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“That's me in the Spotlight, Losing my Religion ”

Here is another commentary that I wrote for the News and Religion course that I am currently taking.

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church

Matthew 18:15-17a

That’s all well and good if it is one person doing something clearly wrong against another person, but life is much more complicated and nuanced than this. While the sexual abuse of young boys by Catholic priests is something pretty much everyone would agree is wrong, one can easily argue whether keeping the details out of the press was important to protect the privacy of the victims, and perhaps even of those priests who may have been wrongly accused or have been treated and recovered from illnesses that lead to the abuse.

Underlying all of this are issues of systemic problems within religious institutions. How do we address them in a way that has meaningful impact? Where does the line lie between protecting victims and protecting institutions? How do we know when we are seeking truth and proclaiming it, something that is dear to both religious people and journalists, and when we are acting out of our own desires?

Within religious traditions, there is the practice of discernment; seeking to determine what God wants us to do. Likewise, journalists always struggle with discerning which story to pursue, how to report it, what details to include, and so on.

This week, for the News and Religion course I am in, we spent time reading the Boston Globe series of articles about sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church. We watched the movie, Spotlight about the coverage and are talking about “the media’s role as a watchdog, and … the pitfalls and challenges of performing this function when investigating religion news stories”.

One of the most obvious pitfalls is the pushback that those seeking to expose the truth face. Prophets and journalists who challenge religious institutions can expect to be told

Do not prophesy to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things,
prophesy illusions,
leave the way, turn aside from the path,
let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.

Isaiah 30:10b-11

There will be pushback, from people who love the religious institutions, including religious leaders we respect and perhaps even members of our own families. It will challenge our own faith. As we examine ourselves and our roles in investigating the stories, we will find ways that the issue has affected us or our loved ones. We will need to explore our own motives and our own complicity.

In an article in The Quill, Keeping the Faith, Debra Mason writes about the toll that covering the sex abuse scandal took on William Lobdell. Lobdell has written about this in his book, Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace. This is a very big pitfall. Mason goes on to offer “tips for handling faith on the job” and thoughts on how to address “conflicts of interest”.

For the deeply religious, especially for those with strong ecumenical and inter-faith leanings, everything is a matter of faith tied to competing and conflicting interests.

Let us hope that we will not see a topic as deeply disturbing to as many people as the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. More often, we are likely to see more prosaic issues around misappropriation of funds. Yet there are two current topics related to the core of our religious institutions that warrant consideration; systemic racism and the selection of priests.

As our country addresses over 400 years of systemic racism, we need to explore the ways in which our churches have benefited from, and perhaps still benefits today, from systemic racism. On April 17, 1960 Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about it this on Meet the Press saying,

“I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one the shameful tragedies that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours if not the most segregated hours in Christian America”.

Fifty-seven years later, it continues to be a shameful tragedy and predominantly white churches today are still struggling with issues about to what extent they should continue to honor confederate leaders in their statutes, stained glass windows, and even in their names.

When and how do we cover, in an impactful way, ongoing systemic racism in our country and in our religious institutions?

Likewise, various religious institutions continue to struggle who should become priests. Should women become priests? Married people? Gays and Lesbians? Only people of a certain age, economic status, or level of physical ability? Only people that those interested in maintaining the status quo find acceptable?

While both of these issues may lack the intrigue and moral turpitude of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, they both have the ability to cause deep spiritual traumas to people today.

How do we cover the ways in which religious institutions seek to perpetuate the status quo while harming individuals who work for change, as well as the institutions themselves? How do we manage the conflicts these issues bring up in our own lives?

It takes a willingness to put our faith and our friendships on the line. It takes a willingness to challenge the existing power structures, not only in organized religion, but in government, and even the press. The roles of prophet and journalists are challenging roles and don’t always end with vindication and accolades, like a Pulitzer Prize. It takes great discernment and courage to seek and proclaim the truth in the face of such challenges. It is also essential to the ongoing wellness or religion and our society .