is here.

    What saddened me most about the Ted sex scandal was how it reduced this politically and theologically important movement — which continues without him — to a simple story of hypocrisy. That’s a standard media mistake, and I’m surprised to see you applauding it.