Celibacy, NPR and Journalism 101

I’m no expert on the issue of celibacy and Catholic priests. Fortunately, I don’t need to be to critique an NPR Morning Edition report headlined “Letter From Priests’ Lovers Reignites Celibacy Debate.” A Journalism 101 student could handle this post.

Let’s start with the question posed by the GetReligion reader who passed along the link: “Isn’t it standard journalistic practice to ‘present both sides’ when a story is news rather than an editorial?”

Um, good question.

Then again, as the perceptive reader noted, “In short, this report appears to be a thinly sourced piece of advocacy masquerading as a news story.”

Here’s the top of the report:

The church scandals spreading across the Catholic world are prompting a renewed debate on clerical celibacy.

In an unprecedented move, a group of Italian women who have had relationships with priests wrote an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI, saying that priests need to love and be loved.

In Italy, it’s common to hear churchgoers say they have known priests with mistresses — women who passed as housekeepers or cousins.

Fiorella di Meglio, 50, knew one in her small town a two-hour drive north of Rome.

“Years ago, we had a priest here, Don Giorgio, he was a schoolteacher. The kids liked him and so did their mothers,” di Meglio says.

“When it came out he was having an affair with a woman, all the mothers rallied around him saying he was a good man. But all the people who didn’t know him were scandalized, and of course he was sent away,” she says.

OK, Journalism 101 students, what’s missing from that first paragraph? Let’s all say it together: “Attribution!” Give me a source. Or if you prefer, give me some evidence. Otherwise, I’m going to attribute the information to the reporter’s personal opinion.

Ditto on “unprecedented move” in the second paragraph and “common” in the third paragraph.

Moving on, a priest is accused — by name — of sexual misconduct. Again, with absolutely no evidence at all to back up the accusation. Believe it or not, that’s the only reference to that priest. We don’t find out if he’s dead or alive. The priest receives no opportunity to say whether he did or did not have an affair. But a woman told NPR that, so it must be true, right? Amazing.

NPR’s attempt at a news peg:

In most cases, the priests’ companions continue to live in the shadows — until now. In March, some Italian women came out into the open after Benedict spoke of what he called “the sacred value of celibacy.”

“And so we decided to tell people this is not a value, and this is not a sacred value, because sacred is the right of people to get married,” says Stefania Salomone, an office manager in Rome.

Salomone started an Italian website for women in relationships with priests. Little by little, 40 women contacted her; yet only two others joined her in signing the letter.

OK, so this “unprecedented move” involves three women signing a letter. Oh, and 38 others who Salomone says contacted her. Great, we’ll take her word for it. Come to think of it, wouldn’t it be neat if NPR interviewed one of the many priests accused of clandestine relationships?

As for any kind of response from the Vatican or Catholic theologians, that is, apparently, asking too much. NPR makes no semblance of providing any kind of balance in this report. The only “expert” quoted is Richard Sipe, a favorite source of reporters looking for quotes critical of the Catholic Church hierarchy:

Richard Sipe is a mental health counselor for priests and a former Benedictine monk. He says the way celibacy is taught today is not in tune with contemporary reality. While studying in the monastic environment of the seminary, Sipe says, a priest can remain celibate for two to three years. But what happens when he goes out into the world?

“He does not know the psychological dynamics, the social dynamics of sex and what it means to be celibate,” says Sipe. “If a man is going to be celibate, it’s like a man who is an alcoholic and practicing sobriety. Every day he says, ‘I’m going to be celibate today,’ but that is not the way celibacy is constructed or taught.”

Salomone is particularly angered by what she sees as the hypocrisy and secrecy imposed on priests by the Catholic Church.

What saith the Catholic Church about these allegations of hypocrisy and secrecy? Ha! Good one. Did I mention that this piece falls a bit short when it comes to balance and attribution?

Speaking of bias, I loved this paragraph (and I mean “loved” in the most sarcastic sense possible):

And sin is the judgment the Catholic Church assigns to nearly everything to do with sex outside marriage.

Is it just me or do you sense a bit of negativity in the way that line describes Catholic theology? As for accuracy, since that line mentions nearly everything, I’m curious: What sex outside marriage would the Catholic Church not consider sin? And should “between a man and a woman” be added to the end of the sentence?

The reader mentioned earlier asked, “Is there really anything newsworthy here?”

No, not in the NPR report. But it actually might be worthwhile for a true journalist to take the allegations — priests’ female companions living openly in the shadows — and investigate them fairly and fully.

Who knows — there might be a story here. A potentially great story. But at this point, all we’ve got is a bunch of hearsay and innuendo.

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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://bullschuck.blogspot.com Bull

    The NPR seems to have consistent issues in religion reporting.

  • Martha

    Y’know, I have to wonder: would an equivalent “Letter from Politicians’ Mistresses” be treated the same?

    I mean, would the media say that it was re-opening the debate on adultery? That it was calling for a change in the necessity for a politician to resign from office if found (in the words of “Private Eye”) to be “discussing Ugandan affairs” with a woman not his wife?

    I think it’s way past time a campaign along the lines of Politicians for Polyamory was started! ;-)


    “Ugandan discussions”, or a variation thereof, is often used as a euphemism for illicit sex, usually while carrying out a supposedly official duty. The term originally refers to an incident at a party hosted by journalist Neal Ascherson and his first wife, at which fellow journalist Mary Kenny had a “meaningful confrontation” with a former cabinet minister in the government of Milton Obote, later claiming that they were “upstairs discussing Uganda”. The poet James Fenton apparently coined the term.)

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    One thing that’s conspicuously absent is the opinion of those priests whose former mistresses have gone public with this. Do they want to marry the women? Without their angle, it comes off sounding like the classic “other woman”: “He’d leave his wife for me if it weren’t for the children/voters/bank account… I just know he would!”

    I also think quoting Richard Sipe with no counterbalance is rather like quoting Oscar Mayer on veganism.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I find it interesting that the media NEVER runs stories on the universal human connection that seems to exist between serious religion and celibacy. Mahatma Ghandi (a Hindu) was a big promoter of celibacy and Hindu holy men (sadhus) are almost always celibate. The Dalai Lama (a Buddhist) is a big promoter of celibacy.
    So what is the big deal (humanly speaking) that the Latin Catholic Church(which expects its priests to be holy men–though some clearly fail) makes celibacy a norm for those who aspire to the priesthood—for those who desire to live a holy man’s life such as the Dalai Lama and Ghandi lived.. You don’t want to be celibate–go into another vocation.
    In fact,if a man is God possessed and totally community oriented–as a priest ideally should be– pain and tragedy is waiting in the wings to snare the wives and children of such a priest. When covering issues such as this the media NEVER mentions that a few years ago the highest divorce rate in America was among Protestant ministers–I don’t know if that stat still holds.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I totally disagree. It depends on the reporter, as a rule. The religion-beat pro — Barbara Bradley Hagerty — is one of the best.

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen Vaughan

    As the great-granddaughter of an Italian cardinal, I would have appreciated a real story on the subject. Obviously NPR let the ball drop in this case. I don’t think it is that difficult to find stories about priests with mistresses, but the website angle and reluctance of the women to sign has some potential. Are priests in some countries more likely to have liaisons with women as opposed to men? Are we dealing with cultural differences or just the human variability? Are families an issue? Do they support them, leave them hanging or marry them off to someone else? And what percentage of priests are capable of maintaining their vows? (In Italy there is a common saying among women that priests are men under their skirts.) So many potential angles- it’s a shame NPR didn’t do a better job.

  • Passing By

    A quick google came up with the information that Italy has 44,900 priests. Forty women contacted the website. We are told that “it’s common” for a priest to have a mistress, but how common is common? What percentage of priests violate their vows? How does that compare to married men committing adultery? Numbers, anyone?

    The real question is why this obsession with celibacy? Does everyone have to have sex? And what problems are created by married clergy? What happens when a priest divorces? His adult child haa an affair with a parishioner? The Church of England is currently in process of approving divorced and remarried bishops (which assumes divorce and remarriage is already ok among priests who will become bishops).

    Journalism questions I suppose, but these are more broadly social questions which drive the story-telling the journalists do.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    The letter is not from a group of women who “have had relationships with priests” but who “claim to have had relationships with priests”, these are only claims not facts.

    Also, I just noticed that NPR says “relationships” not even “sexual relationships”. Are these women “passing as housekeepers and cousins”, or are these people who figure life is only about sex assuming that any many will have sex with his house-keeper?

    If they had women who said they had been the house-keeper or cousin but had been having sex with the priest, than it would be a more reliable story. Even if a women claimed that it would not be neccesarily true, and the fact that no women comes forth to say it does not make it flase, but it does seem odd to report on rumors about what is claimed to occur.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    The letter-link goes to Rent-a-priest. This is a group that is trying to force the Catholic Church to accept married priests by having married priests perform marriages, burials and other Catholic sacraments and thus make a class of Catholics dependent on the validity of the actions of married priests.

    They only list the names of three signatories. They claim there are others, but who are these others. The whole thing seems overblown. Does NPR cover every group of ten people or more who write letters to the Pope, or is it only certain letters that are worth reporting on?

    At times it seems religion reporting is more about manufacturing disagreements than telling us of them. No where is this more evident than in stories about letters. How did a letter from so few people become a story at all?

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    Well, I guess I should have read further. Rent-a-priest is being misleading. Only 3 women signed the letter.

    If Ms. Salomena thinks marriage is so sacred, she could insist on marriage. She can tell the priest “either quit the priesthood, or I will leave you”. Many priests did that in the 1970s, and although it is harder to do that since, if you really think marriage is such a higher value than celebacy, why are you in a Church that teaches the opposite? If you think the Pope is wrong, why do you care if you are able to have a Catholic wedding?

    Personally I think marriage is better than celebacy. However, I have little sympathy for women who try to blame the fact that they are committing fornication on the rules of the Church. This is not 19th-century Argentina, the police will not hunt down priests who leave to get married and send them before a firing squad.

    Beyond this, the reason why the US has the right to confront your accuser is because anonomous accusations are often the basis of false accusations. It is hard to give much credence to the stories of the 38 other women when they do not even dare sign a mass letter.

    This seems a new low in journalism, a story on a letter signed by three people.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    The first question would be do these priests even acknowledge the claimed relationship, or do they say it is a false accusation.

    Any women can say they were the mistress of a priest, what evidence is there in this case? There may be, but it is not present from what I see. There is a reason why this article ran on a radio program, the holes would be too obvious in print. On the other hand, maybe I am just too willing to accept that readers of print actually pause to cinsider what is going on.

  • Dan Crawford

    When it comes to the Roman Catholic Church, NPR never does a better job. Whether it’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Terri Gross or any other of its programs oriented toward the smarter, more sophisticated, ethically and socially “sensitive”, upper-middle class white folks who are NPR’s target audience, the Roman Catholic Church and religion in general (with the possible exception of Tibetan Buddhism)are treated with slightly less than explicit scorn. NPR makes no pretense toward objectivity – in this its coverage differs little from its coverage on issues like abortion, euthanasia,and church-state matters. This has been an on-going problem with NPR which may help explain why more and more of its on-air time is devoted to “pledging”. NPR’s news coverage has deteriorated nearly to the level of local news programming. Most of its stories and their slant are grabbed from the pages of The New York Times and Washington Post.

  • http://bullschuck.blogspot.com Bull


    Fair enough, I don’t follow it enough to qualify as an expert, but there have been three egregious textbook examples of bad journalism coming out of NPR in the past six or seven months. This, the article on Ugandan anti-gay bill, and the one about the C Street Center. All one-sided. The last one looked more like TMZ coverage than news.
    Maybe I’m just seeing the exceptions instead of the rule, but when the articles are all off to this degree, I suspect that it’s not the fault of the reporter but the editorial staff. If you’re going to publish it under the religion line, you need to have certain standards, and it would be the editors who would enforce those, no?

    All this coming from an engineer, not a journalist. I freely admit gobs of ignorance about the publishing process. If I’m terribly off on my understanding of the editor-reporter relationship, please feel free to set me straight.

  • Mariana

    What always gets me is the implication that priests are “forced” to be celibate. Hello? They’re not chained to the altar, for heaven’s sake. It’s not like celibacy is a new rule. To imply that celibacy is forced upon priests against their wills is insulting to priests themselves.

  • Julia

    John Lambert uses the correct terminology:

    I have little sympathy for women who try to blame the fact that they are committing fornication on the rules of the Church.

    NPR and even their “expert” don’t seem to understand what celibacy means:

    But it’s an open secret that priestly celibacy is often violated.

    Every day he says, ‘I’m going to be celibate today,’ but that is not the way celibacy is constructed or taught.”

    Both quotes are actually referencing incontinence, (not refraining from illicit sex), and not celibacy,(not getting married).

    Incontinence between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman is fornication which is nowhere mentioned in the article.

    I particularly grinned at the description of a priest daily struggling to not get married.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    Thank you, Julia! I’ve given up on trying to reiterate the difference between celibacy and chastity. It’s like shouting into the wind. Anymore, I just shrug and pretend “celibacy” means exactly what they think it does, and go from there. But it’s good to see someone else who remembers the distinction.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    The issue of is there one woman per priest is an inportant one. It seems a bit much to assume that priests keeping mistresses or engaging in sexual relations with women are only doing it with one woman.

    Thus the alleged 40 women only represent 40 women who claim to have had “relationships” with priests. I remain totally unconvinced that these women even all claim that the relationships reached a sexual level. Maybe they say things like “I met this really inteligent guy, and found out he is a priest, and he told me that we had to stop meeting with eachother because he had to remain true to his priesthood, but I think this is totally wrong and the Catholic Church should allow priests to marry”.

    Actualy for all we know at least a few of these forty say things like “I was having a lot of problems and went into my priest for counseling. We really have a lot in common, and he is really lonely, and I would be a perfect wife for him, and he likes me, so the Catholic Church should aloow him to get married”.

    Another issue that NPR totally avoids is why the preists might distance themselves from these women when they come forward. Put another way, even if we assume that most priests only have one female “companion”, and that these are not relationships that only exist in the women’s heads (or are deliberate lies) is it clear that if the Catholic Church allowed current priests to marry they would chose to marry these women? This is a tough question that in any form would border on classing them as “fallen” women, but would Catholics realy accept the instalation of a loose woman in the rectory? It seems to me that these relationships have began as exercises in unequal power and in deception, and with the alleged tendancy of priests to end their relationships with these women when they mention the situation at all in public, I see no reason to think these women would get the marriages they seem to want if the Vatican changed the rules for priests.

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