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The Huffington Post on Clerical Celibacy: The Media Project, December 9, 2014 December 10, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Roman Catholic Church, The Media Project.
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Without looking – who would you suppose would do a better job in reporting on the gay subculture among Roman Catholic clergy in Ireland? The Belfast Telegraph or the Huffington Post?

One was named the Best Regional Newspaper of the Year in 2012 by the Society of Editors and has print run of approximately 100,000. The other is an online news aggregator and blog that also runs additional news content. One is steeped in the traditions of Anglo-American journalism while the other pursues an advocacy approach to news – with the dividing line between opinion and reporting sometimes blurred.

An observer of the Ulster newspaper scene might hesitate before awarding the prize to the Belfast Telegraph, for it along with the News Letter are “Unionist” newspapers, while the third daily, the Irish News, is a “Nationalist” newspaper. Perhaps a residual anti-Catholic sentiment might creep into the Belfast Telegraph’s reporting?

The two outlets treatment of the same story may surprise some, for in its coverage of a recent book on clerical celibacy in the Irish Catholic Church, the Huffington Post is less shrill, more nuanced, and finely balanced.

Authors are not responsible for the titles placed on their stories, but the titles of these two pieces fairly summarize the tone of the two pieces. “Hell’s bells: Nine priests spotted in Irish gay bar” in the Belfast Telegraph conveys the over-the-top tone to its report.  The Huffington Post’s story has the more measured title: “New Book on Irish Priests Reveals Struggles with Celibacy, Trips to Gay Clubs.”

The lede of the Belfast Telegraph’s story opens with:

Ground-breaking new research into the sexual lives of Irish Catholic priests has revealed many of them are or have been sexually active, that the bishops are aware of the situation, and that there is a gay scene within the church.

Thirty-Three Good Men: Celibacy, Obedience and Identity publishes new analysis of priests’ views from a series of interviews conducted by Dr John Weafer, a former seminarian who is now married with children.

The article summarizes some of the books findings focusing on one of the 33 priests –Fr. L. who is in a long term gay relationship.

Fr. L. is quoted as saying there is a “strong clerical gay scene in Ireland”.

He believes that there are “quite a lot of gay guys in the priesthood” and on one occasion when he went into a gay bar in Dublin, he recognised at least nine priests in the bar.

The article then offers this comment from the author of the book followed by its own editorial viewpoint.

Dr Weafer said he did not think that the Irish hierarchy would be shocked by the revelations in the book as the interviews showed that the “hierarchy are aware” of what is going on. “As long as priests don’t go public and don’t flaunt those actions that don’t correspond with being a celibate priest” they turn a blind eye, he claimed. This will shock many as the official church’s attitude on homosexuality deems it as intrinsically disordered. According to Dr Weafer: “If a priest was to say in the morning ‘I am gay’, he would be fired. Priests have learned to keep their heads down”.

The Belfast Telegraph offers no voice from the Catholic hierarchy who might care to dispute the suggestion that the Church is packed with closeted gay clergy and led by hypocrites who practice an Irish form of “don’t ask don’t tell”. The tone of this article is one of outrage tinged with disgust. Though it does not descend to the level of overt sectarian nastiness, there is nonetheless a disquieting undercurrent to the report.

Compared to the Huffington Post, it also falls short as journalism. The Huffington Post story opens with:

When sociologist and former seminarian Dr. John Weafer started looking for studies on the personal lives of Catholic priests there were only a few. Those that did exist only began to approach what the researcher imagined was a much richer and more complex story beneath the surface. Weafer took matters into his own hands by embarking on an in-depth study on Irish priests, using contacts he had from his seminary days nearly 30 years ago. The resulting book, Thirty-Three Good Men: Celibacy, Obedience and Identity, explores the personal lives of a range of priests, often going into what Weafer called “graphic detail” about romantic relationships, abuse allegations and daily struggles with clerical life.

It, too, focuses its attention on Fr. L., but it does not stop once his story is told. It asks questions of the author, Dr. Weafer, and includes quotes from the archbishop of Dublin who concedes that struggles with celibacy are among the challenges facing Catholic clergy.

Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin addressed the subject in a recent interview with Irish Independent. When asked if he had read Weafer’s book, Martin said he had not but acknowledged that celibacy is a challenge for many. “I know what is going on with my priests. I know good priests and I know priests who struggle – I support all of them. I don’t think if people fail that you abolish celibacy.”

By asking Dr. Weafer questions, the Huffington Post puts this story into context. Not all Catholic clergy are closeted homosexuals, nor is sex the first topic of conversation among priests.

Of the 33 interviews Weafer conducted, all of which he said lasted for more than an hour, not all of them touched on issues of sexuality. Some of the priests discussed their experience in gay or straight relationships, but others discussed challenges beyond celibacy, delving into disputes with bishops, false allegations of abuse and the struggle of working long past retirement age. “They wanted to get across a message ‘this is what my life is like as a priest,'” Weafer said. “They’ve been called by God, and they live out their lives in ways they see fit. They’re very much human beings.”

In reporting on the release of a controversial book, the Huffington Post has done a better job. It offers the same facts as the Belfast Telegraph, but offers context and avoids shrillness and cant. Well done, Huffington Post.

First printed by The Media Project.

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