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Monday, July 23, 2007

Reporting on religion

This column made my heart ache for many reasons. Take the time to read through spiritual highs and lows of one reporter who tried to hear God's call and share how faith is present in people's lives. William Lobdell probably didn't envision covering clergy sex-abuse and financial/spiritual exploitation as a religion reporter. That isn't God's work.

Unfortunately, it's the nature of news that we never know what atrocities human nature will contrive. The religion beat of the past 10 years was rife with atrocities. While some who left comments would excoriate Lobdell for reporting the bad news, I find it hard to believe that anyone—church-going or otherwise—would believe the Roman Catholic clergy sex-abuse scandal was NOT news.

One point of this commentary is that he thought in lobbying for creation of this job that he would share the good news of religion. Alas, religious institutions are comprised of human beings, capable of many failings. Unfortunately, those failings were not only a problem for his job, but were also too much to sustain his faith.
"I sought solace in another belief: that a church's heart is in the pews, not the pulpits. Certainly the people who were reading my stories would recoil and, in the end, recapture God's house. Instead, I saw parishioners reflexively support priests who had molested children by writing glowing letters to bishops and judges, offering them jobs or even raising their bail while cursing the victims, often to their faces.

On a Sunday morning at a parish in Rancho Santa Margarita, I watched congregants lobby to name their new parish hall after their longtime pastor, who had admitted to molesting a boy and who had been barred that day from the ministry. I felt sick to my stomach that the people of God wanted to honor an admitted child molester. Only one person in the crowd, an Orange County sheriff's deputy, spoke out for the victim.

On Good Friday 2002, I decided I couldn't belong to the Catholic Church. Though I had spent a year preparing for it, I didn't go through with the rite of conversion.

I understood that I was witnessing the failure of humans, not God. But in a way, that was the point. I didn't see these institutions drenched in God's spirit. Shouldn't religious organizations, if they were God-inspired and -driven, reflect higher standards than government, corporations and other groups in society?"

Lobdell shares a number of stories, not all involving the Catholic church. He looked at the financial exploitation of the Trinity Broadcasting Network and the ostracism of former Mormons. But he reported from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where just last week, it was announced that the archdiocese will pay a whopping $660 million to more than 500 victims of the priest sex-abuse scandal.

Here he painfully details his tipping point, which did not stem from the child molestation:
"In the summer of 2005, I reported from a Multnomah County, Ore., courtroom on the story of an unemployed mother — impregnated by a seminary student 13 years earlier — who was trying to get increased child support for her sickly 12-year-old son.

The boy's father, Father Arturo Uribe, took the witness stand. The priest had never seen or talked with his son. He even had trouble properly pronouncing the kid's name. Uribe confidently offered the court a simple reason as to why he couldn't pay more than $323 a month in child support.

"The only thing I own are my clothes," he told the judge.

His defense — orchestrated by a razor-sharp attorney paid for by his religious order — boiled down to this: I'm a Roman Catholic priest, I've taken a vow of poverty, and child-support laws can't touch me.

The boy's mother, Stephanie Collopy, couldn't afford a lawyer. She stumbled badly acting as her own attorney. It went on for three hours.

"It didn't look that great," Stephanie said afterward, wiping tears from her eyes. "It didn't sound that great … but at least I stood up for myself."

The judge ruled in the favor of Uribe, then pastor of a large parish in Whittier. After the hearing, when the priest's attorney discovered I had been there, she ran back into the courtroom and unsuccessfully tried to get the judge to seal the case. I could see why the priest's lawyer would try to cover it up. People would be shocked at how callously the church dealt with a priest's illegitimate son who needed money for food and medicine.

My problem was that none of that surprised me anymore.

As I walked into the long twilight of a Portland summer evening, I felt used up and numb.

My soul, for lack of a better term, had lost faith long ago — probably around the time I stopped going to church. My brain, which had been in denial, had finally caught up.

Clearly, I saw now that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don't. It's not a choice. It can't be willed into existence. And there's no faking it if you're honest about the state of your soul.

Sitting in a park across the street from the courthouse, I called my wife on a cellphone. I told her I was putting in for a new beat at the paper.


Michelle O'Neil said...

Great post! I think the problem is representative of how many families deal with sexual abuse as well. Protect the perpetrator, shun the victim.

There is an author Monica Halloway (Driving With Dead People) who's recent memoir deals with sexual abuse. NPR dropped her interview when the perpetrator denied the allegations.

It is sick.

P.S. You might be interested in reading the following piece comparing the Catholic sex abuse scandal to the autism epidemic.

Wendy Hoke said...

Thanks, Michelle. I've bookmarked Rescue Post and I'm completely enraptured by "Look Me in the Eyes." Thanks for all the great info.

Jeff Hess said...

Shalom Wendy,

Anytime we relinquish power over our lives to others we risk the abuse of that power.

As much as I hate to quote President Ronald Reagan, we really do have to trust, but with verification.



Wendy Hoke said...

Wisely said, Jeff. Thank you.