Steubenville: Ties between rape and ‘fundamentalist’ teens?

Steubenville: Ties between rape and ‘fundamentalist’ teens? April 2, 2013

Your GetReligionistas don’t spend much time digging around in the growing world of first-person, advocacy journalism. We realize that opinion is cheap and reporting new information is expensive and that managers of many websites are going to do what they are going to do, which is print more and more opinion pieces about big news events. This is the new reality, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

However, recently ran a first-person essay about that sensational rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, that really deserved the negative attention given it by LifeWay Research pollster and evangelical social-media maven Ed Stetzer (click here for his post). More on that train wreck in a moment.

I’ve been reading, with horror of course, much of the coverage of this trial — waiting for some kind of religion-news shoe to drop. When reporters described the sharp divisions present in Steubenville, and the bitter public debates about the case, I kept waiting for someone to contrast the local sex-and-booze football party culture with the city’s other famous, and truly countercultural, institution. That would be Franciscan University of Steubenville, a thriving campus that is known as a center for conservative forms of Catholicism, including the Catholic charismatic movement.

Franciscan is very well known locally, nationally and internationally, in part because of the stunning number of young women and men there who choose to become nuns, sisters, brothers and priests. Readers interested in church-state issues may recall recent fights over whether the city could keep an image of the Franciscan cross in its official civic seal.

Anyway, the nation’s media have — for better or for worse — managed to cover the rape trial without pulling the views of the faith community into the picture. The key to this event, most seem to agree, is the power of social media in the lives of the young. Here’s the top of a powerful New York Times piece on the verdicts:

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Two high school football stars were found guilty on Sunday of raping a 16-year-old girl last summer in a case that drew national attention for the way social media spurred the initial prosecution and later helped galvanize national outrage.

Because the victim did not remember what had happened, scores of text messages and cellphone pictures provided much of the evidence. They were proof as well, some said, that Steubenville High School’s powerhouse football team held too much sway over other teenagers, who documented and traded pictures of the assault while doing little or nothing to protect the girl.

This nightmare may not be over, precisely because of the way the social-media threads spread out into the community. The judge warned that:

… (T)he case was a cautionary lesson in how teenagers conduct themselves when alcohol is present and in “how you record things on social media that are so prevalent today.” The trial also exposed the behavior of other teenagers, who wasted no time spreading photos and text messages with what many in the community felt was callousness or cruelty.

And that aspect of the case may not be complete. The Ohio attorney general, Mike DeWine, said after the verdict that he would convene a grand jury next month to finish the investigation. … The verdict came after four days of testimony that was notable for how Ohio investigators analyzed hundreds of text messages from more than a dozen cellphones and created something like a real-time accounting of the assault.

Like I said, this is horrible stuff.

So what does this have to do with religion? That’s where a piece by freelance writer Molly McCluskey comes into the picture. The headline?

My Steubenville

It was a base for the teen evangelical movement, where I saw fundamentalist Christianity’s power, and its danger

Wait a minute.

Steubenville is some kind of center for evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism? As Stetzer notes, since when? And what does the region’s deep stream of moral conservatism have to do with the football-and-booze culture?

Well, it appears that morally conservative Christianity is really, really bad. And rape is really, really bad. Thus, these two things must be connected.

Check out the opening of the piece:

Few people had ever heard of Steubenville, Ohio, until a shocking act of violence catapulted the small town onto the national stage. What most people don’t know is that Steubenville is home to North America’s largest evangelical teen gathering, and for three days each summer in high school, I joined them.

Back at home, youth group was a place to meet friends and participate in community service. There were beach parties and Christmas caroling. I met my first boyfriend.

Steubenville was Christianity ratcheted up, with the sort of weeping adoration one usually sees at concerts of preteen idols. At Steubenville, we were zealots. A team. We had our chants, our cheers, our rallying call. I can still summon the refrain of the evangelical anthem “Refiner’s Fire,” although I wouldn’t be able to recall my high school’s fight song even if someone handed me the lyrics. I’ve been imprinted. I consented to going without realizing what I was getting into, and once I knew, I went still. It was one of the few times each year I could step away from the confines of my conservative Catholic upbringing. I stepped deeper into that world, and the rules that governed it, without even noticing.

First of all, there are many giant events held every year for evangelical Protestant teens and college students and none of them are in Steubenville. Nevertheless, it appears likely that the writer thinks she is talking about evangelical Protestantism, because she stresses that this evangelical event was one of the only times in the year in which she could “step away from the confines of my conservative Catholic upbringing.” Right? Or does she think that there are no differences between fundamentalist Protestantism and conservative Catholicism?

The event itself is described in this manner:

We gathered in seminars to discuss celibacy. We listened to seemingly savvy college students discuss how Jesus had made all things possible for them. We were told, repeatedly, that we were part of a community, we were loved, we were safe. We were blessed, and were the blessed.

There was a darker side, of course, to this exclusivity, and a double-edged sword to the conferences’ messages. Looking back, I remember a staggering number of people just like me; white, middle-class, suburban, straight. We were regaled with literal interpretations of the Bible. We heard lectures on the sanctity of life in all its forms, the perils of evil, on God’s plan for marriage. We were told that God had a purpose for us, that we were part of a larger community of believers who would be sheltered as long as we led a pure life. We left thinking that nothing bad could ever happen, or if it did, we could survive the test to have a closer relationship with God, as narrowly defined.

You got it, folks, they even talked about abstinence, celibacy and moral purity — while teens flirted with an innocence that, looking back, leaves the writer appalled. And there were calls for conversion and there were charismatic believers who spoke in unknown tongues and other phenomena sure to shock people who know nothing about Pentecostalism, the fastest growing form of Christian faith in the modern world.

But readers have to be thinking that they are dealing with evangelicals, fundamentalists and Pentecostal Protestants. Right?

But then there is this.

We rocked out to Christian music with our hands in the air, watched people convulse in spiritual conversions as they were “saved” or “born again” and heard priests speak in tongues. There was holy water on hand for blessings and baptisms. Being surrounded by people weeping in adoration, or jabbering to spirits, I could only be a detached observer. I simply didn’t get it. It was a baffling other language, one I did not care to learn.

Priests? Holy water? So this giant evangelical, fundamentalist rally is being led by priests who do sacramental rites? Did anyone at check the facts in this piece at all?

At this point, the article evolves into a pretty straightforward critique of the author’s own journey out of conservative Catholicism. In a way, it starts to make sense, if you enjoy one-sided attacks on a major faith group. Like I said, this is first-person, advocacy journalism.

But here is the big question: What does any of this have to do with the rape case, with this era of alcohol-fueled social media sins?

The story of Steubenville has captivated the nation, and with cause. The casual brutality of it, the shocking way the spectators related the events on camera, later spread via social media. It’s a horrifying reminder that we were all young once, and vulnerable. That girl was 16, too, and the Steubenville she saw was a much darker place than the one I experienced. Her tale rips me up, because she was victim of a culture that was not safe, where football was the religion and the boys were the chosen ones. Not everyone can leave Steubenville on the back of a bus.

I was lucky I could. I was lucky that I could move on from my own closed world.

So there we have it. There is no connection at all, really, other than that this author has experienced Steubenville and it is a place in which there are two truly scary subcultures and one, the rape-booze-football-sexting culture, is a bit more dangerous than the other. These two cultures must be connected, somehow, even though the conservative Catholic culture would condemn the hellish acts that are causing the national headlines.

Read it all. Then join me in asking: What is the journalistic purpose of this piece? How do the facts in the rape case connect to the at times skewed “facts” in the piece about this evangelical, fundamentalist youth culture? How do the facts connect in the minds of the editors who published this essay?

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25 responses to “Steubenville: Ties between rape and ‘fundamentalist’ teens?”

  1. Tmatt,

    Should the Catholic charismatic movement really be considered a form of conservative Catholicism? That seems strange to me.


    • Like Protestant Charismatic movements, it does seem conservative on moral teachings – how you should live. The sort of thing that bothers the folks in Salon’s newsroom (if it has one).

      In terms of ecclesiology and liturgy, however, it’s a decidedly “low church” phenomenon, which makes for a harder fit in Catholic terms. The emphasis of some (especially the Neo-Cats) on the Mass as a meal is particularly problematic.

  2. Let’s see, should the Catholic Charismatic Movement be considered a form of Conservative Catholicism. What do the popes have to say?:

    “This authentic desire to situate yourselves in the Church is the authentic sign of the action of the Holy Spirit … How could this ‘spiritual renewal’ not be a chance for the Church and the world? And how, in this case could one not take all the means to ensure that it remains so… “ (Pope Paul VI, International Conference on the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, May 19, 1975).

    “I am convinced that this movement is a very important component of the entire renewal of the Church” (John Paul II, International Leaders of the Renewal, December 11, 1979).

    “At the heart of a world imbued with a rationalistic skepticism, a new experience of the Holy Spirit suddenly burst forth. And, since then, that experience has assumed a breadth of a worldwide Renewal movement. What the New Testament tells us about the charisms – which were seen as visible signs of the coming of the Spirit – is not just ancient history, over and done with, for it is once again becoming extremely topical” (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).

    I guess so…

  3. The Salon writer seems conveniently unaware of the HUGE difference beetween the Franciscan campus and the conditions in town. The Steubenville she experienced isn’t Steubenville, it’s a university. Trying to tie them together is, to anyone who’s lived in Steubenville’s downtown projects, extremely laughable. Heck, a lot of townies don’t even know anything about the university. They are two entirely different worlds.

    • You have expressed a thought that I would have liked to put together. Leaving Steubenville on the bus would be a far different experience for someone raised there. I was there once and was happy to get back to my Pittsburgh suburb.

  4. JOHN M:

    Conservative, yes, in terms of basic creedal doctrines. “Traditionalist,” no in terms of worship and liturgy.

  5. I think most Catholics consider the charismatic movement as fringe, not conservative or liberal or whatever – it was and is out on the edge and only involving a small minority. The statements by the Popes do not counter that assessment. The term “conservative” is rather inapt. And Catholics do not interpret the entirety of Scripture literally. Never have. Lots of it has been considered allegorical and/or metaphorical right from the beginning. Where did she get that? I’m thinking she was too young to appropriately assess what she was witnessing.

    BTW Steubenville to this Catholic was always most famous for being the working class hometown of Dean Martin.

  6. JULIA:

    Would you say that is the case in South America and in Africa, where the charismatic Catholic numbers are huge?

    Also, in my speaking engagements at Franciscan, I have encountered about 25 ordinary conservative Catholics for about every one charismatic.

  7. Agree that charismatic Catholics are huge in some other countries, but not in the US outside of Hispanic communities. I had a Jesuit cousin who was into it – he taught in Belize. Also – I had not associated Steubenville, in particular, with charismatic practices; as far as I knew it was more associated with orthodox teaching. The association with charismatics in the Salon article was a surprise to me.

    • Julia–

      I think the influence of charismatic Catholics depends on what part of the country you live in. Our town once had a “convenant community” of charismatic Catholics, and while it has disbanded, its former members have continued on in other church-related endeavors, with the result that if you meet a group of orthodox Catholics, you’re likely to meet at least one that’s charismatic.

      I’ve known Steubenville University as a center of the charismatic movement for more than twenty years. One of my college friends was a charismatic Catholic who often went to conferences there.

  8. This is in no way a defense of a piece that is an error-ridden attempt to sully a school with a crime it had nothing to do with. However it’s worth pointing out that circa 1990 the Catholic bishop of Steubenville investigated a charismatic Catholic community that many of the university’s leaders were involved with, and concluded that it had fallen under the sway of a Protestant movement whose social mores certainly paralleled those of arch-fundamentalists, particularly on the issue of female submission. Perhaps the author was involved during that period. But, if so, she should have done her homework and specified what was going on. It’s public record. I wrote about it in The Pittsburgh Press.

  9. The piece reminds me of something I read years ago, in which someone whose name I can’t remember, writing in a book the title of which I cannot recall, commented on some other unremembered person who compared Scotland to Macedonia on the basis that there was a river in each and salmon in both. (And if anyone knows the source of this, I would be very grateful if you let me know!)

    • In HENRY V, Fluellen compares King Henry with Alexander, because they were born in Monmouth and Macedonia, and there are rivers in both places. However, he goes on to more convincingly compare Alexander’s killing of Cleitus with Falstaff’s death after the King broke his heart.

  10. Dale:
    “if you meet a group of orthodox Catholics, you’re likely to meet at least one that’s charismatic.”

    It must depend on the region. Most all Catholics I know are orthodox and none of them are charismatic. In my area of S. IL there are some services and people that are influenced by charismatic gestures, but no spcifically charismatic groups. There is a predominantly Mexican parish which has cursillos that my Jesuit cousin from St Louis used to be involved with. I’ve been to the TLM Masses where Traditionalists predominate – is that who you are referring to as orthodox?

    Have not ever seen Stuebenville connected to anything like the charismatic movement. More often a connection to the conservative JPII and Benedict XVI fans; and I don’t think either was ever involved with charismatics.

    • Julia, the charismatic movement at Franciscan University is at this point predominant, and this is largely due to the reforms of one of its former presidents, Fr. Michael Scanlan, who brought the charismatic movement to the school (and pretty much saved the school from being closed down back in the 70s, if I recall correctly). In addition to the conferences there are several praise and worship sesssions, including the Festivals of Praise (these are held once a month, and several of the elements of the charismatic movement are present, i.e. speaking in tongues and testimonies, but also Eucharistic adoration, etc.)That being said, In the three years of being a student there, I have noticed more of a diversity in spirituality. Now, in addition to the charismatic movement, there is a growing group of students who favor traditional liturgies (we now have the Latin High and Low Masses in Extra-ordinary form alternating every two weeks), and while there were more conflicts back in the day between the two groups, it seems like it has died down significantly. There is also a rather small (but hopefully growing) group of Eastern Catholics here who are trying to bring their spirituality more into the campus. But that is my own limited experience

  11. As a Steubenville alum, allow me to interject here. The piece that Elizabeth Scalia linked to by Sam Rocha makes the proper distinctions. I can also attest that there is very little interaction between the school and the city and the high school.

    Some history for those who don’t know about the school: Franciscan University is Catholic. In 1975, as the school was on the brink of plunging into non-existence, the board brought on Father Michael Scanlan, TOR, as president. Father Mike (as he is known) had been “baptized in the Spirit,” a Protestant term borrowed by the Catholic charismatic renewal, and brought the charismatic renewal to the campus as a means for renewing it. It worked. It was messy, but it worked. tmatt is right that the charismatic element is not as present today as it was earlier, but it is still felt (FOPs or Festivals of Praise happen regularly). There is now tension between charismatics and “traddy’s,” or traditionalists, something that never happened when I was there. But it is overall more orthodox, as in people who believe and try to live the teachings of the Church, but without an attachment to any sort of movement.

    The youth conferences have been a major feature of the school since ~1977. They are both a good outreach and a good recruitment tool. But here’s the problem with the conferences: Kids go and have an emotional conversion experience (something which they have in common with an evangelical and pentecostal brand of Christianity, though in a Catholic setting). These kids come from the same homes that are so prevalent in the early 21st century — broken by divorce with stepparents and siblings, deeply influenced by the electronic and social media, guys (and probably some gals, if stats are to be believed) who have some ties or even addiction to internet porn, messed up definitions of what family means, abandoned by parents, and so on and so forth. They experience something at a conference that resonates emotionally with them and decide to go to the school thinking that the school is going to be like an extended youth conference, with that academic thing going on, too. They get there, and the first days are euphoric and they’ve left all that family baggage behind, but then as life settles in and academics come to the fore and frictions with friends and professors develop and studies become hard, suddenly all that baggage starts showing up around their feet and things aren’t so beautiful anymore. And it’s not clear to me the faculty and staff are all that prepared to be dealing with all the baggage these kids are bringing with them. I know because I had two daughters who went there and they told me some very interesting things.

    What I find ironic is the claim that the NY Times made when it first reported on this story, citing the Big Red football team website, that Big Red is about the only reason the city is on the map. And yet we have Molly at Salon saying that it was basically unknown until a rape made it infamous. But no one goes there for Big Red or rapes — they go there for a Catholic university and its conferences.

    • I have taught at Franciscan for 20 years. The faculty are not prepared to deal with all the “baggage” brought along by students recruited by the admissions office. Our job is to teach. We are not counselors. Recruiting university students through ecstatic, frantic, emotional “youth conferences” is a completely idiotic way to run a university. But this is part of the charismatic legacy of the school, and it has nothing to do with the faculty.

  12. Uniformed-yes. Connecting two topics that are almost completely unrelated-agreed.

    Question appears most concerned about: Are we creating articles that cater to our readers wants? The answer: You betcha. Tmatt, you asked the question, “How do the facts connect in the minds of the editors who published this essay?” I say that the editors of the paper are not that concerned with facts. I haven’t had much experience with, but when I’ve heard reporters from speak and the few articles I have looked at, it appears to be this HUGE mishmash of “facts” that often aren’t that accurate and opinions that appear rather fringe to me, but I guess maybe aren’t as fringe as I originally thought…

    Go to and just go through some of the comments made by some of the readers. The majority agree with Molly M’s opinions, and what they say in many cases is significantly more vulgar than Molly’s article in its entirety. This isn’t about reporting factual information, this is about pleasing the masses.

  13. Discussions on celibacy versus rape? How is there a comparison? One is promoting the very thing that would have prevented those boys from Steubenville football team from harming that girl. And the author of the article claims she didn’t have the same experience of Steubenville as the other 16 year old girl – great! Maybe her attending the Steubenville conferences kept her out of the drunken fest parties that resulted in this terrible rape tragedy. Maybe if all of the kids at those parties would have, instead, been at a Steubenville retreat that weekend, none of that would have happened. I’d much rather have the memory of dancing out of sync than seeing boys rape a girl (or than of being the girl raped!)– all of whom are in drunken stupors. Praying in tongues seems much more harmless than using bodies for drinking, raping, and sexting.
    If I had a choice — and is sounds like the people of Steubenville do- I would gladly choose a Steubenville HS youth conference over a drunken HS football party.

    We’ve been to a Steubenville conference and it does have a charismatic flavor to it…and wow! what an experience. Definitely did not come away with the shame and guilt that those HS partiers likely did — instead came away with joy and zeal and desire to help others. Our church has a festival of praise and we celebrate the Latin Mass in addition to the Novus Ordo. It is amazing to celebrate the fullness of the faith!!
    I LOVE Confession — it is in the Confessional I receive the Grace to go to the person I harmed and say I am sorry… the fullness of the Catholic faith.
    Maybe she only grew up with partial catechesis and so didn’t get it…but even so – she came away from Steubenville safer than by attending HS drinking parties.
    I am sad she fell away from her faith and pray that she one day comes back.

  14. The writer associated her experiences at a Roman Catholic institution with fundamentalism. Combining this with some of the other posts on the front page at GR, could there be some kind of ‘not getting facts right about religion’ virus going around? Could it be spread by social media?

  15. The Salon piece its nothing more than another Recovering Catholic ™ working out her adolescent angst in print. I suppose it’s good there is a place like Salon for that sort of thing. But is it journalism?

  16. this is not the real issue. the REAL ISSUE is that the university has made no statement whatsoever in support of the victim or in condemnation of the actions of a community that they consider to be so vile. if steubenville is such a bunch of moral degenerates, then why can’t the university stand up to them?

    and the community and the college ARE connected. do you really think nobody from the community goes to franciscan!? OF COURSE THEY DO. do you really think the university students aren’t drinking with members of the community? come on. there were professors from franciscan teaching a big red a few years ago and may still be. there were children of professors at big red a few years ago, and the local catholic schools. the victim was from a local catholic school. so no graduates of these catholic schools go to franciscan? how naive are we going to pretend to be?

    and the big red coach, reno saccoccia, was at a university athletics fundraiser in 2012. why haven’t they called on him to step down? the university president QUIT in the middle of the rape scandal without ever commenting on it, but he made sure to “comment” on the healthcare law–again. hundreds of franciscan students can get on a bus and march for marriage in DC but they can’t come out for a rape victim in their own town.
    ESPN’s John Buccigross to Emcee Event That Honors Reno Saccoccia, Ken Mannie, “Mindy” Costanzo
    Mentioning the presence of Reno Saccoccia, Big Red’s present football coach, Bryan said, “I feel real honored being here with such men as Father Mike (Scanlan) and Father Richard (Davis), Coach Tressel, and Coach Reno Saccoccia. These three men are unbelievable in their success.