Unplugged, but not Uninformed. Pondering How to Stay informed when so much of Media is poisonous.

071613Back during Lent I turned off the Radio, which for me consisted mainly of News and talk radio. I also switched off cable TV news. It was the aftermath of the last election cycle, and  all the franticness and severe partisan debate that talk radio and 24/7 news channels love to generate and I was exhausted, had felt ill-served and uniformed. Most of the talking heads I listened to had been dead wrong about the election and the mood of the American people.

As a kind of news junkie I new it would be hard. But I also knew that the all-too steady diet of that stuff was ruining my peace.  Since Ash Wednesday, I haven’t gone back. When I have the radio on now, I listen to Catholic Radio. I also listen to podcasts more.

Frankly the news and talk radio world thrive on generating a sense of crisis, conflict and consternation.  I gave up on them for the same reason I stopped reading newspapers ten years ago, I felt like I was being played. There seemed to be a desire to stir me up, get me angry, or manipulate my thinking and views more than to inform me. I am not sure I need to be told what to think. But it does help to know what is going on. But I wasn’t getting even that.

I was also being pelted with lots of dumb information that was not only useless but was quite annoying, such as what certain Hollywood people were doing, thinking, who they were dating, divorcing, or what strange things they were naming their kids or causes they supported, etc. This is not news, it is infotainment. And all the giggling on morning news shows but on TV and radio really annoys after awhile.

The news does not really seem to be the news. Either it is advocacy journalism, or it is simply trying to peddle crisis and controversy or just showing how shallow and debased our culture has become. The result for me was too much anger, anxiety, and even a sort of bitterness for “them” i.e. the people on the other side.

Yes, I was being played. And I didn’t like it. And most of the people who were trying to play me and sell increasingly insulting news do not share my faith and even feel free to ridicule what I find sacred, holy and valuable.

 Dale Ahlquist in his book Common Sense 101 has some interesting insights that resonate with me. He himself is also reflecting on G.K Chesterton. Here are a few quotes along with some additional comments by me in red:

Modern man is staggering and losing his balance because he is being pelted with little pieces of alleged fact . . . which are native to the newspapers; Chesterton says that journalism consists of saying “Lord Jones is Dead” to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive. The news is either irrelevant or irreverent….…..it is an insult to the common man to say that he is as vulgar and silly as most of the newspapers are.

Yes, at some point too much information is no information. We are simply overwhelmed with distractions and have trouble sorting it all out and prioritizing. And so much of what the news focuses on is banal, trivial and exotic. And all the infotainment stuff really is an insult. 

 The great weakness of the news industry is that it “must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions”. The newspapers, says Chesterton, cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not dissolved, all the murders that are not committed. And so they do not give a normal picture of life at all. “They can only represent what is unusual.”

Exactly. The news is not really the news, it is the bad news, the strange news, the starling, odd, and exotic news. The news is biased, not only because it is left or right but because it leaves out the most important news of the day: that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and is at the Father’s right hand interceding for us, and that we must prepare for his great second coming.

 [And there is]  the great fallacy that the press is somehow neutral. [This] has in turn fed the idea that neutrality itself is a great desirable quality, that not taking a stand is somehow admirable, that “tolerance” is the supreme virtue.

Of course we all know that that the idea of an unbiased press is and always has been a lie. Frankly most of it is left, and even those on the right, like to call themselves “Fair and Balanced.” Why not just come out and state what everyone really knows: The Washington Post: News from the left. MSNBC, news from the far left. Fox News: News from the right. Just say it!

And as Ahlquist points out, why is neutrality so prized anyway. We in the Church surely need to rediscover that to speak the truth is to stake out a position and to declare that the opposite of what we teach is false. We need to stop all this pretending that we’re just neutral and stand firmly for our sacred teachings without lots of bows to a supposed neutrality, which doesn’t exist anyway.

We live in an age of journalese. The very language that we are forced to use attacks our traditions, our morals, and our faith. Things that are degenerate and sinful are called “progressive” and “liberating”. Good words that were once pure and noble, like “choice” and “gay”, now have reprehensible meanings. Traditional religion, which has given light to millions across the world and across the centuries, is called dull and narrow. 

It is amazing the power that wordsmithing has. The Times and Post have far too much power in this regard. The cultural left has this tactic down cold. We in the Church are real rookies when it comes to this. 

We might be able to take the newspapers more seriously if they would not take themselves so seriously. Honesty always laughs, because things are so laughable.” the only reason to read the newspaper is to find out what the enemy is up to. Hah!

All quotes are from Chapter 5: The Daily Truth

I realize that there is a danger in trying to stay away from the manipulation of the media. I do need to stay informed and have some idea what many of my parishioners are (sadly) being exposed to and listening to. Currently I depend a lot on others to throw items over my transom. I also hear some news on Catholic Radio, and over at sites like New Advent. But I do feel less aware about the “buzz” of modern culture. And that is good, but has drawbacks.

Here’s my question: do any of you know some good news sources that help one to stay informed but without all the deleterious, poisonous and trivial stuff mentioned above? Perhaps there are some good sources, Catholic and otherwise that can keep us informed but without all the poison. I tend to watch little T.V. and am more rooted in Catholic Radio and Internet.

At the end of the day, I want to stay more focused on God and be more immersed in my faith. The pull of culture has become so poisonous and troubling. But, as most of you know I am will and ready to make use of good things in culture and to comment on things that come to my attention. But too much raw exposure to it is not good for my soul. Yet I want and need to know the basics of what is being said and done in our all-too-distressing world. Any suggestions are appreciated and I suspect that we can also help each other find alternative sources for news.

The Bigotry Question Goes Both Ways – Confronting the Media on their Line of Questioning, and the Questions they Fail to Ask.

The early Christian martyrs were charged with a rather unusual crime: “atheism.” They were called such by the civil magistrates, and and many of the pagan Roman citizens, since they refused to worship the official gods of the Roman Empire. Further, in calling Jesus “Lord” they were directly indicating that they were at odds with the official declaration of the Senatus populusque Romanus (the Senate and the Roman People), that Caesar was “lord.” Their use of the word Evangelium to reference their sacred writings was considered a usurping of a word associated with divine emperor, who alone could utter an Evangelion, a word that was good news of great joy that will be for all the people (cf Lk 2:10).

Yes, the opinion of many at the time was that these Christians were trouble makers who upset the civil balance. They were considered impious and unpatriotic in failing to worship, and thus placate, the gods. Their “atheism” could bring forth bad things for the civil order. They were therefore unjust in their failure to recognize the political, social and sacred order. The Emperor too, was seen as a mere man. This might undermine the authority and respect he both had and was due.

Hence to withstand the Christians, and to attempt to force them to comply with the “just” demands of the law, was seen as a virtuous and praise worthy stance by many in the Roman world. Whatever penalties, might be necessary to compel Christian observance of these “just” norms was seen by many as necessary and good. Further, ridicule, persecution and even death were seen as something these unjust and unpatriotic people deserved. The sporadic persecutions that broke out against the Christians flowed essentially from this mentality.

Today, many of the same ingredients are setting up against Catholics, and other Bible-believing Christians, who have not simply caved and accepted all the increasing demands of a secular culture. And this secular culture has developed a kind of religious fervor around its central dogmas of abortion on demand, the Gay (LGBTQ) agenda, Gay “marriage,” Gay adoption, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, separation of Church and State, and the removal of all religious influence from the public schools, and public squares.

This agenda is presented with a dogmatism far more severe than the religious opponents they accuse of being inflexible dogmatic. The PC police will immediately swoop in any even mild transgressions of the secularist sensitivity code. Even an unintentional lapse of the tongue must be punished with immediate resignation or forceable removal, no matter how sincere the apology, or how significant the context of the remarks.

And those Christians and others who fail to adopt this new secularist and sexually revolutionary social order are called: hateful, bigoted, harsh, intolerant, reactionary, homophobic, and just plain mean. Many of these extreme secularists consider themselves not only permitted to speak of us in this way, but see themselves as righteous in doing it. Further, any attempts to eject or exclude us from partaking in the public discussion, exercising our right to free speech, and having equal access to public monies or grants to serve the poor, are seen by the extremists, not only as permissible exclusions, but righteous ones.

For in a way we are “atheists” to their new secularist dogma, which many of them hold with religious fervor.

And while many of them accuse us of “imposing our values” on others, it is really they who, now gaining significant power and influence, are imposing their values far more than they imagine. They not only demand tolerance but insist on approval, and dramatic changes in civil law and longstanding cultural norms. And anyone, like the Catholic Church, that will not conform, must be legally compelled in stages to comply through desertification, exclusionary policies, defunding, endless legal challenges, and so forth.

And all the while the extreme secularists call us bigots, refusing to see their own bigotry. They refuse to accept, for even a moment, that our opposition to much of their agenda is rooted in principled, sincere adherence to long standing religious teaching, a teaching that we believe to be given us by God himself. No indeed, not only will they accept our sincerity, but the Scriptures themselves are openly ridiculed and scorned. Never mind that we consider the Scripture to be sacred. That does not stop increasing numbers of supposedly “open minded and tolerant” secularists and others from spoofing, mocking, ridiculing and scorning Scripture. They also misuse it, quoting verses out of context and in ways that give no acknowledgment of long held interpretive principles.

But yet, we are somehow the bigots, somehow, we are the insensitive and intolerant ones who seek to impose our agenda. Well look again oh ye accusers, and heal yourselves. For despite all the talk that the Gay Lobby, and the Secularists have about their status as victims, they look awfully powerful, influential and well ensconced in high places.

I will not tell you there are no bigots in any Catholic or Christian Church. In what may be as many as 1.5 billion Christians on this planet, you just might find a few. But simply refusing to burn incense at the new altars of secularism, does not simply equate with bigotry, and it is time to stop labeling Christian opposition to the radical secular agenda that way. And if their are any true bigots among Christians, shame on them. Any Catholic should read the Catechism at #s  2357-2359 to discover a proper and balanced view.

But it is also time for many of the extreme Secularists, the abortion advocates and extreme members of the Gay lobby to see their own bigotry as well. Who is asking them questions, and having them render an account for their pressure tactics and ridicule of Christians and the Christian faith? They have every right in this Country to differ with us and to take part in the public discussion of moral issues. But the ridicule of the Christian faith and the use of terms such as hateful, intolerant etc., and the use of legal pressure to force compliance bespeaks a bigotry and religious based discrimination and it ought to be confronted for what it is.

In this video Newt Gingrich turns the tables on the media that, to my mind, have a one-sided view of this issue. My use of this video should not be equated as an endorsement in the current political campaign. This blog does not, and cannot take specific stands on particular candidates, other than to comment on things they have said related to the faith. In this matter I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Gingrich’s articulation of the matter and appreciate him confronting the media on their line of questioning, and also the questions they fail to ask.

Cardinal Wuerl on Fox News Sunday – A Reflection and Commentary

This morning on Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace interviewed Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, and also my Archbishop, and, lest we forget, the sponsor of this blog! The full video of the interview is at the bottom of this post and I encourage you to see it all. However, here, I would like to focus on a few issues and and add, if I be so bold, my own commentary as well to the remarks of Cardinal Wuerl. As always in such formats,  I will present the original questions and answers in bold, black, italic font. My own remarks in normal text red.

WALLACE: As you look across America, let’s talk about the spiritual state of our union as we approach 2011. I know one of the things that concerns you are all the shouting, talking heads on TV, and all the divisive blogs, and you say they come out of the same mentality as road rage. Explain.

WUERL: I think what happens is when people don’t feel they are accountable for what they’re saying — and that often happens when there is no one there to challenge what you are saying — people can — some people tend to say things that really need to be modified. They need to be contextualized. I think what we have to say to ourselves, as we look at this great country and all of the wonderful things that are a part of our history and our life together, we need to be respectful of each other. We need to be talking to each other out of the same tone that we would if we were directly across the table from someone. And that — that is a little bit of a challenge today because with blogs and with all the ease of communications, we sometimes forget directly across the table from usI personally experience a rather bifurcated life in this matter. I think the Cardinal is quite right in noting that certain settings feature a rather terse and harsh tone, e.g.  on certain blogs, on the Internet, talk radio and to some extent on TV “talking head” panels. But in person I often experience the opposite issue in that people don’t often speak as directly as I would like. I can sit in specific meetings and many people do not come right out and say what they mean. They hedge, “beat around the bush” and equivocate rather than speak directly to the issue and express their opinion clearly. This happnes interpersonally at times also.

One thing I admire about Cardinal Wuerl is that in his meetings, and I sit on many Archdiocesan panels and boards, the Cardinal encourages frank discussion and the airing of differing views. It helps us craft a realistic policies and responses to situations when all the views are on the table and there are no “pink elephants” in the room that every one ignores. Certainly there is an insistence on civil discourse in these sorts of meetings. But in the end, frank, honest, candid discussion is helpful. In many cases however I think that such discussions are rarer in our wider culture than I would wish.

Perhaps this is why some are so strident in settings where their true identity may not be known and where they don’t personally interact with their “interlocutors.” In effect they celebrate a kind of freedom,  to the extreme,  that they do not feel comfortable doing face to face.  There is thus some value to the  “protected” and “incognito” or faceless quality of Internet discussion. However, the Cardinal is right in pointing out that accountability is often less in such settings. This is true in terms of both tone and content. In relationships that involve real, physical presence we can be held accountable for being unkind and, because we cannot so easily “sign-off” from discussions or relationships of this sort,  we will tend to be more careful how we treat others.

It is also true, that Internet discussions are really back and forth monologues more than real conversations. Right now I am typing and you will later (now) read and perhaps type back. Right now I have a monologue going and you cannot interrupt me, or challenge me, either on my tone or content. I might, as the Cardinal points out, need to modify what I am saying or how I am saying it based on your feedback. Further, as the Cardinal notes, one-sided conversations that occur especially in opinion based blogs often lack context. Talking about an issue is fine but context is important and recounting the “rest of the story” is not often respected.

An additional factor of opinion based blogs, radio shows, and news channels,  is that they tend to attract people of like mind so that the conversation lacks depth and many of these subsets become increasingly isolated and opaque. What therefore touts itself to be a wide open discussion increasingly appears as a closed circle of like-minded people in the  corner of the room at a cocktail party saying things to each other and going unchallenged in any substantial way.

In terms of this blog, we are discussing ways of widening the conversation and bringing more people to the table. Fr. Robert Barron is very good at doing this. He is able to engage people in a conversation who would never THINK of going to a Catholic blog. He does this by going out into the culture and commenting on things that most Catholic bloggers don’t (e.g. Bob Dylan as theologian, movie commentaries, etc.) At any rate we’re thinking of bring a lively conversation of the culture to bear more and more here and yours truly (age 49.5) is challenged to keep up with all the latest cultural stuff, especially among the young. More on these ideas later.

WALLACE:…Cardinal, the church does have some problems. And I want to pull up some polls. According to surveys, 75 percent of Catholics attended church weekly, back in the 1950s. That’s now down to 45 percent. And while 31 percent of Americans say they were raised in a Catholic family, only 24 percent now describe themselves as Catholic. Question, how do you account for that?

WUERL: I think what we’re facing is the erosion because of the heavy, heavy influence of secularism. We live in a world, and particularly, our country, that is awash in the continuous repetition of the secular view. And all these statistics say to me is, I’m not doing as good a job as I should in preaching the Gospels. I am not doing as good a job as I need to do in getting the rest of the story out there. And the rest of the story is it’s wonderful to live in a technologically advanced, highly scientific world, but with that is also the gift of faith, and what faith brings to that whole world. Those statistics simply say to me I need to be, the church needs to be much more effective in telling the story of Jesus. I like this answer. We DO have to be sober about the secularization of our society as the chief cause of the erosion of our numbers. But, as the Cardinal points out, this is an explanation, it is not excuse. It simply means that we will have to redouble our efforts and do a better, more effective job of preaching the gospel. We have talked about that a lot on this blog and will talk of it more!

WALLACE: Cardinal, even during the Christmas season, this is still a Sunday morning talk show, so I’m going to ask you about a political issue which has a strong moral component. How do you feel about the repeal of “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell,” the ban on gays serving openly in the military?

WUERL: You have to put that in context of what the church would be concerned about. When we’re dealing with the question of military readiness or morale, those are issues that we have to really hear from others on. What the church is concerned about and what it brings to this debate, this discussion, are two realities. One, the understanding the long, long teaching of the church that every human being is worthy of respect. Every person must be embraced and respected and treated with fairness. Then you also have to take the rest of the Gospel message, the rest of Jesus’s message that human sexuality has a purpose. And this is not for simply personal satisfaction. Human sexually has to be seen in the context of the great gift of love, marriage, family. And so when the church addresses any of these issues that touch on sexuality, that is our starting point. And that’s why we often times are viewed, I think, as an opposition voice, because this is a highly, highly focused society on the pleasures of life. And the church is saying that’s true, but there is also responsible sexuality. – An excellent response and distinction: respect for the person, but clarity on moral issues. We live in a culture where many people insist that the Church do what she cannot. We simply cannot set aside Biblical and Dogmatic teaching on moral issues. We can surely respect that people struggle with them. But many people insist that, until we approve of what they do, we do not really respect them, that somehow, in our disapproval of something they do we intend to offend or disrespect them. But this not so. That someone takes offense at something you or I say does not mean we actually gave offense and even less that we intended to give offense.

The Catholic Church is careful to distinguish between a person’s orientation and their behavior. We also distinguish between temptation and sin. For  example, that someone struggles with and is often tempted to anger does not make them a bad person. However, we cannot give approval to the unrighteous venting of anger. The temptation or orientation to anger is, of itself,  morally neutral, the giving way to that anger in a harmful way is not morally neutral. It is the same with sexuality. Most people suffer some degree of sexual temptation. This is not, of itself, sinful. What is sinful is to give way to it, whether through fornication, adultery, pornography, masturbation, etc. Thus, the homosexual person is not bad because of an orientation and the manner in which they are tempted sexually. Rather, what is bad is, not the person, but the acts that flow from the temptation by yielding to it.

I understand that even with this distinction (respect for the sinner, clarity about sin) many Gay people are not satisfied. What they want is approval of the acts. But the Church cannot give this. Yet, as the Cardinal says, and that is every human being is worthy of respect even if we cannot approval all of what every human being does, starting with the man or woman in the mirror. We do not intend therefore any disrespect, we do not intend to offend. That some do take offense and feel disrespected is regrettable and we in the Church  invite them to consider that our concerns are rooted in sincerely held Christian principles, rooted in biblical revelation, and the teaching of the ancient Church, and that we cannot simply cast aside what we sincerely believe to be reveled by God in this matter.

WALLACE: So are you in favor or against the repeal of “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell”?

WUERL: That is a question that has to be worked out politically. And there isn’t a specific Catholic Church position, but whatever happens, it has to be seen in terms of the church’s teaching position. And that is, human sexuality is something that is supposed to be exercised responsibly and within the context of marriage. It is good for the Cardinal to avoid getting into a policy discussion of exactly how the US military should handle this. In this blog many have remarked with anger how they consider the US Bishops often transgress their role by getting involved in matters of policy. It is clear that the Bishops must advocate moral principles and set forth a Biblical and Christian vision regarding matters of justice and the moral life. But that does not mean that they should comment on every specific issue regarding policy.

The Cardinal has articulated clearly enough that the Church insists upon sexual responsibility for all people. How the military chooses to regulate itself or its members around possible threats to military discipline related to sexual matters involves prudential judgments, judgments that they are best fit to make.

It is also possible in this answer that Cardinal Wuerl is deferring to Archbishop Timothy Broglio who is the Archbishop for Military Services and may have more of a reason to comment directly on policy matters in this regard since his priests who serve in the military are directly impacted by the decision. You can read his statment here: http://www.catholic.org/national/national_story.php?id=36796

WALLACE: And we have — and I apologize. We have about 45 seconds. In this special season, what message do you have for Christians and non-Christians alike?

WUERL: Christmas is a time when we all can look with hope to the future. That’s part of the message of Christmas. There is the best in each one of us. And we’re all capable of bringing out the best. And to do that together with one another, in a very pluralistic society, says that we can look to the future with hope, because if we respect and love one another, there is nothing we can’t accomplish. Yes, hope is the best note on which to end. The Pope also does this very well in his book Light of the World. In that Book Peter Seewald is often alarmist, but the Pope always goes back to the hope that is rooted in the promise of Jesus Christ that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church. Cardinal Wuerl has the same principled balance: sober about the challenges we face, but rooted in hope for we serve a Lord who said: “In this world you shall have tribulation, but have confidence. I have overcome the world (John 16:33).

Article in Washington Post on Clergy Sexual Abuse Misses the Mark

The Washington Post has published a story this morning on the Sexual Abuse Scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Why exactly they have chosen to do so at this time is not clear. There are no new allegations, no legal updates to report, no recent protests or accusations against the Archdiocese of Washington’s handling of this matter.

The Article, entitled  After child abuse accusations, Catholic priests often simply vanish, seems to have as its purpose and focus the question of whether the Catholic Church is doing enough to “track” and control the behavior of former priests once they have been “defrocked” (i.e. laicized or removed from ministry). The question seems somewhat misplaced however since such functions of control, probation and registering sex offenders are the role of the State, not the Church. Never mind though, this article is going to be about the Church. Never mind that the Church has no legal standing or power to accomplish such tracking, control and legal disclosure. Yet it would seem according tot he article that she is still negligent. Exactly how the Church is to accomplish this task of tracking and controlling is not made clear by the reporters or others interviewed. At any rate this lack of monitoring seems to be the premise of the article. The article begins with this somewhat rhetorical observation:

[S]omething glaring is missing in this country: the accused priests. Although the vast majority were removed from ministry long ago – barred from celebrating Mass in public, administering the sacraments, wearing their clerical collars or presenting themselves as priests – church officials say they have no way to monitor where the men are now…..The Washington Post was able to identify 31 priests accused in the Washington area and locate nine who are still alive…..

The implication of course is that we are supposed to be monitoring. Again, how and on what legal basis or standing we are to do this is not stated.

 The Article is further deficient in that  it doesn’t discuss the breadth of what the Church has done to protect kids nor does show how much has been developed, including criminal background  checks of all priests and lay staff who have any contact with youth. No mention is made of the reporting and accountability to third parties that all abuse prevention training is up to date and that all requirements are met yearly in terms of legally recognized abuse prevention programs. Neither does the Post article make clear that historical data and names of all accused priests have been made public. All the men mentioned in the article have been named publicly before by the Church. Further, it is the policy of the Archdiocese to immediately inform the local police of any charges of abuse, past or present.  None of this is mentioned and the impression is allowed by the article that the Archdiocese is somewhat  cavalier about men who are barred from ministry and child safety, which is not true.

As a priest, I am grieved and angry that any brother priest of mine harmed children, sexually abused them, or scandalized them in any way. Nothing could be further from the purpose of the priesthood and the Church than the exploitation of the innocent and vulnerable. There is simply no place in the priesthood for those who have done such things.  I believe the Archdiocese of Washington has been very serious about finding those men who offended and, upon knowledge of any past abuse coming to light, has acted swiftly to remove them and report them to law enforcement. As a priest I am additionally grieved at how the horrible violation of trust by these abusers has affected the ability of the vast majority of priests who never offended to preach the Gospel and build trust with their people. I am no apologist for any abuser priest. Neither do I think that the Church has handled this matter well in the past. However, this Post Article says nothing about how seriously this Archdiocese has been about this problem for a long time now. This leaving out  of the “rest of the story” is a serious deficiency of the article and a disservice to the Church, and to  many people I love and respect who are very diligent in protecting the  young. Susan Timony is the post just prior to this (http://blog.adw.org/2010/12/wounded-hearts/details)  some of the significant measures we take to prevent abuse and also the pastoral care we extend to victims and their families.

But the ultimate deficiency in the Post article  is the poor marksmanship of the authors who completely miss the target of what should concern us at this point. The data in this article goes a long way to show the deficiencies in our criminal justice system. If we are really serious about protecting young people from sexual abusers it is not obvious by looking at the lapses in incarceration, probation and community protection by the State.

I would like to look at an example from the article to illustrate this. The quote from the article is in bold italics black. My commentary is normal text red

The Case of Robert Petrella:

Robert J. Petrella has been accused by at least 25 men of molesting them when they were boys, church officials said. He has been convicted twice of abuse charges in Prince George’s County – in 1997 and 2002. Yet his name does not appear on any sex-offender registry He was prosecuted under the Maryland laws in effect at the time his crimes were committed, long before such registries existed, said Prince George’s Assistant State’s Attorney Renee Battle-Brooks: (This is bureaucratic gobbledygook. Robert Petrella has been in and out of jail twice since 1997. His absence from sex-offender registries is not a negligence on the part of the Church, this is negligence on the part of the State. Where is the outcry? Where are the demands for reform? Surely the Post will devote full attention to this terrible oversight in the law. The Post and many voices legitimately demanded immediate reform in the Church for our oversights and bad policies of the past. How about this dreadfully bad policy by the State of Maryland?  Robert Petrella should be listed prominently in every sex-offender registry. He is a very serious offender. At least  25 men have accused him. This is a serious dereliction of duty on the part of the state).

The Washington Archdiocese, which removed Petrella from the ministry in1989 after two decades and seven parishes, defrocked him in 2002. Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said she isn’t sure where Petrella is, and his attorney, William Brennan, declined to comment. (Hmm…so it looks like the Post isn’t going to decry the State of Maryland and interview people who demand reform. Oh, I see, it’s back to the Church which is supposed to know his whereabouts and be doing…. what? Has the Post not missed the true target here? It is the State of Maryland and other States as well that need reform. The Church does not have the capacity to track whereabouts since she cannot demand reportage from US Citizens. We cannot force Petrella to where a ankle device   or demand he check in every day. That is not in our power. The State however does have that power and I would recommend that the Post, if it is serious about protection, use a little journalistic pressure to agitate for change as they and others rightfully did of the Church in the past).

The person who has tracked the former priest most closely in recent years is [David] Fortwengler, who was an11-year-old altar boy at St. Columba when Petrella molested him in 1968. “I got that sick feeling in my stomach again,” Fortwengler said of learning that Petrella’s probation was coming to an end. Petrella, who did not respond to phone calls and letters, had gone unmonitored for long stretches before…..  Petrella….didn’t face criminal charges until 1997. After being convicted of battery, he served one week in jail before persuading a Prince George’s judge to release him so he could care for his ill mother. (Pay attention folks. After being convicted of child molestation Petrella spent only one week in jail, one week. Now this is a serious miscarriage of justice by the State. Again, where is/was the outcry? Where are the demands for reform? Why did this go unreported at the time? Again, this is the State, not the Church that is going lite on offenders)

His release required him to be in a home detention program in Pennsylvania under supervised probation for three years. Yet it came out in court documents years later that probation authorities there were never supervising him….  (More incompetence and dereliction by the State. It seems well past time for the Post and others to demand a full investigation of such matters. A dangerous sexual predator was allowed to go free and unmonitored for years. Did he live near a school, a playground? How many others are going free and unmonitored? Why is the Post making this an article about the Catholic Church. Here again it seems that they are missing the mark, which is the States of Maryland and Pennsylvania, which have both the legal power and duty to protect citizens and have failed to do so. The Church does not have the ability to track people or the power to engage in probative practices. It really must be the State that does this).

In 2002, after Fortwengler and two more victims came forward with allegations, Petrella was arrested again and pleaded guilty to three counts of unnatural or perverted sex practices. This time, he served nine months (nine months? Is that all?) and was released on the probation that ended three years ago…. (out already?) Haunted by the idea of Petrella going unnoticed, Fortwengler located him in 2008 in the North Arlington, N.J., home where the former priest had grown up. He was living there with his mother  (Is this the same mother who was so sick that he had to be released to care for her in 1997?),  neighbors said. He sometimes took walks carrying a Bible and wore a clerical collar when he appeared for a neighborhood condolence call, they said. “In order to protect your children, the whereabouts of dangerous predators like Petrella must be disclosed,” read the flier Fortwengler took door to door. Since then, neighbors have kept a close eye on Petrella, Good for Mr. Fortwengler. However he shouldn’t have had to do this. Further, with all the weird protections Petrella seems to have, Mr. Fortwengler may well have opened himself to a lawsuit had Petrella chosen to do so. Just as the Church has no power or jurisdiction to engage in such practices, neither does Mr. Fortwengler. But again he should not have had to do this. Robert Petrella belongs on every list of registered sex offenders. Had this been the case, neighbors would have known.

Well, OK, you get the point. It is the State which should be the real target of our reporters here. But, strangely, they are silent in terms of pursuit of this angle of the Story. It remains the Catholic Church that is their target. Rather than call State Officials, our reporters called the Bishop’s Conference and the Archdiocese of Washington. They received the following and rather obvious replies:

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops conference, said there is only so much that can be done to keep track of accused priests once they are no longer connected with the Church. “There is a lot of concern, but there are limits to what we can do legally,” she said. “We have no authority over them. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.” 

“Our authority over them ends when they’re laicized and no longer priests,” [Susan] Gibbs [Communications Director for the Archdiocese of Washington] said. “Even if they’re not laicized, they have the choice of walking away. They are adults. We’re not a police force. We don’t run prisons. We don’t have mechanisms in a legal sense for controlling them.” The legal system is much better positioned to offer ongoing scrutiny, she said. “That’s why it’s best if someone reports abuse immediately and that it’s brought to authorities, because then there’s a legal path to follow for investigating, proving and monitoring.”

Exactly, There are legal limits, and even legal liabilities involved when private citizens or organizations overstep their authority. Lawsuits, charges of harassment, defamation and so forth can result.

Three other ADW cases – Two former priests of the Archdiocese (Edward Hartel and Russell Dillard) are also mentioned in the article. Neither were convicted in court of the charges against them. They remain suspended from priestly ministry however for various reasons. In these cases the Church has been stricter than the State. The norms of the Church allow us to be very particular about who we allow to function in priestly ministry. However, to legally track and attempt to restrict the movement of former priests like these (who are free US Citizens and convicted of no crime in any US court) would surely involve legal liabilities. One final Archdiocesan Priest mentioned in the article is James Finan and he has freely submitted to supervision by Church authorities. Having met his legal obligations to the State he has lived in Church retirement homes for priests. He has not ministered as a priest or had any contact with parishes or children. But note, he is supervised as a free decision of his own. The Church could not insist legally on this, since he has rights as a US Citizen.

In the end, the Post has missed the proper target. Currently there are serious deficiencies in the criminal justice system that need investigation. The safety of children and minors is at stake when the State either through incompetence or legal complexities fails to give sentences that are commensurate with the crime, grants early release and/or  allows sexual offenders to go unmonitored and unreported on sex offender registries.

The Church has rightfully been rebuked for our failings of the past. I know that this rebuke has had the salutary effect of reform in the way we handle these matters today. I think that on-going scrutiny is both necessary and helpful for the Church. However this Post article makes clear that significant reform is also necessary in the US criminal justice system. It is my hope that the Post will follow through with what it has uncovered and that other media and concerned parties will insist on reform in the State as well. Sadly, and for obvious reasons the Church herself cannot champion this call. I suspect that I will get more than a few comments here on the blog from those who will be quite angry with me and assert that I am trying to evade responsibility for our past failures. I am not, and hope I have stated that plainly. But the fact is, this problem is bigger than the Catholic Church. If we are really going to be serious about protecting children it’s time to widen the net of accountability.

Here is a PDF of the Statement Issued by the Archdiocese of Washington Yesterday in response to the Post Article: Our Commitment to Healing and Protection

Is Sexual Abuse a Catholic Problem Only? (or) How Spotlights Leave Many Other Things in Darkness.

Recent revelations of clergy sex abuse cases here and abroad have caused great distress among the people of God. There is simply no excuse for such offenses that can satisfy, and there should not be. The crime is bad enough but further charges of cover up cause even more distress and anger.

But while the Church remains in the media focus, questions should also arise in the minds of all observers.

  1. Is the Church the only place where such things take place?
  2. Are the Church and Catholic Clergy worse offenders than, say, non-Catholic denominations and clergy, or public schools, or sports teams, scouting and the like?
  3. Are celibate Catholic clergy more likely to offend than married men?
  4. Are Catholic settings more dangerous for children than non Catholic or secular ones?

Many have quickly (and I would say unfairly) concluded that the answers to questions like these would generally be “yes.” For them this is a reason to stay away from Church. Or,  for those who dislike and distrust the Church it helps them to become even more hardened in their aversion. But are all these charges against the Church fair? Are there no distinctions to be made? Is the exclusive focus on things Catholic appropriate?

Timothy Radcliff, O.P. the former Master of the Dominican Order has written a thoughtful essay in The Tablet entitled Should I Stay or Should I  Go? I would like to print excerpts here and make my own comments in RED. I encourage you to read the whole article by clicking on the blue title in the previous sentence.

Why stay? First of all, why go? Some people feel that they can no longer remain associated with an institution that is so corrupt and dangerous for children. The suffering of so many children is indeed horrific. They must be our first concern. Nothing that I will write is intended in any way to lessen our horror at the evil of sexual abuse. But the statistics for the US, from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004, suggest that Catholic clergy do not offend more than the married clergy of other Churches. Some surveys even give a lower level of offence for Catholic priests. They are less likely to offend than lay school teachers, and perhaps half as likely as the general population. Celibacy does not push people to abuse children. The general media present a very myopic picture by focusing almost exclusively on the Catholic Church. Our offenses are real but so are offenses in other sectors which do not make the news. The fact is the sexual abuse of minors is a worldwide problem made even more extreme by the promiscuous and hypersexualized culture in which we live, especially in the West. Children are often sexualized in movies and advertisements. Women for example have  commented extensively on the pages of this blog how hard it is  even to buy modest clothes for their daughters.  Further, children are exposed to sexual imagery far too early. Both adults and children are inundated by sexual imagery and boundaries are very poor in western culture. In the “old days” young people were chaperoned and there was greater emphasis on modesty. We cannot single out the Church. The sexual abuse of minors is a global problem that cuts across every sector and segment of the human family.

 It is simply untrue to imagine that leaving the Church for another denomination would make one’s children safer.  We must face the terrible fact that the abuse of children is widespread in every part of society. To make the Church the scapegoat would be a cover-up.….. (Here too, the Criminal Justice System is also to blame. During the same era of the 1950s-1980s too many sexual predators were let off easy. This included rapists. Even today, there are many egregious sex offenders walking our streets. Many have long track records and yet get out early. Recently,  two women were killed by a sex offender who was out of jail. He had a track record a mile long and yet he walked freely. Why? So if the Church took such things far too lightly that is wrong. But psychologists, therapists, judges and juries also stand accused. The Church has adopted a zero tolerance policy but our criminal justice system still has too many holes. When will attention turn there?).

But what about the Vatican? Pope Benedict has taken a strong line in tackling this issue as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and since becoming Pope. Now the finger is pointed at him….I am morally certain that he bears no blame here. (As the evidence continues to unfold it looks as if Cardinal Ratzinger was one who took this matter more seriously that others and for this reason the matter was remanded to his care. Remember that he had a very strong reputation (and was hated by some for it) of being the enforcer-in-chief!)

It is generally imagined that the Vatican is a vast and efficient organisation. In fact it is tiny. The CDF only employs 45 people, dealing with doctrinal and disciplinary issues for a Church which has 1.3 billion members, 17 per cent of the world’s population, and some 400,000 priests. When I dealt with the CDF as Master of the Dominican Order, it was obvious that they were struggling to cope. Documents slipped through the cracks. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger lamented to me that the staff was simply too small for the job.. People are furious with the Vatican’s failure to open up its files and offer a clear explanation of what happened. Why is it so secretive? Angry and hurt Catholics feel a right to transparent government. I agree. But we must, in justice, understand why the Vatican is so self-protective…..Confidentiality is…a consequence of the Church’s insistence on the right of everyone accused to keep their good name until they are proved to be guilty. This is very hard for our society to understand, whose media destroy people’s reputations without a thought   (Some of the most important work of the Church has to include an expectation of confidentiality. Every day people in my parish tell me of things that are going on in their lives. Many of these things are of a sensitive and personal nature. I have no right to share this  information freely. If there is a serious crime involved and I learn of this matter outside the confessional I do have reporting obligations. But 99.9% of what I am told has nothing to do with crime. As a priest confidentiality, discretion and respect for people’s reputations is paramount. The secrecy of the confessional is absolute. Professional confidentiality while not absolute is expansive and people would never come to me or the Church if they felt that their information would be freely shared or that files with their personal data etc would be freely opened to a nosey media and a demanding state. Covering up a serious crime is a crime. But calling the Church secretive because we do not open our files without limit is unfair. The Church is not secretive. Rather, we are deeply respectful of the privacy and reputation of people who often come to us in their weakness and struggles. A few years ago media and government officials demanded the right to search our priest personnel files without any limits. But that is unjust. I, for example, have never offended sexually. I have never violated my celibate commitment. I have never committed any crime. This is true of almost every priest I have known. It is unfair and unjust to demand that my files be open to anyone who asks. Even though I have nothing to hide, I do have a right to privacy and that my personal files not be opened without warrant. It is the same with my lay employees at the parish and with any other personal information about parishioners).  

But what about the cover-up within the Church? Have not our bishops been shockingly irresponsible in moving offenders around, not reporting them to the police and so perpetuating the abuse? Yes, sometimes. But the great majority of these cases go back to the 1960s and 1970s, when bishops often regarded sexual abuse as a sin rather than also a pathological condition, and when lawyers and psychologists often reassured them that it was safe to reassign priests after treatment. It is unjust to project backwards an awareness of the nature and seriousness of sexual abuse which simply did not exist then

Why go? If it is to find a safer haven, a less corrupt church, then I think that you will be disappointed. I too long for more transparent government, more open debate, but the Church’s secrecy is understandable, and sometimes necessary…. And so the Church is stuck with me whatever happens. We may be embarrassed [at times] to admit that we are Catholics, but Jesus kept shameful company from the beginning. (Yes, in the end the Church is not a “haven for saints” only but is also a “hospital for sinners.” Many of the Pharisees of Jesus time were scandalized at the company he kept. Jesus said, those who are well do not need a doctor but the sick do, but I have come to call sinners (Mk 2:17). So the Church is a hospital. And what do we find in a hospital? We find care, medicine, treatment, healing and love. But we also find disease, hurt, heartache, pain, and even death. So in the Church is to be observed great holiness, healing, love and beauty. But in the same Church is to be found sin, sorrow, heartache, sinners and other unpleasant matters. Thank God that Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brethren and to be found in our company! (Heb 2:11))

So, to be fair there is sin in the Church, and we have handled many disciplinary matters poorly. But again, to be fair, we are not alone in this. The spotlight is on us to be sure. But spotlights have a way of leaving many other things in darkness. There are serious problems elsewhere in our society as regards the sexual abuse of minors. Scrutiny is needed everywhere. For the sins of the Church, Lord have mercy! For the sin of the whole world, Christ have mercy. For the sins of our own hearts, Lord have mercy.

Double Standards Continue as Anti-Catholicsm Remains and”Acceptable”Prejudice

The New Yorker Magazine recently published a hateful essay by playwright Paul Rudnick. I will not reproduce the venom here. However I would like to post excerpts from the Untied States Conference of Bishops Website. You can view the whole article Here: USCCB Full Article

Here are excerpts of that article followed  by a few of my own comments:

The New Yorker, the magazine of urbane Americans, proves once again that anti-Catholicism still lurks in U.S. society. This time it’s in an article by the playwright Paul Rudnick, who seems to get his kicks by bashing religion. It is bizarre that someone who uses his literary skills to decry prejudice and stereotyping of gays opts to indulge his own prejudice against another group, Catholics….Rudnick’s recent rap on Catholics comes in snide remarks about religious sisters in “Fun With Nuns,” in the July 20 issue of the New Yorker. …Apparently the editors, who even are heralding the essay on the New Yorker Web site, don’t find any problem with Rudnick’s gratuitous slam: “Nuns can be dictatorial, sexually repressed, and scary—and therefore entertaining.” Nor did they bother to edit out a remark about which nuns should be “f…able.” ….

Historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. once noted that anti-Catholicism is  “the deepest-held bias in the history of the American people.” Anti-Catholicism also has been called the “anti-Semitism of the liberal.” It seems on the rise now….
Last week, the USA Today Faith & Reason blog was rampant with anti-Catholic comments in response to Pope Benedict XVI’s ground-breaking encyclical on the economy “Caritas in Veritate” (“Charity in truth”). Because the blog has a “Report Abuse” button…. some of the initial offensive remarks are gone. Yet more than a week later, [comments] can still be read asking if you spell pope with “one or two ‘o’s,” advising the pope to do something that’s unprintable here and ought to be unprintable in a family newspaper’s blog, remarking that “someone needs to give the pope his meds” and opining that “the pope is disgusting and sickening,” adding for good measure, “Catholic is DISGUSTING.” Even more slurs and canards to be found on the Website, including “I guess the Vatican is finally going public with its plot to control the world.”At least USA Today can be blamed only for not keeping up with its obligation to watch what bloggers post. The New Yorker, on the other hand, despite its history of fine literary criticism, intentionally runs Rudnick’s comments and even boasts of them on its Web site.

So there it is, the ugly face of bigotry. But I ask you, would anyone dare to speak this way about a Jews, Muslims, African Americans, Latinos, et. al.? Do you see the double standard?  Most of this ugly and hateful speech gets a pass in the media and entertainment world. Part of it is that we Catholics aren’t the type to take to the streets in protest.
But in an odd sort of way I want to say that I am glad to belong to a Church that is so hated by the world. It means we stand for something and are not simply going to compromise and be silent as the world chooses to go morally insane. And the world hates us for this. Did not Jesus promise hatred and persecution: If the world hates you know that it hated me before you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own, but I have called you out of the world and so the world hates you.   No pupil is greater than his teacher, If they have hated me they will hate you too. (John 15:18-20) And Jesus also warns us, “Woe to you if all people speak well of you, for it was in this way that they treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:26).  So in a way I am glad to be in good company, with Jesus. If we were a compromising, equivocating Church the world would welcome us. As it is they hate us and I suspect they are so angry because deep down inside they know we are right.

Despite my paradoxical peace in the face this hatred I DO want to finish by what I consider to be a necessary rebuke: Shame on you Paul Rudnick for speaking  of our religious sisters as you did. Shame on you for your scurrilous and hypocritical attack.  And shame on all those who wrote hate-filled things about our Holy Father and our Holy Faith at USA Today Blog. Shame on all of you and remember, God is watching.

Here is a video that gives the full context of John 15 and the Scripture quotes I listed above.