Spies of the Balkans

The 98-year old leader of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church has died.

I guess you weren’t prepared for that bit of excitement from GetReligion the morning after the election. As many of our readers are going through news withdrawal at this moment, I thought I would help ween them from their addiction with something nice, safe and far away: a drawing room media mystery to settle their minds and hearts.

Patriarch Maxim did have the good sense to die on 6 Nov 2012 when the world was watching the American presidential election. And to be fair, I suppose that if he had passed during the dog days of August — the silly season when news is so short on the ground that just about anything can become a major story (remember Chik-fil-A?) — his story still would not have set the hearts of journalists a flutter.

De mortius nil nisi bonum is the line being taken by the Bulgarian press. Reuters and the Associated Press have also decided that it is more fitting to say of the dead nothing but good. The Reuters man in Sophia (sounds like that is from a spy novel doesn’t it) begins his report with:

Patriarch Maxim, a conservative who led Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church for 41 years in times of Communist rule and democracy, died, the church said yesterday.

Followed by the text of the official announcement, the story gives a very brief biography and offers this as context:

Patriarch Maxim has kept a low public profile but was an influential figure with a controversial past. He oversaw a major religious revival in Bulgaria after the collapse of the communist rule. Dozens of new churches were built across the country and monasteries reopened.

And what was this controversial past? Reuters does not say. Maybe the AP can help. It reports the same basic facts but offers a bit more background:

After the collapse of Communism in 1989, Bulgaria’s new democratic government sought to replace Communist-appointed figureheads, including the patriarch. The church split between supporters of Patriarch Maxim and breakaway clergymen, who tried to oust him and then formed their own synod. The division plunged the church into turmoil, with church buildings being occupied, priests breaking into fistfights on church steps, and water cannons and tear gas being turned on rebel bishops to clear the main St. Alexander Nevsky cathedral in Sofia. For more than a decade the two synods existed side by side. The schism ended in 2010, when the head of the alternative synod called for healing and the synod was dissolved.

So Maxim was “a Communist-appointed figurehead”, the AP reports. Yes, Maxim’s appointment was engineered by the Communist regime and following the fall of the “Evil Empire” anti-Communists sought to get rid of him. And even though Bulgarians are not Episcopalians, the ensuing battle led to a schism and lawsuits over church property.

The AP is mistaken when it reports the schism has been healed, though in 2010 Metropolitan Innokenty, the head of the rival synod which held the allegiance of a third of the country’s clergy was received by Maxim back into the “official” church. However the submission of Innokenty did not end the split. Here is a reference to a post-2010 article on the accidental death of one of the leading clergy of the Alternative Synod. If there are still rebel clergy in control of church property that is a clue the rupture has not been healed.

I am confident that at this point in our tale I have hooked the Bulgarian aficionados in our audience — the good people at Patheos have not yet told us how large a demographic this is for Get Religion though. Others might ask, “So what?”  But bear with me, all of this does play its part in solving the mystery.

The clue that has been left out — though broadly hinted at in the AP story — is the allegation that not only was Maxim a Communist-appointed figurehead, he was also considered by some of having been a spy. Twenty-two years after the fall of the Communist regime, the Bulgarian government opened the books from the Committee for State Security — the Darzhavna sigurnost or the DS. What it found was that 11 of the 15 bishops of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church currently in office were informers or agents of the 6th Directorate of the DS, which was tasked with combating political dissent.

The English-language Sofia Echo has written extensively about this scandal: the initial report, what the bishops did for the secret police, popular reaction, calls for the bishops to resign, actions to be taken by the church’s synod. It is also reported that not just the Orthodox bishops betrayed their people, the current Roman Catholic Bishop of Sophia and the present and former chief Mufti of Bulgaria were named as collaborators. Maxim was cleared by the committee investigation collaboration — to the surprise of the Alternative Synod — but suspicions remained of his guilt as his parts of his file appeared to have been mislaid.

While the canard that Pius XII was a pro-Nazi stooge continues to excite journalists — a real story of church leaders collaborating with evil was overlooked by Reuters and the AP in their report on the death of Maxim. Reuters even managed to lead with the descriptor that Maxim was a “conservative”. What can that mean in these circumstances.

After the news broke in January of the bishops’ ties to the secret police, Metropolitan Gavril of Lovech – one of the bishops not named as a collaborator — told the Sofia Echo the church was torn over how to respond to the revelations. “We cannot now think about asking for the resignations of 11 people. That is impossible. If it had been one, or two or three, that is another matter.  The Synod must remain united and these problems should be resolved in some way so as to benefit, but also on the other side, not to destroy, the church,” he said.

What Reuters and the AP seemed to have missed — apart from the disagreeable bits about Maxim’s past — is the fact that the death of the man who caused the schism may well end the schism.

The Bulgarians are not alone in avoiding scrutiny of church and state in the Communist era. Russia has yet to examine the Stalinist era. The Moscow Patriarchate — the official name for the Russian Orthodox Church — was set up on the orders of Joseph Stalin in 1943 as a front organization for the NKVD and all of its senior positions were vetted by the Ideological Department of the Communist Party, according to reports published in the U.K. following the defection of KGB Major Vasili Mitrokhin  in 1991.

In two books written with intelligence historian Christopher Andrew, The KGB in Europe and the West and The KGB in the World, Mitrokhin claimed that Russian Orthodox priests were used as agents of influence on behalf of the KGB in organizations such as the World Council of Churches and the World Peace Council.  Patriarch Alexius II was also named as KGB agent with the codename DROZDOV, whose services earned him a citation from the regime.

TMatt has discussed this question in a number of posts. In his 2007 story “Mere candlestick holders in Moscow?” he wrote that in 1991 an anonymous priest in Moscow told him the post-Soviet Russian church had four kinds of leaders:

A few Soviet-era bishops are not even Christian believers. Some are flawed believers who were lured into compromise by the KGB, but have never publicly confessed this. Some are believers who cooperated with the KGB, but have repented to groups of priests or believers. Finally, some never had to compromise.

“We have all four kinds,” this priest said. “That is our reality. We must live with it until God heals our church.”

While the setting is Bulgaria and the characters are Orthodox clergy and secret policemen, the issues are of collaboration with evil and the battle for truth. Change the characters and the same story could be told of Vichy France, the Deutsche Evangelische Kirche and the Confessing Church in Germany, or the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the House Church movement in China.

In French there is an expression très balkan: meaning hopelessly confused with the connotation of labyrinthine or byzantine machinations. It would be easy to dismiss this story as being a très balkan intrigue more worthy of an Eric Ambler novel than hard news. However the death of Maxim and the saga of the Orthodox Church raises profound questions of morality.

What is the journalist’s task in all of this? Is it too much to expect a discourse of the ethical and moral ghosts that lay behind a story on collaboration with evil — or is it enough to just report the events. How should society judge those who collaborated with evil or who were agents of evil?

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The Hot Dog theory of history

It is touching to see that in spite of everything that has happened over the course of the Twentieth century, there is still a belief in the Whig theory of history — of the inevitable march of progress. One can see this philosophical framework of man’s “move forward into broad, sunlit uplands” in this story on gender violence from the AP’s New Hampshire reporter.

The article entitled “8 Pakistanis tour NH domestic violence programs” recounts the visit to the Granite State of  “women’s rights advocates from Pakistan” underwritten by the U.S. State Department to “learn how to combat domestic violence.” It seems the money expended by the government was not well spent as the situation in New Hampshire is as bad as that in Peshawar. The eight were “stunned by the magnitude of the problem here,” the AP reports.

Opening with the observation:

‘‘All the violence we are facing, you have here,’’ said Ishrat Jabeen Aashi, a gender specialist based in Islamabad.

And closing with:

Aashi said she now feels domestic violence is more of a problem in the United States than it is Pakistan. ‘‘People know how to highlight issues here in the media,’’ she said. ‘‘We cannot give any negative impression of the country.’’

Aashi said Pakistan’s domestic violence issues are more prevalent among the poor and uneducated. ‘‘If we can address the poverty issues and people have enough money to survive, domestic violence will decline,’’ she said.

This article adopts the moral equivalence model of reporting. It accepts without question or verification statements that reflect badly on Western culture but asks nothing about those making the criticisms. If the statements put forward in this article were true, the AP would have a great story on hits hands. Who knew of the rash of honor killings taking place in New Hampshire?

The article also lacks any sense of context and intellectual maturity. Is gender violence in Pakistan the same thing as gender violence in the U.S.? This is not to minimize the problem of domestic abuse in the U.S., but rather to say this story lacks the necessary sophistication to be treated seriously. The terms need to be defined.

In the bad old days, one of Pravda‘s stock stories was to speak of the terrible conditions facing the American working class. Pictures of hard hat construction workers consuming hot dogs for lunch at a job site were proof positive of the superior living standards of homo sovieticus. Are the Russians particularly credulous? Are hot dogs so ne-kulturny as to be evidence of the superiority of the socialist workers’ paradise? No. Lunch is the main meal in Russia and the casual hot dog consumed from a cart in Manhattan seemed to the ordinary Russian to be a demonstration of his country’s material prowess.

The AP story is written from the hot dog fallacy point of view.  Like the characters from a modern day Ninotchka, the Pakistani visitors in this article praise their home country and culture when on a visit to a foreign land. Might I say, good for them. Always nice to see loyalty to the home side. But the AP might have done a bit better.

This story is framed by the belief that if only the problem of poverty and an inadequate education were resolved, the ills of this world will fade away. I do not dispute that poverty is bad and education a good thing — but morality and ethics play their part as well.

The “I”-word is also not mentioned in the story — Islam. Nor is the question of honor killings, the position of women in Pakistani society, or the treatment of Pakistani women from minority religious groups addressed.

Gender violence is a problem across the world — but it is foolish to think that its causes are limited to the material. This story from the Daily Dispatch from South Africa caught me eye on this point.

Butterworth police spokesman Captain Jackson Manatha said a suspect had been arrested over the murder of the Centane granny in the belief she was a witch. “A 37-year-old suspect has been arrested in connection with her murder.”

“The elderly woman was allegedly attacked and stabbed several times at her home by the suspect, who was accusing her of bewitching his family.”

Viewing the world through a materialist lens does not capture reality. In Africa, gender violence sometimes has a pronounced religious element to it — be it the murder of witches in South Africa or the rape of Christian women by Muslim militias in the Sudan. In Pakistan gender violence is closely tied to the country’s social and religious culture. Can the same be said of gender violence in America? A staple of the anti-Islamist websites is the story of some Muslim sheik somewhere issuing a fatwa approving the beating of women or of a group of men beating a Muslim woman for having offended their religious sensibilities. While it is fun to pick on Pat Robertson, I don’t remember his having gone that far as to having commended spousal violence.

The AP’s gender violence story has a religion ghost, but appears deaf to its shrieks. It is written from the Hot Dog theory of history — assuming words and actions in one culture have an identical meaning in another. They don’t.

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What’s happening in Zanzibar?

YouTube Preview ImageIt’s been about five years since I was last in Zanzibar. I was part of the press gaggle accompanying the archbishops of the Anglican Communion on a day trip from the mainland to Christ Church Cathedral in Stone Town — the island’s principal town. Built over 125 years ago on the site of the old slave market (the altar was built atop the sight of the market’s whipping post) the picturesque coral stone cathedral is a monument to the British suppression of the slave trade. Zanzibar had been the entrepôt for slaves captured on the mainland before they were shipped north to the Arab world.

Zanzibar was a welcome diversion from the rather limited delights of Dar es Salaam, and I have followed and reported on the news from the island — part of the Republic of Tanzania — ever since. My knowledge of the island and its history has grown from a vague idea it was connected with Freddie Mercury and a Bob Hope movie. I have also come to know the Anglican bishop of the island and am a “Facebook friend” with one of his clergy.

Hence this story from Reuters caught my eye. Through Facebook posts I was aware of the situation on the island and was waiting to see what would come across the wires.

The 18 Oct 2012 story begins:

STONE TOWN, Zanzibar (Reuters) – Supporters of a separatist Islamist group in Zanzibar looted shops and fought with police on Thursday after their leader disappeared, witnesses said, the third outbreak of violence this year on the Indian Ocean archipelago.

Supporters of Sheikh Farid Hadi, a leader of the Islamic Uamsho (Awakening) movement who has not been seen since Tuesday, threw stones at police, blocked roads with cut-down trees and burned tyres in the island’s main town. “Police are everywhere and firing teargas. There is nobody around town and the shops are closed. It’s a terrible situation,” Said Salleh, 40, a businessman from Zanzibar, told Reuters by phone.

Witnesses said protesters looted shops and video footage showed a number of rioters holding machetes and hiding their faces with balaclavas. Heavily armed police stepped up patrols late on Thursday and continued to engage in sporadic battles with rioters in Zanzibar’s historic Stone Town. “The streets are deserted … Only heavily armed policemen are now patrolling the town. We are afraid to go out, we can still hear the sound of gunfire,” Rukiya Khalifa, a resident of the historic Stone Town area, told Reuters.

The latest violence raised concerns of an escalation in religious tension in the predominantly Muslim island which is part of Tanzania but ruled by a semi-autonomous secular government.

The article continues with background information on the political roots of the discontent, statements from police and government leaders, and closes with this sentence:

In May Uamsho supporters set fire to two churches and clashed with police over the arrest of senior members of the movement.

What struck my eye as I read this story was a suspicion that the dateline for this story was incorrect. At the foot of the story a note states the reporting took place from Dar es Salaam, with additional reporting taking place at other locations. The language of the story, “told Reuters by phone” and  “video footage showed” strongly suggests this report was not written from Stone Tone in Zanzibar as the dateline states, but elsewhere.

Reporters cannot be everywhere and there is nothing wrong with basing stories upon telephone interviews, government press statements, and video footage. But I question the wisdom of leading with the Stone Town claim, for if the reporter were writing from the island, I wonder why he would have omitted the news that Christ Church Cathedral was attacked by Uamsho militants, some Christians have gone into hiding for fear of their lives, and the Bishop of Zanzibar and some of his clergy were evacuated by plane from the island.

I am not in Stone Town and my knowledge of the above comes from telephone and Facebook communications from those who witnessed the riots and have fled the island — one fellow saying he and his family left house and car, dog and cat behind and wondering what he will find when he is permitted to return. Nor do I know the fate of the Roman Catholic bishop of Zanzibar or if militants attacked St Joseph’s Cathedral.

While the Reuters piece closes with a mention of the past church burnings, there is no sense in this story that the militant outrage over the arrest of their leader by police is expressed in attacks on a small and vulnerable Christian minority. Is it that after reports of pogroms and persecution of Christians in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia the Sudan, Nigeria, and Kenya in recent weeks, another church burning does not warrant more than a brief mention? I am also uneasy about the lack of context for this story. I will concede that context is a rare thing in a wire service story where a reporter must squeeze as much as he can into 400 words or less. But omitting the over arching place of radical Islam in the story does leave the piece unfinished.

At the same time, I am writing from the safety of the U.S. and am not of interest to the East German-trained security services of Zanzibar nor subject to the country’s press laws. There is no danger of my prattling on about persecution as I am safe from it. Tell me GetReligion readers, where does the balance lie? How much can be told? How much should be told? Can a story be shaded to claim it was written on sight, but remove the clues that would give a malevolent eye a hint as to who was talking? What say you?

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Got news? Bavarian rabbi in legal trouble for WHAT?!

With GetReligion’s move to the Patheos universe, it’s highly likely that this here weblog has lots of new readers. As a result, some of the language that we use over and over may sound a bit strange, for people who have not been around for our whole eight-year journey.

Take, for example, the constant references to religion “ghosts.” Confused? This is a big one, so please click here and read.

And what, pray tell, is the “tmatt trio”? Here’s a collection of URLs that will help you work that one out. And what about “tmatt” as a name (it’s a lower-case “t,” by the way)? That showed up years ago, a digital nickname bestowed by the wife of my family’s Orthodox priest. Many of you may know the work of the justifiably admired writer Frederica Mathewes-Green.

You may, on occasion, see a reference to the Rt. Rev. Douglas Leblanc. No, he is not an Anglican bishop, I bestowed the title on him in a rather postmodern fashion. I mean, who is to say that he is not an Anglican bishop, that’s his decision and not anyone else’s, right? Meanwhile, he is the co-founder of GetReligion and I leave his name on the masthead because of my vast respect for his work (and in hopes that he returns to this space, some day, somehow).

And so forth and so on. The key term for this post is our ongoing “Got news?” features. This is a label that was created to let us write about stories that seem very important to us as readers, yet for some strange reason, they are not getting very much or any coverage in the mainstream press. We even have an archive category for these posts.

If one of the goals of GetReligion is to spot religion-news sins of commission, then “Got news?” is a label that we have pinned on some of the sins of omission. Does that make sense?

So here is a perfect example. The following story from Europe seems very important, seeing as how it perfectly illustrates what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was talking about the other day in her unusually candid speech on the rising global tide of threats to religious liberty.

What often happens is that major stories get stuck in the world of the denominational press or, when it comes to religion news, the alternative “conservative media.” The implication is that only true believers care about this stuff.

With that introduction, consider the top of this very alarming story from JTA.org, a news service dedicated to covering Jewish news.

BERLIN (JTA) – A court in Bavaria is considering criminal charges of committing bodily harm against a local rabbi, in the first known case to arise from an anti-circumcision ruling in May.

The investigation against Rabbi David Goldberg, who is a mohel (or ritual circumciser) undertaken after a complaint was filed against him with police by anti-circumcision activists, means that the May decision in the state of Hesse has been applied in Bavaria, confirming the fears of Jewish leaders here that the local ruling would have a wider impact.

Goldberg, 64, a Jerusalem native living in Hof Saale in Bavaria, told JTA he had not yet received a notice from the court. He said he would decide what to do after he had seen it. The charge was confirmed to the main Jewish newspaper of Germany, the Juedische Allgemeine Zeitung.

The rabbi also said he did not know what act the charges could refer to, since he has not performed any circumcisions recently in Germany. “Only abroad: in Budapest, in the Czech Republic, in Italy,” he said. Still, the rabbi said no secular ruling would stop him from performing brit milah in the country.

Read it all.

Once again, the goal here at GetReligion is not to discuss, let alone argue, about the doctrinal or political issue at the heart of this case. We are trying to do something that is a journalistic cut above that. The goal is to discuss whether this is an important story and, if it is, why isn’t the story breaking out into the mainstream press.

Was this story covered in the newspaper — analog or digital — that landed in your metaphorical front yard this morning? Have you seen significant coverage of this significant event in the mainstream, as opposed to niche, sites that you frequent?
Why or why not?

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Forgiving monsters: The Dutroux Case

One of the most notorious criminal cases in modern European history has returned to the public eye, dominating the front pages and leaders of Belgium’s newspapers. A judge has agreed to release Michelle Martin from prison on the condition she enter the Convent of the Les Soeurs Clarisses de Malonne (Poor Clares) and remain under police supervision.

The news of the parole has prompted an appeal by state prosecutors, public protests, outrage in the press — and the mayor of Namur has ordered police to guard the convent. Why such a fuss? The opening paragraphs of a solid AP story tells us why.

BRUSSELS — The ex-wife of a notorious pedophile who aided her husband’s horrific abuse and murder of young girls – and who let two children starve to death while her husband was in jail – was approved Tuesday for early release from prison, infuriating the victims’ parents and reopening a dark chapter in Belgian history.

Michelle Martin, who is now 52, received a 30-year prison term in 2004 for not freeing girls her then-husband Marc Dutroux held captive behind a secret door in their decrepit, dirty basement in Marcinelle, 40 miles south of Brussels.

Dutroux, 55, is serving a life term for kidnapping, torturing and abusing six girls in 1995 and 1996, and murdering four of them.

During those years, Dutroux also spent four months in jail for theft, leaving it to his wife to feed Julie Lejeune and Melissa Russo, a pair of friends imprisoned in the basement. Martin let the girls starve to death. They were 8 years old.

Bumbling police work and claims by Dutroux that he was part of a wider pedophile network that included politicians, judges and police officials prompted public protests in Belgium and nearly led to the fall of the government. King Albert intervened and ordered a reorganization of the criminal justice system. The Dutroux affair had a profound effect on Belgium’s national psyche, some have argued, damaging public trust in the country’s civil institutions. Sixteen years into her 30 year sentence, Michelle Martin may be leaving prison to enter a convent.

While this has been a gruesome true crime, political intrigue and corruption story, it has now become a religious liberty story with faith taking center stage in this drama. The AP article closes with these paragraphs:

Under the terms of her release, Martin will have to remain at the convent and be assigned a task daily. Moreau, Martin’s lawyer, said it took some time for the convent to agree to have her live there. But in the end they realized that no one else would take her in, he said.

“They accepted because their vocation is to welcome people nobody wants,” he said.

The convent’s decision to give refuge to Michelle Martin has not been warmly received by the Belgian press, some of whom cite the clergy sexual abuse scandal as evidence of its institutional failings. The coverage of the Michelle Martin parole is a great example of the strengths and weaknesses of European advocacy style journalism. Working from the same fact base, the European press can give widely diverse interpretations of events. While you may not find a single truth in the diversity of accounts, a European reader will come away much better informed of the events and issues at play than an American reader.

For example, in its articles the liberal national daily Le Soir has taken an outraged stance. Its editorial argued:

There is great doubt, if not total disbelief about the chosen place of [Martin's] reintegration into society. .. . Certainly, the gesture of the Poor Clares is a remarkably generous. But a convent, cut off from the world and managed by women who have voluntary withdrawn from real life and any professional activity, should become a place for rehabilitation is breathtaking. That the Church – which has not shown great courage or clarity in recent years when confronted with deviant behavior – will serve as the monitor and guarantor  of Martin’s reintegration adds to the disorder.

Objections to her release were founded upon a belief that Michelle Martin was the incarnation of absolute evil — “l’incarnation du mal absolu” — the conservative national daily La Libre Belgique  reported. But no person was beyond redemption, the newspaper argued, saying the law must not “deprive anyone, not even the most heinous criminal, of any hope of getting out of jail. To challenge this principle based upon hatred of the criminal would be unreasonable.”

The Sudpresse‘s editor disagreed, saying this was “un impossible pardon”. The Belgian judiciary in complicity with the Catholic Church had committed a coup against the Belgian people: “mauvais coup (de la justice belge), perpétré avec la complicité de l’Eglise catholique”.

However, De Standaard has endorsed the church’s intervention. Its editor said the news of the parole had led him to experience two feelings at the same time: horror over the crimes of Michelle Martin and respect for the Catholic convictions of the Poor Clares.

De Standaard printed a letter from the Abbess of Malonne, where the sisters explained their decision to give Michelle Martin a home. They stated they had agreed to take her in as she has no family and no half-way house or other institution would have her due to the notoriety of her crimes. They stated that while she would be residing at the convent under the supervision of the judicial authorities, she would not be a entering the order but would be the guest of the Poor Clares. And, they felt it was their Christian duty to act as they did.

Nous avons la profonde conviction qu’enfermer définitivement le déviant dans son passé délictueux et l’acculer à la désespérance ne serait utile à personne et serait au contraire une marche en arrière pour notre société. Michèle Martin est un être humain capable, comme nous tous, du pire comme du meilleur.

Ideology plays its part in the coverage of this story. Self-identified Catholic newspapers have stressed the theme of penitence and redemption. Some secular newspapers have objected to the intrusion of Catholic sensibilities into the parole of a “monster”, but others have advanced ethical theories of crime and punishment. No one newspaper encompasses all of these views, but collectively the debate over the parole of Michelle Martin is an example of the best of the European press.

Can Michelle Martin be forgiven? Is parole a form of forgiveness? Should the church be accorded a custodial role in a secular state? All great questions. What say you?

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Catholics, Commies, and Gays — Oh my!

Where is Dan Brown when you need him?

The story of Archbishop Róbert Bezák is ready made for the Da Vinci Code treatment. Yet the press has bungled a Catholic story — the Associated Press piece that ran in most U.S. newspapers devoted more space to a rehash of the clergy pedophile scandal than the church conflict in the Slovak Republic.

This story has gays, Nazi sympathizers, Communist secret police agents, liberal Catholics, Vatican intrigue, and the “Rottweiler” — Pope Benedict XVI — playing the heavy. And what we are offered is the tired (and irrelevant) clergy abuse saga.

Our tale begins — in press terms — with the announcement from the Vatican that Archbishop Róbert Bezák of Trnava had been sacked. The AP story opens with:

The pope fired a 52-year-old Slovak bishop on Monday for apparently mismanaging his diocese in a rare show of papal power over his bishops.

Usually when bishops run into trouble – either for alleged moral lapses or management problems – they are persuaded by the Vatican to resign. But Pope Benedict XVI has become increasingly willing to forcibly remove bishops who refuse to step down, sacking three others in the last year alone.

His willingness to do so raises questions about whether he would take the same measures against bishops who covered up for sexually abusive priests. So far he has not.

As you can see, while the story ostensibly is about Archbishop Bezák, it really is another opportunity to club the pope and the Catholic Church.  We do learn a bit about the unemployed archbishop. The AP story states:

On Monday, the Vatican said Benedict had “relieved from pastoral care” Bishop Robert Bezak of Trnava, Slovakia. No reason was given, but Italian news reports suggested administrative problems were to blame and Slovak news reports quoted Bezak as saying he thought his criticism of his predecessor may have had a role.

But this detour into news soon ends and we go back to assumptions and assertions.

The exercise of the pope’s ability to fire a bishop has important implications, particularly concerning bishops who mishandle pedophile priests.

In the face of U.S. lawsuits seeking to hold the pope ultimately responsible for abusive priests, the Holy See has argued that bishops are largely masters of their dioceses and that the pope doesn’t really control them. The Vatican has thus sought to limit its own liability, arguing that the pope doesn’t exercise sufficient control over the bishops to be held responsible for their bungled response to priests who rape children.

The ability of the pope to actively fire bishops, and not just passively accept their resignations, would seem to undercut the Vatican’s argument of a hands-off pope.

And so on and so forth. I’ve read this sort of thing dozens of times before and repetition does not make it any more newsworthy.

The front page of the 23 July issue of Pravda — not that Pravda, but the other one, the Bratislava daily newspaper — is devoted to a discussion of Church/State relations in the Slovak Republic and the fallout from the Bezák affair. The Pravda lede begins:

[Slovak] churches will receive more than 37 million euros in state support this year, and from this amount 21 million euros will be given to the Catholic Church.  The state is facing a financial shortfall and church support is a huge burden, but so far the government has been reluctant even to begin discussing the separation of church and state.

… The debate on the separation of church and state is once again in the public eye due to the events surrounding the appeal [of the dismissal] of Trnava Archbishop Robert Bezák … 

The focus of the Pravda story is on the return or restitution to the Catholic Church of properties confiscated by the Communist regime. The neighboring Czech Republic has been debating the issue in Parliament and the Slovak government is about to follow suit.  However, the no-compensation group has a strong political base, Pravda notes.

One expert is cited in the article saying that during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the Czechoslovak Republic of 1919 to 1938 and the Nazi-puppet Slovak Republic of 1938 to 1945 the state owned church properties, which were entrusted to the Catholic Church for the use and benefit of the people.  “Each year [the Catholic Church] had to account to the state for the management of the property it used.”

The article then returns to Archbishop Bezák, with one expert saying the dismissal of the Archbishop of  Trnava for his progressive social views was grounds not to compensate the church as it could not be trusted to put the interests of the people first.  The bottom line — the Bezák story is not another episode in the clergy abuse saga but falls into another popular press theme — good liberal Catholics, bad conservative Catholics.

A 14 July story in TASR, the state news agency, reports that one of the letters of complaint lodged against Archbishop Bezák found its way to the TA3 television network.

Among the accusations listed by the Vatican in the documents are Bezak’s selection of homosexual priests and those having illegitimate children as his close associates, and alleged mockery of the cassock as a piece of clothing worn by sorcerers, while he himself wears jeans or sweatpants. The Vatican also asked whether it’s true that Bezak speaks of the pope merely as “Mr. Pope” in the public, and describes other Slovak bishops as “old and fogy”, while he is a “modern bishop and enlightened liberal”.

Bezak in a response said that his predecessor Jan Sokol didn’t alert him to any priests in the diocese that would have “dubious reputation”, while he isn’t interested in any ill-based accusations and observes the principle of benefit of the doubt instead. Similarly, Bezak rejected the accusation that he would have ever mocked the cassock and have worn indecent dress. He also said that he has never described himself as a “modern bishop and enlightened liberal”, as he had been in office less than three years, which was too little to define himself in any way. He further said that he describes the pope with due reverence, using terms such as “pope, pope Benedict XVI, Holy Father, Holy Father Benedict XVI and His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI”.

If the TASR story is true, one faction of the Slovak Church complained to the Vatican about the new archbishop’s liberal social views and progressive lifestyle. The story continues to build:

Drawing upon reports published by the Slovak newspaper SME, the English-language Slovak Spectator stated local protests by some Catholics followed the bishops removal. It offered further comments from political leaders perturbed by the Vatican’s removal of the young archbishop. Part of the dispute, the Slovak press reports, arises from the sharply different styles and personalities of the former archbishop and the new archbishop.

Bezák, aged 52, replaced controversial former archbishop Ján Sokol three years ago. The step was widely welcomed given Sokol’s repeated praise of President Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest who led the Nazi-allied wartime Slovak state during which, among other atrocities, tens of thousands of Slovakia’s Jews were deported to Nazi death camps. Bezák won popular respect when he announced that Tiso should have resigned as soon as the first train transporting Jews left the country.

…  [archbishop] Ján Sokol is known by Slovaks as one of the more controversial personalities in the local Roman Catholic Church, especially because his name appeared on the payroll of the communist-era secret police, the ŠtB.

Now I’ve not found an Opus Dei angle to the story so far, but a Gay-Nazi-Commie-Catholic-Conspiracy story is the sort of thing that religion reporters lie awake at night dreaming about.

It is not a crime for a journalist to run a short item. I am not criticizing the AP for being unaware of the back story of Archbishop Bezák. What troubles me is the padding of this story by the AP.

Yes, I get it. You don’t like Benedict and you are suspicious of the institution. But that sort of heavy breathing and speculation is inappropriate in a news story. The AP should have reported the fact of the archbishop’s dismissal and the Vatican’s decision to decline to comment. Droning on and on about bad Benedict and the clergy abuse scandal served no purpose. Simply put, by playing to its prejudices, the AP blinded itself and its readers to the real, much more interesting, story.

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Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman: Whose God is whose?

Watch the latest video at video.foxnews.com

As if the Internet needs more things to explode over, George Zimmerman, who has been charged with second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin, brought religion into the mix in an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity last night. Here’s how the LA Times describes the turn of events:

In his first lengthy TV interview since killing Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman initially said Wednesday night that he did not regret anything that happened that night.

“I feel like it was all God’s plan,” he told conservative talk show host Sean Hannity on Fox News.

Near the end of the interview, he backtracked, saying he would tell the teen’s parents, “I’m sorry,” and that he would be open to talking to them about what happened.

“I can’t imagine what it must feel like. And I pray for them daily,” Zimmerman said.

So, of course, reporters pounce and go to Martin’s family for reaction.

Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press that he rejected a comment Zimmerman made about the events of that night being part of “God’s plan.”

“We must worship a different God. There is no way that my God wanted George Zimmerman to murder my teenage son,” Tracy Martin said.

As a reader put it:

So George Zimmerman said on video that the death of Trayvon Martin was a part of God’s plan? What are George Zimmerman’s religious beliefs? What are the Martin Family’s beliefs? There’s no other details on it other than George Zimmerman said X, and the Martin family responds with Y.

The lack of basic details here is so painfully obvious. Can you imagine reporters accepting the same kind of general description in the details of the crime? For instance, would they be just fine with receiving information that Martin was wearing clothes? No, the hoodie makes it much more descriptive. Was he carrying just any kind of candy? No, we all remember the Skittles. Why is it so hard for reporters to nail down more specifics on religion?

The lack of specifics exacerbate the quotes even more, especially when the family responds that they don’t worship the same God. Easy follow-up questions would be: So what God is that? Do you attend a specific church regularly? Reporters act like these questions are like asking someone’s weight. It’s really not hard. People often want to share that information. And readers are desperately looking for it.

Who cares if the reports and interviews come out of Fox, MSNBC, AP, LA Times, a blogger, a tweeter? Everyone involved is doing a terrible job. It’s not rocket science. It’s reporting. The hole is so big you could drive a truck through it.

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A “fair go” for Lindy Chamberlain

“My God, my God, the dingo’s got my baby!”

On 17 August 1980 seven week old Azaria Chamberlain disappeared from her family’s campsite near Ayer’s Rock in the Australian desert.

The baby’s mother, Lindy Chamberlain, claimed a dingo took the baby from its crib. But a police investigation concluded she had murdered the baby and two years later Lindy Chamberlain was sentenced to a life term of imprisonment for murdering her child.

Today, 12 June 2012 a coroner’s court in Darwin closed the case of Lindy Chamberlain, finding that a dingo did take the child from its cradle and was the likely cause of death.

The case of Lindy Chamberlain and her husband, Michael, proved to be one of the most watched trials of the Twentieth century in Australia — and certainly its most cathartic. It spawned a movie A Cry in the Dark starring Meryl Streep, an opera, a television docudrama, books and countless newspaper and magazine articles. It also produced some great reporting about a miscarriage of justice where flawed forensic evidence and public hysteria (very much like the McMartin PreSchool trials) convicted an innocent women.

A jury found Lindy Chamberlain to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt even though there was no body, no motive, and no eyewitness evidence.  The judge summed up in favor of the defendant noting that the eyewitness evidence presented to the court (if believed) disproved the theory that Lindy Chamberlain stole away from the tent for about 8 to 10 minutes with her child and then murdered her in the desert.

Lindy Chamberlain quickly became the most hated woman in Australia. Public opinion was firmly in favor of the verdict. The Guardian  wrote:

Yet immediately there was scepticism and scorn [about the dingo claim]. It seemed an unlikely story and the Chamberlains displayed an outwardly calm demeanour. That set the atmosphere for the vicious rumours that began to circulate, including the false claim that the name Azaria meant “Sacrifice in the Wilderness”. The Chamberlains’ religion was poorly understood and ugly rumours started about the sort of things Seventh-day Adventists did.

This scorn crossed the Pacific to Hollywood, providing a memorable scene in an episode of Seinfield.

As an article by Roz Zurko in the Examiner noted:

Probably the most famous line referring to this case was when Elaine was at a party with some snobbish Long Islanders and the woman was going on and on about her fiancé, who she referred to as her baby. When the woman couldn’t find “her baby” at the party, Elaine, who had enough of her non-stop talk, leaned into her and said, “The Dingo ate your baby.” The train of thought back then was that the Chamberlains made this story up.

The website of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Australia 32 years after the death of Azaria Chamberlain maintains a page that responds to some of the wilder claims made by the media in the case.

A few of the misconceptions of Seventh-day Adventists that were published by the media included:

We do not give and accept blood – this resulted in baby Azaria dying because she was “spear-tackled” by Lindy in a Mount Isa supermarket and was refused a blood transfusion.

Adventists actually promote good health practices, including the use of blood transfusions. We run a network of more than 500 hospitals and clinics around the world – Sydney Adventist Hospital is one of these hospitals – where blood transfusions are given.

We practice ritual infanticide, and that the name Azaria meant “sacrifice in the wilderness.”

Adventists are mainstream Protestant Christians who reject any form of ritualistic killing or such practices. The name Azaria is derived from the male Biblical name “Azariah” and means “helped by God” or “blessed of God”.

We are obviously familiar with ritual killings since Lindy appeared unaffected by the death of her daughter during interviews and the trial.

Adventists have a strong and unwavering faith in the goodness of God. Lindy’s belief in God and on what happens when someone dies gave her the calm and ability to rest and rely on God. Lindy was able to speak openly about forensic and scientific evidence because of her practical personality and her belief in God that gave her strength and peace of mind.

One of the best recent stories I have seen on this case is an AP story by Kristen Gelineau entitled “Australia asks again: Did a dingo really kill Lindy Chamberlain’s baby?”

The case, Ms. Gelineau argued in a February 2012 article, has forced Australians to question themselves.

Australia is a nation that was, in many ways, born out of judgment, when Britain began sending its unwanted convicts to the continent in the 1700s. These social outcasts fought against what they considered the elitism of the British class system, cheered for the underdog and honed a sharp sense of injustice. Australia proudly dubbed itself “the land of the fair go.”

Today, the “fair go” is a key part of Australian identity, a phrase that shows up in politics, popular culture and everyday life. … But the fair go mentality didn’t seem to apply to the Chamberlains, with their little-known religion.

Michael Chamberlain was a pastor with the Seventh-day Adventist church, a Protestant denomination that few Australians understood. In the absence of fact came rumors that spread with frightening ferocity, of child sacrifice, witchcraft, even Satanism. Had Lindy killed Azaria as part of a twisted religious ritual? Did the name Azaria really mean “sacrifice in the wilderness?” (It is a Hebrew name that means “helped by God.”)

The hysteria was reminiscent of the Salem witch trials in the U.S. Even a black dress once worn by Azaria was seen as proof that Lindy was an evil murderess — because what kind of mother dresses her baby in black?

Michael Chamberlain, who was divorced from Lindy in 1991, is now an author in a small town north of Sydney. When asked about the case, he is both weary and wary, carefully limiting what he says ahead of the inquest as he waits to see whether the system will give him a chance.

“The church got so smashed up, erroneously, and all through, really, a nasty dose of prejudice,” Chamberlain says. “I can say that I think our religion definitely impacted quite strongly on the attitude that many Australians developed.”

The growing evidence that they had unfairly judged the Chamberlains was a bitter pill for Australians to swallow, says John Bryson, author of “Evil Angels,” the definitive book on Azaria’s disappearance.

“Australians always thought of themselves, and this country, as being the country of fair play,” Bryson says. “That certainly wasn’t the case.”

This article by Ms. Gelineau, along with many others written over the past 30 years is an example of great journalism — combing accuracy, psychological insight, moral clear-sightedness and great writing.  The press at its best.

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