Should Louisiana priest say what he heard in confession?

Dead men file no lawsuits. They also don’t defend themselves to TV reporters. And live priests don’t divulge what they hear in the confessional.

That frees news media like WBRZ-TV to pile on the bias without being sued or contradicted.

Rebecca Mayeux, 20, told the Baton Rouge station that she was molested when she was 14 by George Charlet Jr., a fellow parishioner at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church. She says she went three times about it to the pastor, Father Jeff Bayhi, only to be rebuffed. “This is your problem. Sweep it under the floor and get rid of it,” she says he told her.

When she finally told her parents, they hired a lawyer, but the case has been complicated by the sudden death of the alleged molester of a heart attack. That puts pressure on Bayhi to talk about what he heard during confession.

WBRZ’s so-called Investigative Unit totally takes Mayeux’s side. It paints her as “an intelligent college student in the prime of her life” and that “reading is one of her favorite hobbies” — as if she’d be less credible if she were old, dumb and illiterate.

Chris Nakamoto, the main inquisitor, er, reporter, switches between saying what happened “according to Mayeux” and assuming that it all happened as she says. He shows a picture of Mayeux and Charlet “during the time frame Charlet was sexually abusing her, and brainwashing her through what she says were emails and scripture.” Interestingly, the text version of the story softens that accusation to “when she claims Charlet was abusing her” (emphasis mine).

WBRZ tries a “gotcha” moment with a TV videoclip of a YouTube homily by Bayhi, in which he urges parents to take action when they learn their children are being hurt. The clip “appears to contradict what he told Rebecca Mayeux,” Nakamoto says, ignoring the other possibility: that it simply contradicts what Mayeux claims the priest would say in such a situation.

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Dallas Morning News advocacy journalism, the prequel

Pardon me, Dallas Morning News. We underestimated you.

I’ll explain what I mean in a moment. But first, a little background — OK, it may turn out to be a big chunk of background:

Twice in the last week — here and here — we at GetReligion posted on the Texas newspaper’s advocacy journalism on a retired Methodist pastor conducting a wedding ceremony for two elderly gay men. In each case, we lamented the Morning News’ inability to find anyone to quote supporting the United Methodists’ stance on homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Instead, a newspaper that likes to tout its nine Pulitzer Prizes since 1986 settled each time for a “no comment” from the region’s presiding Methodist bishop.

In our last post, I opined:

But if the bishop won’t talk, are there no other Methodist leaders — in Texas or the nation — that the Morning News might quote to help readers understand why the “other side” believes what it does?

Or is the Dallas paper content to advocate for one side and make only a cursory effort to give the “other side” a voice? Barring any evidence to the contrary, that certainly appears to be the case.

That post prompted Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher — who once worked at the Morning News — to write at The American Conservative:

Same-sex marriage is a big deal within the Methodist Church nationally. The church officially doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, but as you’ll see from the AP story I linked, activists within the national church have undertaken guerrilla actions to defy church teaching because they haven’t gotten their way nationally. They are destroying church unity, but they believe they’re doing it for a good cause. The point is, at this juncture in the struggle within the Methodist church, traditionalists are still in control, and set policy for all Methodist churches. There ought to have been balance in the News stories.

I lived in Dallas, and I know Methodists there. It is absurd to think that it’s impossible to find a Methodist in Dallas who stands with tradition, which is, for the time being, the United Methodist Church’s official teaching. For heaven’s sake, you’ve got a major Methodist divinity school there in town. I’ve never been a religion reporter, but I know at least one professor there who would have given a defense of the church’s teaching — if the reporter from the News would have cared to have learned it. That’s the rub, though. If the reporter and her newspaper don’t believe the other side has a right to be heard, they won’t be heard, and the false impression is given that there is only one side to the story.

That brings me to the reason for this post. It turns out that we were wrong about the Morning News writing two one-sided stories on this issue.  Perusing the newspaper’s online religion page this morning, I found a third. 

Let’s call it the prequel, as it ran back in January:

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Dallas paper advocates for Methodist same-sex marriage

Let’s try this again.

I thought Tamie “wife of this blogger” Ross had a catchy title on her post last week concerning The Dallas Morning News’ inability to find anyone to quote supporting the United Methodists’ stance on homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

That title: “If at first you don’t succeed … find another source.”

Instead, the Dallas paper settled for attempting to reach a single source:

The UMC bishop for this region, Bishop Michael McKee, didn’t return messages seeking comment.

Well, the Morning News had another chance over the weekend to demonstrate its commitment to balanced journalism, as it produced a second story about the same gay couple being married by a retired Methodist pastor:

Jack Evans and George Harris married Saturday in a church ceremony attended by hundreds and punctuated by a challenge to the United Methodist Church to fully accept gays and lesbians.

The couple, together for 53 years, held hands as they walked down the aisle of the high-ceiling Midway Hills Christian Church in northwest Dallas. The ceremony was officiated by the Rev. Bill McElvaney, pastor emeritus of Northaven United Methodist Church. The trio, all in their 80s, brought celebrity through their years of North Texas activism.

“It is not my intent to politicize this service,” McElvaney said, “but suffice to say that George and Jack are offering a gift, an invitation and a challenge to the United Methodist Church to become a fully inclusive church.”

The United Methodist Church officially holds that homosexuality is ”incompatible with Christian teaching.” McElvaney risks being charged and tried by the church.

The wedding was held at Midway Hills to avoid repercussions for the neighboring Northaven and its senior pastor there.

So the couple has issued a “challenge” to the denomination — as readers are told twice in the first three paragraphs. The pastor emeritus risks being “charged and tried by the church,” the fourth graf reports. The service was moved from a Methodist church to a Christian Church to avoid “repercussions,” the fifth graf states.

At this point, is there any doubt that the Morning News needs to give the “other side” — the side that supports church teaching — a voice in this story? Hey, maybe the paper could even call that unnamed senior pastor and see where he stands.

Rather, once again the Dallas paper settles for a “no comment”:

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So there: Rod Dreher goes and writes a GetReligion post

So, yes, I’ll admit that I was a bit disappointed (stage cue: slight choke in voice) to find out — while reading Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher’s usual 10,000 to 15,000 words of daily blogging output — that I was not one of the two newspaper columnists that he consistently gets to read. But, hey, I run in small- and mid-sized newspapers and I know that Rod’s a very busy guy. I mean, really, look at his blog: He must read 10 books and journals a day!

So, what really interested me was that, right in the middle of that particular post (a meditation on whether news columnists still matter during these online-commentary-saturated days), the working boy went and produced a genuine chunk of fantastic GetReligion work.

So without further ado, I hereby claim said chunk of type as a guest column.

So there.

You probably have examples in mind from your own experience of ways that current newspaper columnists could make their work more inspired, and therefore inspiring. I’d like to hear them. Whether you and I, readers, are coming from the left or the right or somewhere in between, I think we can agree that the uniformity of consensus opinion in our newspapers and on TV is a big part of the problem. And it’s not only uniformity of opinion about the left-right boundaries of our discourse. It’s a uniformity of opinion about what constitutes news.

Let’s take Fox News for example. This is supposed to be the conservative news network, but their idea of what constitutes conservatism, and news of interest to conservative viewers, is deeply Washington-centric, and deeply centered in the media class and its prejudices. In this, they’re no different from the competition; it’s just that as someone who has been part of the conservosphere for most of my adult life, it frustrates me to see how much Fox is ignoring for the sake of observing media conventions. For example, I’ve long marveled over the lack of religion and culture coverage on Fox. By religion and culture, I don’t mean the “War On Christmas” and other tabloid staples. I mean any sort of serious, sustained coverage, both in reporting and commentary, of stories emerging out of the world of religion and culture — stories that tell us, for better and for worse, something important about the world we’re in.

Here’s an example. In my little Southern town, the Methodist church is about to get a new minister — a woman pastor. She follows a woman pastor, who broke the clergy gender line at the church. My folks, who attend there, gave me the news the other night, and I mentioned to them that they will probably not live to see another male pastor at that parish. I explained to them that this is partly because of their age, but also because in mainline Protestant churches, the clergy class is becoming more and more female. Women make up about 20 percent of the clergy in mainline Protestant denominations, including Methodism — but that is fast changing. According to a 2006 New York Times report:

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Do religious readers really want quality religion coverage?

It has been awhile since our own Bobby Ross, Jr., quoted that laugh-to-keep-from-crying tweet by New York Times religion scribe Laurie Goodstein that said (all together now): “Will the last one on the religion beat please turn out the lights?”

Mocking the typical newsroom attitude that three anecdotes equals a valid news trend, Ross asked if it was time for someone to write a story about “why no one wants to cover the religion beat anymore?”

Discussion ensued, including this item at Poynter.org, and Bobby quickly wrote a follow-up post covering the conversation. In the midst of all that, I asked:

Well, is the issue whether people want to cover religion news or is it that they believe they can personally survive in the changing realities of smaller newsrooms?

To be more precise, what I meant to say is that — in light of the current advertising crisis in the news business — it is understandable that some professionals are questioning whether the religion beat, along with other complicated specialty beats, can thrive in an age of 24/7 journalism, with fewer journalists trying to produce more and more digital news products. There are, of course, many people (see art atop this post) who are convinced that the advertising crisis is going to kill American-model mainstream journalism, period.

On top of this new reality, there is the sad old fact that I stated in The Quill back in 1983:

The major reason few American newspapers and radio and television stations cover religion is simple. Few of the people who decide what news is care about religion.

You might even say that far too many newsroom managers simply do not get religion, or words to that effect.

As the discussion rolled on, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher posted an item under this blunt headline: “Why Are Newspaper Religion Reporters Quitting?” You need to read all of it, but I would like to respond to a few statements in his post. So, let’s proceed:

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Closer to God than all the diagrams in the world

An obituary of Father Robert F. Capon in the New York Times? Sounds great. It begins:

Robert F. Capon, an Episcopal priest, author, theologian and food writer best known for “The Supper of the Lamb,” a sui generis book about cooking and metaphysics that has remained in print almost continuously since it was first published in 1969, died on Sept. 5 in Greenport, N.Y. He was 87…

Mr. Capon, who lived for many years on nearby Shelter Island, wrote 27 books from 1965 to 2004, most of them works of theology or New Testament interpretation that gave voice to a passionate, entertaining and sometimes unorthodox view of Christian teachings.

In books like “The Third Peacock: The Goodness of God and the Badness of the World” (1971) and “Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law and the Outrage of Grace” (1996), Mr. Capon (pronounced KAY-pun) dismissed most forms of conspicuous religious piety, construed the Gospels as a radical manifesto for freedom, and for better or worse championed what he called “the astonishing oddness of the world.”

It’s a great beginning, but I fear that the obituary focused on the food writing at the expense of some of these deep theological concepts. In my mind the two were woven more closely together. Take this passage that the Times quoted:

The onion passage became a favorite of readers. Before explicating a lamb recipe, Mr. Capon instructs readers to set the lamb shank aside and first spend some time with an onion — an onion they will cut into pieces for sautéing. “You will note, to begin with, that the onion is a thing, a being, just as you are,” he writes. “Savor that for a moment.”

Noting that “an onion is not a sphere in repose” but “a linear thing, a bloom of vectors thrusting upward from base to tip,” he invites his readers to recognize their little onion “as the paradigm of life that it is — as one member of the vast living, gravity-defying troop that, across the face of the earth, moves light- and air-ward as long as the world lasts.”

But it leaves out the line “One real thing is closer to God than all the diagrams in the world.”

I think this passage Rod Dreher quoted at the time of Capon’s death is worth noting. It’s a benediction from the end of the Supper of the Lamb chapter about how to stage a dinner party:

I wish you well. May your table be graced with lovely women and good men. May you drink well enough to drown the envy of youth in the satisfactions of maturity. May your men wear their weight with pride, secure in the knowledge that they have at last become considerable. May they rejoice that they will never again be taken for callow, black-haired boys. And your women? Ah! Women are like cheese strudels. When first baked, they are crisp and fresh on the outside, but the filling is unsettled and indigestible; in age, the crust may not be so lovely, but the filling comes at last into its won. May you relish them indeed. May we all sit long enough for reserved to give way to ribaldry and for gallantry to grow upon us. May there be singing at our table before the night is done, and old, broad jokes to fling at the stars and tell them we are men.

We are great, my friend; we shall not be saved for trampling that greatness under foot. Ecce tu pulcher es, dilecte mi, et decorus. Lectulus noster floridus. Tigna domorum nostrarum cedrina, laquearia nostra cypressina. Ecce iste venit, saliens in montibus, transilens colles. [Behold, you are beautiful, my love, and fair. Our bed is blooming. The beams of our house are cedar, the ceiling is cypress. Behold, he is coming, leaping over the mountains, jumping across the hills. (From the Song of Solomon) -- RD]

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Render unto Google the things which are Google’s …

First of all, let me state right up front that it is hard to do a news critique of a graphic device. I concede that point.

At the same time, I also know that Google is not, in and of itself, a news source.

Google is, of course, much more than a news source.

Google is one of the most powerful forces shaping culture and information in this digital age in which we live, read and think.

Google is a portal, a door and a gateway. If the editors at Google decide to shape our world, our reality, into some new form then dang it, it will be shaped into that new form. If the principalities and powers at Google decide that certain forms of information are more worthy, more valuable, more acceptable than others, then that perception will become search-engine reality. It’s kind of like that showdown between Apple’s iTunes overlords and the circle of religious conservatives that produced the Manhattan Declaration.

Anyway, the Google overlords have a tradition of doing cute little graphic frameworks for the word “Google” on major days of interest in the culture, such as “The Holidays,” St. Patrick’s Day, the Super Bowl, Earth Day, the 4th of July, Halloween, etc. They also enjoy doing occasional salutes to major historic figures, often on their birthdays.

Which, of course, brings us to today — which is the most important day of the year in the Western version of the Christian calendar.

In other words, today is Easter for most of the world’s Christians. Those of us who are Orthodox Christians, and follow the older Julian calendar, will celebrate Pascha (Easter) on May 5th.

So what did the Google folks do today? Well, on one level, they decided to mark the 86th birthday of union leader Cesar Chavez. In my opinion, they ended up profoundly insulting this famous Catholic.

Thus, I would like to associate myself with this morning’s post on the topic by Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher, which states in part:

Nothing against Chavez, but what the heck? Chavez, who was a devout Catholic, probably would have been bewildered as well.

Google could have ignored Easter, and nobody would have noticed. But choosing to observe something other than Easter on Easter Sunday is deliberate.

It’s a small thing, of course, but this kind of thing, accumulated, signals an intentional de-Christianization of our culture, and the creation of an intentional hostility to Christianity that will eventually cease to be latent, or minor. It cannot have been an accident that Google decided to honor a relatively obscure cultural figure instead of observing the most important Christian holiday, a day of enormous importance to an overwhelming number of people in the United States, and to an enormous number of people around the world.

The only part of that statement that I would word differently is that I would say America is evolving from from a predominantly Protestant culture that, imperfectly, attempted to avoid state endorsement of any particular religion into a culture that is increasingly hostile to traditional forms of religion — while openly endorsing modernized forms of faith that our national elites find acceptable. I think it’s simplistic and inaccurate to call America’s emerging civil religion “secular,” since it officially favors some forms of religion and rejects others.

Then again, what was that whole “stomp on Jesus” incident down in South Florida all about?

With an indirect nod to a Rob Stroud post at the Mere Inkling weblog, Dreher ends up quoting a haunting piece of the famous C.S. Lewis novel, “That Hideous Strength,” that looks forward to life in an England that is blending science and the occult, while, yes, stomping on Christianity:

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BBC misses religious-liberty ghost in St. Francisville, La.

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Through the years, your GetReligionistas have gone out of our way to note that it’s a good thing, every now and then, for journalists to end up on the other side of a reporter’s notebook or camera lens.

This can be a sobering experience, in large part because it helps us realize the kinds of decisions that journalists get to make when editing the statements and information offered by other people. It is hard for working journalists to realize what it is like to be, using that crucial Poynter.org term, the “stakeholders” whose lives have to some degree been changed by the publication of a story.

There are, of course, sins of commission committed against stakeholders. Journalists may get facts wrong, mangle quotes or pull a person’s words completely out of context in a way that changes their meaning.

Then there are the more frequent sins of omission. One of the most common is when a journalist interviews someone for an hour or so and, in the end, uses one or two sentences from an interview without any consideration for whether those remarks have anything to do with the central argument being made by the person being interviewed.

Recently, a BBC crew came to visit Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher at his home in St. Francisville, La., for a piece that focused on the degree to which Americans out in flyover territory, out in the red zip codes (click here, please, for an amazing graphic), feel disconnected from the values and agenda of their national government.

The video piece itself appears at the top of this post. The short note that accompanied the feature states, in part:

Rod Dreher lives 1,000 miles – and a world away — from the partisan politics that have paralyzed Washington DC in recent years. After living in big US cities for several years, the writer and editor for the American Conservative magazine moved back with his wife and children to the small Louisiana town where his family had lived for five generations.

In St Francisville, his family sought — and found — the support that comes from living in a tight-knit community. The desire of local people to come together to talk and solve problems, he says, is in stark contrast to the behaviour of politicians at the national level.

Dreher says America is making the same mistakes that led to the end of the Roman Empire: the capital is too far removed from the real needs of the people in the provinces who feel ever more alienated from their rulers.

And what is the ultimate point of the video, which is to say what was the ultimate point of the Dreher interview?

I cut off that part of the BBC explanatory note. View the piece for yourself and ask this basic question: “What is the thesis statement of this piece, especially it’s thesis about what needs to happen in American politics?”

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