Kissing second cousins? A priest repents …

Trust me. It is rare for your GetReligionistas to receive email from readers complimenting mainstream news stories about Catholic sex scandals. However, this Mercury News piece about the fall of Father Michael Manning — leader of the Wordnet television ministry — was hailed by several readers as exceptionally balanced and fair.

In part, this is due to a crucial element in the story itself — repentance.

In this case, the priest has been open in talking about his sins and their impact on others. The newspaper quoted him extensively on this subject, thus adding a depth that is rarely seen in reports on similar subjects. Here is the opening of the piece:

SAN BERNARDINO – A Roman Catholic priest with a worldwide television ministry based here has admitted to having a sexual relationship with his cousin, a county schools superintendent on California’s Central Coast.

The Rev. Michael Manning confirmed by phone that he had the relationship with Monterey County Superintendent of Schools Nancy Kotowski, when questioned about copies of correspondence sent to this newspaper that appeared to point to the two breaking off the relationship more than two years ago.

“We’ve been such good friends and there’s a deep love we have for each other,” Manning said. “The sexuality was secondary. It’s very hard when you care for someone, but I love my priesthood more. I admit the fact of my sinfulness. I’ve done wrong. That’s why I’ve stopped.”

In addition to the on-the-record quotes from the 70-year-old Manning, Kotowski is also quoted in the piece about their relationship, which the newspaper noted spanned several decades.

“Father Mike Manning is a very dear and close friend of mine,” Kotowski said when reached at an anti-gang conference in Washington, D.C. “Our friendship has grown over 30 years, and we share a deep commitment of faithful and dedicated life of service in our respective work. I have nothing more to publicly say about this personal and private matter.”

All compliments aside, this report does raise another interesting issue related to newspaper style or, some would insist, on a matter of simple accuracy. I am referring, of course, to that hot-button word in the lede — “cousin.” The report does a good job of explaining the legal complexities surrounding marriages and sexual relationships between cousins, which vary from state to state.

However, further down in the report it is made clear that Manning and Kotowski are not, strictly speaking, cousins but are, instead, “second cousins.” What’s the difference? Here’s a typical online set of definitions for these terms:

Cousin (a.k.a “first cousin”)

Your first cousins are the people in your family who have two of the same grandparents as you. In other words, they are the children of your aunts and uncles.

Second Cousin

Your second cousins are the people in your family who have the same great-grandparents as you, but not the same grandparents.

The Associated Press Stylebook does not address this issue in any way, which would mean that common dictionary definitions would apply. Now, does this distinction between a “first” and “second” cousin make any difference in the nature of the priest’s sin? No. Does it mean that the lede contains a factual error, on that makes the affair a bit more flashy and salacious? That’s the question some are asking. Personally, I can see the logic of that complaint.

Meanwhile, the story does offer an unusually detailed and matter-of-fact depiction of the priest’s torn state of mind and his knowledge of this own sins. This passage is typical:

The correspondence appears to reveal a conflicted priest struggling to remain faithful to his calling.

“The reality is I was living two lives: one as a priest who was vowed to celibacy and another life as a sexually active man in our sexual intimacy,” Manning wrote.

He told Kotowski that he battled hypocrisy, and deception was heavy on his heart as he feared people finding out about the relationship. “The burden of deception in hotels, and with the community with whom I work and live has become overwhelming,” he wrote.

Manning said he and Kotowski realized their sexual relationship was wrong.

“I think we’re all sinners and I’m not above admitting we’re sinners,” Manning said in the phone interview. “The important factor is what do you do after you sin? Can you accept forgiveness? And I’ve been able to accept forgiveness for what I’ve done.”

Will the priest continue in his ministry while wearing a collar? While he is considering taking a break, the answer appears to be “yes.” The details, however, are between the priest and his confessor. The spokesman for the archdiocese — John Andrews — made that clear, in so many words.

“It’s unfortunate that this has happened, and that is not the conduct that we expect from the priests and it’s not consistent with the vows a priest takes,” Andrews said. “At the same time, in our faith, you always have an opportunity to seek forgiveness from God and reconciliation. Father Manning has done that and we support him in that 100 percent.”

Yes, I am sure that many readers will want to know what Kotowski thinks about this and whether she was the person who sent to newspaper the correspondence. I, for one, wanted to know if she is or ever has been a practicing Catholic and whether the answers to some of these painful questions remain sealed in her relationship with a confessor.

In other words, this is a very complex story. This story did a fine job of getting an unusual amount of this highly personal story into print.

Obviously, please focus your comments on the Mercury News coverage, not your own personal opinions of this priest and/or the Catholic Church. In other words, this remains a journalism blog.

Print Friendly

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.

  • CarlH

    I agree that, at least apart from the somewhat salacious headline, the article itself is pretty fair (especially in comparison to what many have come to expect in similar situations). My anxieties/frustrations about the article go to more to the decisions about what to include in the article, however fair it may appear–in particular the identification of the woman involved and giving a lot of details about her. (Yeah, yeah, I realize she is probably a “public figure” and all; but not all public figures are subjected to such glaring publicity about what supposedly, absent the priest connection, passes for what normal people do these days.) While it is admittedly nice to see a main stream story in which religious authorities have an opportunity to acknowledge that people sin and that sins have consequences, but that belief in redemption is at the heart of religious doctrine about sin, the article still feels to me an awful lot more like a piece from a checkout stand tabloid than a bit of good religious reporting. As Dame Edna is wont to say, “Call me old-fashioned . . . “

  • Pamela

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading the article. I felt it really reflected the heart of Father Manning, which should be the main point in telling a story, that is, to accurately reflect on what happens and how people truly felt at the time. You rarely see such objective coverage of fallen leaders. However I wonder if a lot of the reason is because of the demeanor of the leaders themselves or maybe the drive to draw readers to their news source.

  • Pamela

    CarlH, you brought out a point that I did not consider. My thought was that surely he got permission from her before the details about her life were published in the article. It may have been a jump to conclusions on my part since I had watched Father Manning from time to time over the years on TV.

  • Rev. Michael Church

    Just out of curiosity, I checked to see how a “common dictionary” would define the word “cousin.” The 1979 American Heritage dictionary offers six definitions, of which the first is “originally, a person related by descent from a common ancestor, but not a brother or sister.” The “originally” makes this ambiguous.

    The second is “a child of one’s aunt or uncle,: and the third is “a relative descended from a common ancestor,” with examples and subheadings.

    So it seems that to identify Kotowskii as a cousin meets the dictionary test, but that the Mercury News was wise to clarify the degree of kinship in the body of the article.

  • sam

    As I understand it canon law: any sexual activity btwn “cousins” from the 1st to the 4th degree is considered incest.

  • JWB

    The “fourth degree” the way that term is used in Roman Catholic canon law just means what are conventionally called “first cousins.” Under the present canons (which are less strict than those in effect not too many decades ago, e.g., when Rudy Giuliani had his first wedding which ultimately led to an annullment), second cousins can be married without any special dispensation. Of course, if the man is a priest there’s a whole ‘nother problem.

  • JWB

    Surely the question of whether it is good journalism to say “cousin” without specifying “second cousin” until later on in the article depends on the context. There are probably lots of contexts where the difference between first cousins and second cousins isn’t really going to be salient, and “cousin” without further explanation is sufficiently precise. On the other hand, otherwise consensual sex between first cousins is at least technically a felony in some parts of the U.S. (including states adjacent to California, if wikipedia is accurate), whereas there is no similar issue with second cousins. Moreover, I doubt that the average Californian knows that the state’s law has a more tolerant view of sex between first cousins than those uptight Nevadans next door. And a meaningful percentage of the paper’s readership may see a significant moral difference between the first-cousin situation and the second-cousin situation without regard to the legalities. So this seems like exactly the specific context in which making it clear that this was not a first-cousin relationship at the very first mention would have been highly desirable. That stylebooks and dictionaries don’t specifically tell you when you need to be more precise does not mean there is no need for sound editorial judgment.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    A second cousin is a KIND of cousin. I’ve never referred to my second cousins as anything but ‘cousins’. It’s common among Asian cultures, for example, to refer to first cousins as ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’ and second cousins as ‘cousins’, and as we see more Asian immigration into this country, that terminology is likely going to become more common. (This is also at the root of the confusion about whether or not Jesus had ‘brothers’ or not).

    I don’t believe either first or second cousins should be sleeping with each other, but clearly the problems are bigger with first cousins.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The story does seem fair. There did not seem to be any nasty journalistic digs that sometimes infiltrate a news story of this nature.
    However, I think the story and information has gone to the edge of “news” that the “public needs to know” and that going further would put it in the category of what one commenter called the kind of thing you find in a “checkout stand tabloid.”

  • Jay Jonson

    All this concern about whether the priest and his mistress were first or second cousins seems a bit off the mark. What I find missing journalistically in the article is anything about what the priest actually taught. …

  • steve s.

    It would have required one extra word in the lead paragraph to make things clear. I think it would have been better had they inserted that word.

  • Mollie

    I’m just thankful to finally learn what the difference is between a first and second cousin.

    Now if someone can just explain to me the whole first or twice removed thing …

  • Jerry

    Mollie, ‘removed’ is a generational thing. A first cousin once removed is the child of your first cousin.

  • Mollie

    Thank you, Jerry!

  • Talega

    The article doesn’t mention the source of the correspondence that was submitted to the newspaper that wound up “outing” the affair. If it came from someone snooping through his e-mail, the snitch may now feel suicidal. I think the lesson to be learned is that going to a newspaper rather than the authorities in charge can have grave consequences. Remember what happened to Judas?

  • Fr Bill

    The article places the AP Syle Book above dictionaries. This is a BIG mistake. The AP Syle Book is a … piece of trash.

  • Dave

    Second cousinhood should definitely have been indicated. The genetic hazard to offspring is significantly less for second cousins than for first cousins. (I trust I’m not alone here in citing interests of hypothetical offspring when hetero-sex is involved.)

  • Judy

    I and my family have known Father Manning for over 40 years. Although we haven’t seen him often, he has made a giant impression on our lives when we do get together, or a phone call away he has always been extremely supportive. His joyful nature and contagious laugh are part of his positive approach to life. He has been devoted to teaching and serving others his whole life in the priesthood.
    When he entered the priesthood as a young man he had an idealistic vision of what he could be and what he could do for others. A vow of celibacy is truly a huge decision and was his choice. Frankly, I believe that the non-sexual community of men within the Catholic Church is an extremely unnatural way to live, and there is obvious evidence to support that. I hope that Father Manning’s dedicated life will override the need for others to judge and criticize his humanity.

  • Paul & Sara Petit

    All states in the US allow marriage of second cousins. This is sloppy journalism and is responsible for the suspension of the ministry of a wonderful person who made a mistake and repented TWO years ago! …

  • Gail F

    I am one of the people who sent this story in as an example of good reporting. As far as I can tell, the reporter did not go into much detail about the priest or the woman because they were well-known in the area (this was not a national story), and went into the cousin thing because it was confusing people, who might have thought that the woman was the child of his aunt or uncle. She was not.

    You have to remember that headlines are usually not written by reporters. That’s a different person’s job.