5Q+1: Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh’s queen of religion news

Ann Rodgers has earned such a reputation for her thorough reporting that a reader e-mailed us recently describing her as “Pittsburgh’s queen of religion reporting.” What an appropriate title for a journalist who regularly covers local news that deserves national attention and national news from a local perspective.

Rodgers, who serves as vice president of the Religion Newswriters Association, has been the religion reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette since 1988. She received her degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master of theological studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. You can follow her on Twitter or simply watch for her name after reading her answers to GetReligion’s five questions.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?
From all sorts of places. I subscribe to several magazines that represent different aspects of Catholic and Protestant Christianity, and get a lot of freebies from other religious groups. I have some favorite Web sites, including Whispers in the Loggia and www.ocanews.org. I also am on the Vatican Information Service and Zenit, both of which are invaluable to anyone who covers the Catholic Church. CAIR bombards me with its summaries. The Pew Forum provides a lot of good updates. There are denominational news releases (although I keep getting bumped off their e-mails because my mailbox fills up and sends a dead letter message back to them when I’m on vacation.) Then there are local sources, including attending presbytery meetings and other events that expose me to cool stories happening in congregations. Frankly my biggest problem is that I’m bombarded by too many sources of religion news and consequently can do little more than skim them.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

I think there are serious problems because reporters don’t understand Catholic canon law and the church bureaucracies that surround it. If they want to get the story about the Vatican and sex abuse right, they really need to talk to canon lawyers about what the church judicial process was set up to do, how its law operates and what laws these cases were prosecuted under at various times. They also need to understand the relationship, or lack thereof, between canon law and the various civil law systems worldwide. Not every legal system operates like the American system, in fact most of Europe doesn’t.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
There are a bunch of them. I’m very interested in the dynamics of evangelical Protestantism right now. There’s a lot of sorting out over how that movement relates to politics and how it will seek to interact with the wider public in the future. Longtime leaders are retiring or dying, and younger evangelicals have somewhat different priorities than their elders, particularly on gay rights. Although I don’t write a lot about politics (we have theologically literate political reporters at my paper) I do expect to keep a close eye on these dynamics.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Because religious faith is the number one motivator of how people conduct themselves in the wider community and it determines their view of the larger world. Some people might say that economics has that role, but I think that’s only true for those who worship money. People do incredibly self-sacrificial things in the name of God, whether that means providing medical care to the poor, peacefully resisting brutal dictators or, unfortunately, becoming a suicide bomber. But, overall, the delivery of social services to the poorest regions of the world would disappear if religious groups withdrew from it. Even atheists would say that their behavior is motivated by their lack of belief in God, which is a sort of shadow faith. You can’t understand human behavior, locally or globally, without understanding religious faith.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
I’ve seen some gaffes, but they don’t meet that description. Something that I do see very few years, but didn’t spot anywhere this year, is a holiday food story that will begin something like, “Ham is the perfect, easy main course for all of your special spring holiday meals.” Last year I even heard an announcement very similar to that in my local supermarket, which I thought especially bizarre because the chain is owned by a prominent Jewish family. I do find it the height of irony that these writers are straining to be “inclusive,” while insulting the very group that they’re trying to include. And I think it shows the problems that arise when we try to homogenize references to religious or cultural holidays. We need to let each faith group speak for itself about its specific beliefs and practices.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?
It’s important to understand the limits of what we can do. We don’t write about God, who hasn’t given any interviews lately. We write about what human beings believe about God. Our job is to describe those beliefs as accurately as we can. But we can’t solve the great theological mysteries, such as whether God is transcendent or immanent–or plural or gendered or loving or silent or whatever. That is the job of pastors and theologians. As journalists, we can only write about human efforts to understand and interpret those things.

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  • Jerry

    Ann,

    Since you twice referred to being bombarded by information, I wonder what you keep in your bunker? :-)

    Also, as an add-on question I wonder what story you feel deserves much more media attention than it’s getting now?

  • John Willard

    For what it’s worth, as an Orthodox Christian I don’t find http://www.ocanews.org to be a very reputable source for Church news.

    They most certainly have an agenda and many of their articles are written by anonymous priests and laymen and make wild and unsubstantiated claims. Even if what they are saying is true the way they go about their reporting is at best profoundly unhelpful.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Even atheists would say that their behavior is motivated by their lack of belief in God, which is a sort of shadow faith.

    Which atheists? There are things I have not done because I don’t believe in God, e.g. tithing. But I can’t think of anything I’ve done “because I don’t think there’s a God”.

    It’s certainly true that atheists are often motivated to do things because other people believe in God (and want very much to convince atheists of that, or force them to behave as if they were religious, or whatever) but if that’s what she meant, she didn’t phrase that very well.

    And I really don’t get the “sort of shadow faith” bit. But if she’s going to count atheists as a “faith group”, she should “let each faith group speak for itself about its specific beliefs and practices”.

  • Julia

    MSNdotcom has a link to a feature on what comcast considers strange courses at Berkley.

    The course at the top of the list relates to Ms Rodgers answer #2.

    1. Arguing with Judge Judy: Popular ‘Logic’ on TV Judge Shows
    While Judge Judy may be an influential lawyer, this course, taught at University of California, Berkeley, isn’t exactly about law. Instead, class attendees explore the obvious misconceptions that are often presented by defendants and plaintiffs on court television shows.

    The course would be good for lawyers (and the Vatican) to better prepare their clients (and inform the public via the media) about what their particular legal system really is and does.

    http://www.comcast.net/slideshow/finance-strangecollegecourses/

  • Dan Crawford

    Ann’s remarkable work deserves appreciation because she actually works hard on her stories, takes the time to interview people involved, doesn’t follow the lead of the NY Times, Washington Post, and LA Times, cultivates and treats fairly her sources, and informs her readers of the substantive issues at the heart of her stories. In addition, she is a person of integrity and modesty. Many of those reading her stories in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette can overlook the egregious biases of the paper itself. As far as this reader is concerned, she ranks with the best. Thanks, Sarah, for the substantive interview, and for the lovely photograph of a lovely woman.

  • Passing By

    I’ve set a bookmark for the Pittsburg Post-Gazette to keep an eye out for this woman’s work. And they don’t even require a registration! :-)

  • Dave

    “Ham is the perfect, easy main course for all of your special spring holiday meals.”

    Now that’s funny!

  • http:rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    So glad read more about you, Ann. I love your work for the P P-G.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    Sarah, thank you for the beautiful profile, which makes me sound more impressive than I am. I am extremely fortunate to work for a paper, and for wonderful editors, who believe that beat reporting is the essence of journalism and that religion is an important beat.
    I’ve been out of commission all week with a nasty case of bursitis in my hip — and am working from home today because I shouldn’t drive on the pain meds I’m taking. But here are answers to a few questions:
    On what story needs more attention than it’s getting now: Two answers. I think the Ratzinger/sex abuse stuff needs BETTER attention than it’s getting now in the mainstream press. I’m frustrated because my bout with bursitis derailed my plans to dig into it. And a story that I haven’t found anyone in the Western Hemisphere covering is the plan for a new Great Council of the Orthodox Church. I’ve referred to it in stories on Orthodox unity because it appears that it will unify the various ethnic jurisdictions in the so-called “diaspora.” But I suspect there’s a lot more to the council than that, and it needs a close look.
    On ocanews.org — yes, there’s a lot of opinion that may not be worth the time it takes to read. But it has also been an invaluable source of primary documents on some very serious issues. The terrible financial scandal in the OCA would never have been exposed without it, and the consequent renewal that I see in that church would likewise not have happened without it. The fact that its editor, Mark Stokoe, is now on the Metropolitan Council of the OCA speaks volumes about how his work is regarded in the OCA.
    On atheists as a “shadow religion” — the fact that they send me their news releases indicates that even they think of themselves that way. Many of them will argue that their belief that human beings alone are responsible for the fate of the world motivates them to do good works, even if it isn’t typically in an organized fashion.
    Best wishes to all, and thanks for the kind words.
    Ann

  • mference

    The journalist who has the courage to expose the many crimes
    of former catholic priest John Wellinger will be the same journalist who
    finally sets the record straight at St. Vincent Archabbey. Until then, Nowicki
    will continue he evil and wicked ways. Any cleric who backs Nowicki is simply
    afraid of the devil.

    I would like to report the
    information I have to the proper authorities or to any media outlet willing to
    investigate this story.

    If my sources are correct and this
    story is true, we can only wonder how many more victims are out there. How many
    boys did Father John Wellinger drug and rape? We can’t ask Bishop David Zubik,
    he’s nothing but a liar.

    Why did the Pittsburgh
    Diocese have to cover-up for Father John Wellinger? Why are they still
    covering-up for John Wellinger.

    Why isn’t the Pittsburgh media permitted to
    scrutinize my writings? Am I 100% correct or am I making things up? The media
    has an obligation to force my hand to show the documentation from former
    Clairton Public Safety Director William Scully identifying Greg Witkowski as
    being drugged by John Wellinger. This documentation was given to me in 1990;
    five years before Bishop Zubik claims he got wind of John Wellinger’s deviant
    behavior which doesn’t even include the druuging of Greg Witkowski.

    I’m either a liar or everything is topsy-turvy in
    Pittsburgh. Who do you trust Mike Ference, Pittsburgh Police (keep in mind
    their police chief will be pleading guilty to major federal crimes); elected
    officials, Allegheny County DA Stephen Zappala, Bishop Zubik, officials at the
    University of Pittsburgh? I could go on and on.

    The truth is Pittsburgh is an open sewer.

    Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Michael Huss has
    not responded. Is it possible to cover up crimes of sexual clergy abuse by just
    calling 911 in Pittsburgh?

    I sent this message out today to Bishop David
    Zubik, the bishop of the Pittsburgh Diocese, Michael Huss, public safety
    director for the city of Pittsburgh via his assistant Matt Hischner and to the
    chancellor and chief executive officer of the University of Pittsburgh, Mark A.
    Nordenburg via his executive assistant Mary Jo Race.

    Hi Mary Jo,

    Can you please share this information with Mark A.
    Nordenburg, chancellor and chief executive officer of the University of
    Pittsburgh. I have several questions before publishing a revised article. I’m
    also very concerned that if this matter is not finally addressed in a timely
    fashion that a scandal, much larger than the Sandusky scandal of Penn State
    could easily take place.

    Warm regards,

    Mike Ference

    412-233-5491

    How do you cover-up crimes committed by Catholic
    priests in the Pittsburgh Diocese?

    It’s simple – Just Call 911.

    By Mike Ference.

    Sometime in the first quarter of 1987, former
    Catholic priest Father John Wellinger, pastor of Holy Spirit Church in West
    Mifflin, PA, part of the Pittsburgh Diocese, allegedly fed a drug to Greg
    Witkowski, a teenager attending the University of Pittsburgh. The crime
    allegedly took place in Witkowski’s apartment that he shared with his brother,
    also a student at Pitt. The drug knocked the youth out for hours, when he
    awoke, he intuitively called 911. Sadly, that’s when his real nightmare began.

    Running down the stairs and into the street to meet
    the paramedics, Witkowski would be whisked away to Presbyterian University
    Hospital emergency room (now University of Pittsburgh Medical Center). He would
    be admitted, but never examined by a doctor. Keep in mind this young man was
    given some sort of drug, administered by a lay person, with very bad
    intentions, according to Witkowski, he also consumed some alcohol, yet, no
    doctor wanted to be bothered by this type of case, allegedly.

    Why?

    Could it be that the call to 911, answered by Pittsburgh
    paramedics, was the first step in alerting the Pittsburgh Diocese that one of
    their own had harmed another? Would diocesan officials then alert hospital
    officials to avoid contact with the patient?

    Or, is it more reasonable to assume that medical personnel,
    sworn to care for and help others in need would just say we can’t help this
    guy? I don’t think so. An emergency room doctor, spending so much money on med
    school and with so much to lose, would never make that call.

    Then why did Greg Witkowski leave Presbyterian
    University Hospital that day and receive no medical attention? Who paid the
    bill? These are all questions that I have asked of Paul Woods, Vice President
    & Chief Communications Officer at UPMC. To verify my story, Mr. Woods can
    be contacted at 412-647-6647, his cell phone number is 412-352-2058.

    To verify my story with another person feel free to
    contact former city of Clairton Public Safety Director William Scully. Scully
    gave me hand-written notes and plenty of information that was almost identical
    to the information given to me by Greg Witkowski concerning the assault on him
    in 1987 by Father John Wellinger. I still have the original notes Scully gave
    to me in the presence of another witness. These notes can be tested, I’m told,
    to determine the actual age of the paper and writing instruments.

    That’s a story for another day. To contact Bill
    Scully call ALCOSAN, one of the most corrupt government agencies in Pittsburgh,
    412-766-4810. Scully is the director of security. Which means; he guards poop.

    If Paul Woods and Bill Scully refuse to answer your
    questions, I’ll send you a copy of the notes Bill Scully gave to me, and a
    transcript of an interview I have with a woman from Holy Spirit Church who went
    to the Pittsburgh Diocese to warn them about Father John Wellinger. She was
    turned away and labeled a gossip-hound.

    I’ve used the term allegation throughout this
    article; sadly, it appears the story was common knowledge among many Allegheny
    County residents.

    As an alumni of the University of Pittsburgh School
    of Social Work, 1970; I assure you I have no ax to grind with the school. I’m
    searching for the truth and justice. I trust these are sacred issues to someone
    in your position.

    One more thing, there’s a paper trail form the
    Pittsburgh Diocese to the victim’s father, Robert Witkowski..

    After 25 years of investigating clergy abuse and
    corruption in the Pittsburgh Diocese and PA Government it seems the time is
    ripe to reopen an investigation into the attempted murder of my son.

    Since January of this year the Pittsburgh Diocese
    was forced to send out warning letters concerning three clerics that served
    within the jurisdiction of the Pittsburgh Diocese, Father Michael LeDoux,
    former headmaster at Serra Catholic High School, Brother Kenneth Ghastin,
    former monk and teacher at Serra Catholic High School and Father John
    Wellinger, former assistant at St. James Parish in Wilkinsburg.

    Warm regards,

    Mike Ference


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