A priest’s rocky road to forgiveness (updated)

Up in Wyoming, Casper Star-Tribune subscribers got their money’s worth — and more — Sunday. Kristy Gray’s remarkable story on a priest’s journey from rock bottom to redemption dominated Page 1. The banner-size headline: “RECONCILED.”

I drank in every word of the piece — all 4,400 of them.

To be sure, Gray’s story is not perfect, and I’ll raise a few concerns. But overall, this is the kind of story — the kind of journalism — that struggling newspapers could use a whole lot more of. Even better, from a GetReligion perspective, this story “gets religion” — specifically the doctrine of forgiveness — in a big way.

The best narrative stories hook the reader up high and give them reasons to stick around until the end. It’s the journalistic equivalent of a soap opera, where each chapter solves one mystery but leads to another. The Casper Star-Tribune does just that, beginning with the scene around which the rest of the story revolves — then going back and forward to fill in the blanks:

No street lights illuminate this winding, narrow road, but Rob Spaulding can see enough.

The car is facing the wrong direction, folded and bent at ugly angles where it hit the trees. Matty is lying on the side of the road.

Rob can’t see what Mark is doing, but he’s outside of the car, walking around.

Rob doesn’t remember how he got out.

We need an ambulance, Rob says into his cell phone.

One needs life support now.

Jared is still inside, slumped over the back of the driver’s seat. Rob reaches out to him and finds a pulse. He’s breathing, alive.

He kneels beside Matty and begins CPR.

Minutes earlier, Rob had been driving his friends around the lake, windows down, enjoying the midnight air. They had been promising young men, studying to become priests, passionate about their faith and the people they felt called to serve.

One reckless mistake destroyed nearly all of it.

The basic storyline is this: Aspiring priest Rob Spaulding has a bright future ahead of him until he goes out drinking with three seminary friends, gets behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated and has a wreck that kills two of the students. Spaulding pleads guilty to three felonies and faces prison time until the mothers of the victims intervene, offering forgiveness to Spaulding and giving him a chance to rebuild his life — and enter the priesthood after all.

In the background leading up to the crash, we find out about the path that led Spaulding to the seminary:

People expected him to go into business, marry his longtime girlfriend and spend summers camping and fishing with his children in Wyoming’s mountains.

But in Laramie, Rob saw the full power of a faithful community. In 1998, UW student Matthew Shepard was pistol whipped, tied to a fence and left to bleed on the prairie. As a member of the Newman Center’s pastoral staff, Rob felt the church reach out and pull students together, to heal through one another.

In 2002, he enrolled in seminary at St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., near Chicago — 1,000 miles from Wyoming. Instead of cowboy bars, Mundelein has neo-Georgian architecture. Instead of dusty pastures and huge skies, it has lakes and canopies of trees.

Rob decided to try it for one year.

He wasn’t sure if he could commit his life to the priesthood after his first year — or after his second. During his third, in the spring of 2005, he completed a pastoral internship at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Cheyenne, a chance to minister directly to people. In August, he chaperoned 180 Wyoming kids at World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany. The faith, fellowship and community Rob experienced there convinced him.

Later, the reporter provides a firsthand view of the forgiveness that victims’ families bestowed on Spaulding:

People sometimes tell Rob that God must have had a reason. God must have needed Matty and Jared in heaven.

“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Rob said. “God did not cause this to happen. I did.

“But God has been part of rebuilding it since the time of the crash.”

In April 2006, Rob and his parents drove to Kansas. He met with Rick Cheek, Jared’s father, Joan and then Pam. I am so, so sorry, he said to each one. (Note: Joan and Pam are the victims’ mothers.)

He didn’t expect forgiveness then, didn’t ask for it.

But they all gave it.

What they did transcends forgiveness, Rob said. It crosses over into redemption and reconciliation — standing eyelash to eyelash with the man who killed their sons and then inviting him to become part of their lives.

I could copy and paste more passages from the piece that I really liked. This story is filled with delectable nuggets that made reading it a pleasure.

But I do have a few criticisms.

At times, I wish the reporter had allowed herself to include a bit more skepticism.

It’s mentioned twice in the piece that the future priest only had two drinks the night of the crash. Yet he and his friends were at the bar about 3 1/2 hours, and his blood-alcohol level content was 0.135 percent, almost twice the legal level, according to the story. I would have loved some confirmation from police or another expert that two drinks could have caused that blood-alcohol level.

Also, the story is told from the perspectives of the priest and the two victims’ mothers. As best I can tell, the other survivor of the four seminarians who went drinking that night is not interviewed or quoted. I would have loved for that survivor’s voice to be included, for him either to confirm Spaulding’s version of events or raise doubts about it. At the least, it would be nice to know what happened to him. That potential source’s omission from the piece seems like a hole, especially in a 4,400-word story.

Finally, I wonder if it is possible to “get religion” too much (did lightning just strike?). Seriously, at points in the story, I felt like readers needed to be Roman Catholics to truly understand what was happening. For example, consider this scene of one of the mothers by her dying son’s bedside:

The hospital waiting room fills with friends, seminarians and Mundelein staff. Then, they crowd into the intensive care unit, breaking the two-at-a-time rule. No one from the hospital objects.

Joan waits late into the night. Her sister asks her archbishop to lead them in the rosary. Simultaneously, all of the people in the room reach into their pockets and pull out their beads.

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son …”

I love that detail. I love that the story included that scene. I just wish that the writer had used a few words to explain “rosary” and the significance of the beads.

But those are minor quibbles.

Overall, this is a terrific piece of journalism — one for which Gray and the Casper Star-Tribune should be extremely proud. By all means, read the story and let me know if you agree. What did I miss — good or bad?

UPDATED: The writer, Kristy Gray, who is features editor of the Casper Star-Tribune, weighs in on a few questions I had about the story. Please see her responses in the comments section.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://WhollyRoaminCatholic.com WhollyRoaminCatholic

    Oh my. I didn’t expect to cry so much. Matty was a friend of mine; we went to high school together. I’ve prayed with him, laughed with him, sang with him and hugged his mother at his funeral. What a great guy. Heaven is a better place for having him in the choir.

    Kudos to Caspar’s Star-Tribune for making such a moving article front-page news. Thank you Bobby for bringing it to my attention.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    A beautiful story. One thing that bothers me in the coverage of the abuse crisis in the Church is that I never see anything about the issue of Christ’s call to forgive as it intersects with that issue. All the stories seem to be built around rage or anger or vengeance or lawsuits. Yet I have seen very many stories about Christian forgiveness as it intersects with capital punishment and murder.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    That was fantastic. I don’t think the rosary beads needed additional explanation; the visual is recognizable enough that even without specifics it’s marked as (a) Catholic and (b) prayer.

    I do think the ordinations could have used a little more explanation, if it could be done without breaking up the tone of the story. And it probably wasn’t necessary to qualify the sentence about Pentecost as “often considered the birthday of the church.” I can’t think of a case in which it isn’t.

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    As to the two drinks it mentions they wer LOng Island Ice Teas. I can see a BAC like that just drinking two of those

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    jh, I don’t drink, so I didn’t realize how much alcohol is contained in a Long Island iced tea. But your comment made me curious. According to this Web page from the University of Michigan Health Service, a Long Island iced tea contains four to five standard drinks. If that’s right, he was driving with eight to 10 drinks in him. Interesting.

  • http://www.opinionatedcatholic.blogspot.com jh

    Yeah and the things with Long Island ICe teas is they really sneak up on you

  • William Hill

    I am very concerned about the comments of Deacon John M. Bresnahan, trying to equate or compare accidental drunk driving deaths with sex crimes against children.
    The two young men killed by Rob Spaulding were complicit in his crimes. They were adults, albeit young, and they went out drinking with him, and of their own free wills, they rode with him knowing that he had been drinking.
    It is ridiculous to compare a drunk driving accident by a young man, who was not yet ordained, to the willful molestations and rapes of young children by ordained Priests.
    People should never confuse sin with crime. Sin is between God and the sinner while crime is between society and the criminal. Let the pedophile Priests be forgiven for their sins even while they are prosecuted to the fullest for their crimes. Let them enjoy their forgiveness while they are locked away where they can not harm any more children.
    Repentance is a prerequisite for forgiveness, and a truly repentant child molester would plead guilty and serve his time for all his crimes with joy that he was now doing the right thing. Pedophilia can not be cured or changed. Such a person should put himself in a monastery or other life where he would never have any contact with a child.
    I can assure Deacon Bresnahan that Christ’s call to forgive does not require that children be placed in danger of pedophiles. Let the pedophiles enjoy forgiveness and redemption in a place where they can not so much as look upon a child.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Just a reminder that we want to focus on journalism and the media coverage.

  • Passing By

    It’s quite possible that the business of forgiveness and reconciliation lies at the heart of why the media doesn’t “get religion”. To forgive drains away the outrage and moral superiority that, face it, draws an audience.

  • Bill

    I think this is tangentially connected to the discussion; if not, I apologize. There is a slim, remarkable book by a Tutsi woman who survived the Rwandan genocide by hiding in the bathroom of a minister with other women for four months. The book is “Left to Tell,” and she has the delicious name, Immacule Illibigiza. (Sp?)

    A devout Catholic Christian, after the genocide she visits the jail where the neighbor man who murdered her mother is imprisoned. He is dirty, disheveled and cannot look at her. She touches him and says, “I forgive you.” The weight of her forgiveness causes the man to collapse. The warden is furious. “Why did you do that?” he demanded. “Because it’s all I have to give.”

    The book is a religious odyssey, as well, and a reflection on the Sacrifice which unites all Christians.”

    Many journalists would not “get this.” Which, I think, is the point of this site.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I usually don’t do this, but I was so curious about the reporter’s process on this story that I e-mailed her. I didn’t hear back until today, but I thought I’d share what she told me.

    First, I noticed in the piece that the writer used italics instead of quote marks when recounting various scenes. I asked her about that. Here’s what she said:

    I use italics whenever I wasn’t there to hear something directly or don’t have a court transcript, etc. So when a mother tells me something her son told her once, I’ll use italics instead of attributing with “she remembers her son telling her once.” I think it better keeps the story on pace.

    I also asked her how long she had been working on the story and what process she used:

    I didn’t learn about Rob Spaulding until last year after his ordination. Someone told me they thought he might have been involved in an accident in Chicago and I called him. I started interviewing him in September. Then I started interviewing other people around the story and collecting other information. I realized quickly that it wasn’t a story about becoming a priest after being in a DUI crash. It was about the forgiveness of the mothers. Then it’s a matter of keeping the details/scenes that push this theme forward and getting rid of the ones that don’t. That’s over simplified, I know.

    Finally, as I mentioned in my post, the writer really seemed to get religion, so I asked her about her background. Here’s what she had to say:

    I don’t write about religion very often, but believe it’s a part of our community that newspapers seem to ignore. It’s my goal to get the features staff more involved in church communities in our reporting. I am not Catholic myself, more like agnostic, so I don’t think I have any special expertise.

    My thanks to Kristy Gray for her response, and congrats again on a wonderful story.

  • http://thindifference.com/ Thin Difference

    Thank you for highlighting this article. We are developing a youth class on decisions, faith, and leading. The decisions made on Sept. 14, 2005 and the background to this story will add to our discussions in a very meaningful way. Thanks!