China

Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

It was in 1983 that parents told leaders of the Diocese of Lafayette, west of New Orleans, that Father Gilbert Gauthe had molested their son.

Dominos started falling. The bishop offered secret settlements to nine families -- but one refused to remain silent.

The rest is a long, long story. Scandals about priests abusing children -- the vast majority of cases involve teen-aged males -- have been making news ever since, including the firestorm unleashed by The Boston Globe's "Spotlight" series that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

This old, tragic story flared up again in 2018, and Religion News Association members selected the release of a sweeping Pennsylvania grand-jury report -- with 301 Catholic priests, in six dioceses, accused of abusing at least 1,000 minors over seven decades -- as the year's top religion story.

"The allegations contained in this report are horrific and there are important lessons to take away from it," said Michael Plachy, a partner at Lewis, Roca, Rothgerber, Christie, a national law firm that emphasizes religious liberty cases. However, "to be candid, much of what's in this report has been known for years. … It's important, but it's mostly old news."

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia -- a diocese not included in the grand-jury report -- requested an analysis of the 884-page document focusing on the impact of the church's 2002Charter for the Protection Children and Young People. Among the law firm's findings: Of 680 victims whose claims mentioned specific years, 23 cited abuse after the charter -- 3 percent of claims in the grand-jury report. The average year of each alleged incident was 1979.

Much of the year's crucial news about clergy sexual abuse focused on efforts to hold bishops accountable when they were accused of abuse or of hiding abuse cases -- including sexual abuse of adult victims.

Thus, this was a year in which my views clashed with the RNA poll. For me, the No. 1 story was the fall of retired Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, for decades one of America's most influential Catholics. In public remarks, he even claimed to have assisted in efforts to elect Pope Francis. McCarrick was removed from ministry and exited the College of Cardinals because of evidence that he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old altar boy in 1971 and, for decades, sexually harassed and abused seminarians.

My No. 2 story -- the pope's decision to cooperate with China officials when selecting bishops -- didn't make the RNA Top 10.

The RNA Religion Newsmaker of the Year was Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, after his stem-winding sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. McCarrick was not included on the ballot.

Lottie Moon: The feisty patron saint of global Baptist missions

Lottie Moon: The feisty patron saint of global Baptist missions

It was soon after Thanksgiving when Chelsen Vicari noticed a new foreign-missions display at the Southern Baptist church she joined after moving to Fancy Gap, in the Southwest Virginia hills.

What caught her eye was a large -- sort of -- image of Lottie Moon, a pioneer missionary and educator in the late 19th Century.

"I was relatively new to Southern Baptist life, so I had no idea who she was," said Vicari, describing that moment two years ago. "I couldn't understand why they made the cardboard cutout so short. … I asked around and what everybody kept telling me was that she was a missionary in China and that she was really short -- like 4-foot-3."

Vicari kept digging and found details that, as a writer, left her intrigued. For starters, the Southern Baptist project long known as the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering -- with deep ties to the Women's Missionary Union -- has raised $4.4 billion since 1888. The International Mission Board's 2017 goal is $160 million.

Eventually, Vicari read many of the letters Moon began writing after she reached China in 1873. These inspiring and poignant epistles, over her 40 years of service, helped change how Baptists built their global work in missions.

The letters challenged comfortable Americans to consider the needs of suffering people in China. But they also included blunt quotations such as: "I have a firm conviction that I am immortal until my work is done," and "I would I had a thousand lives that I might give them to the women of China!"

Moon died on Christmas Eve, 1912, her body weakened by a near-starvation diet she adopted while serving others during a famine.

Good news or bad news, these days, for the church in China?

Pope Francis didn't make global headlines on Aug. 14, 2014, when -- with permission from Communist Party leaders -- Shepherd One flew through Chinese airspace on the way to Seoul, South Korea.

Still, it was a symbolic moment that hinted at progress, after decades of bitter persecution for Chinese Catholics loyal to the Vatican. Then, a year later, Bishop Zhang Yinlin was ordained as bishop of Anyang, after nods of approval from both Rome and Beijing.

So things are looking up for religious freedom in China?

If so, what did it mean when the Rev. Gu Yuese -- leader of the largest Protestant megachurch in China's state-approved Three-Self Patriotic Movement -- was recently jailed after opposing the government's demolition of thousands of crosses in "China's Jerusalem," part of Zhejiang province.

"There may be all kinds of reasons they arrested him, other than that he is famous and his church is huge. It's hard to know what's happening, when you're talking about the Chinese government," said Rodney Stark, co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He is the author or co-author of 36 books on various religious issues, past and present, including "A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China," with sociologist Xiuhua Wang.

"We can say that we haven't seen the Nero effect yet, with the government putting heat on Christians because China's economic numbers are looking bad. … Also, it's important to remember that we've reached the point where many leaders in China now have kids who are Christians. In some villages, you may have a Communist Party leader with a cross on his wall."

The bottom line: There is truth in the popular saying that China is so huge and complex that just about anything someone says about religion in China will be true -- somewhere in China.

At the same time, it's crucial to understand that human-rights trends among the 1.38 billion people in China, even among minority groups, will have a major impact on world affairs.

Dylan does his Dylan thing in China

The drama that unfolded in Beijing began when police evicted the unregistered Shouwang "house church" from its usual meeting place. The police arrived again when this same flock tried to gather in a public place last Sunday. A church member who escaped told the Associated Press that about 200 were arrested.

This kind of persecution is old news for those concerned about the 60 million or so Christians in China's "underground" churches. The crackdowns have become so common that they rarely inspire protests from human-rights activists.

Bob Dylan, however, is another matter. His first-even concert in China opened with an edgy gospel rocker that slipped past the Ministry of Culture officials who allegedly screened the April 6th set list to make sure it was safe.

"Change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules. … Gonna put my best foot forward, stop being influenced by fools," sang Bob Dylan, performing a classic from the "Slow Train Coming" album that opened his "born again" era.

So who might the "fools" be in this context?

Seconds later, Dylan veered into alternative lyrics for "Gonna Change My Way of Thinkin'," written for a duet with gospel star Mavis Staples. These lyrics added a clear reference to "end times" doctrines and the second coming of Jesus -- subjects Chinese authorities have tried to curb in sermons, music and religious education.

"Jesus is calling," he sang. "He's coming back to gather his jewels. ... Well, we live by the golden rule, whoever's got the gold rules."

Many critics, however, noted that the set list omitted Dylan's most famous anthems of political protest, such as "The Times They Are A-Changin' " or "Blowin' in the Wind." The Washington Post coverage claimed that the set was "devoid of any numbers that might carry even the whiff of anti-government overtones."

Then again, maybe the mainstream writers who voiced similar sentiments about this historic concert in the Worker's Gymnasium in Beijing were only listening for messages about politics, as opposed to messages about religious freedom.

Many years ago, commentator Bill Moyers told me that the reason so many journalists struggle to cover religion news is that they are "tone deaf" to the music of faith in public life. That image still rings true for me, after 23 years of writing this column for the Scripps Howard News Service and more than three decades of research into life on the religion beat.

For me, the coverage of the Beijing concert was a classic example of this "tone deaf" syndrome. It certainly seems that many reporters attended, but they didn't hear what they wanted to hear. They decided that Dylan had copped out, since he didn't sing the songs that they knew and respected.

In a column called "Blowin' in the Idiot Wind," Maureen Dowd of the New York Times proclaimed -- with a bitter snap -- that Dylan "may have done the impossible: broken creative new ground in selling out." His sins, she added, were even "worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi's family, or Elton John raking in a fortune to serenade gay-bashers at Rush Limbaugh's fourth wedding."

This was a rather typical comment in this mini-firestorm.

It's hard to believe that scribes who were familiar with the wide spectrum of the Dylan canon could miss the point of that opening number, said Jeffrey Gaskill, who produced "Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan," the 2003 album that included the Dylan-Staples duet.

"It is absolutely safe to assume that he's going to make a statement with his first song in a concert as symbolic as that one," said Gaskill. "That's Dylan history, right there. That's what he is going to do."

Truth is, Dylan's music has always contained a stream of religious images, he added. This was true long before he began mixing his Jewish beliefs with an apocalyptic brand of Christianity -- influences that continue to shape his music to this day.

This faith-driven worldview, added Gaskill, is "the most important aspect of his career -- hands down. It has lasted longer than his so-called political protest period, an era in which his work already contained religious themes. ...

"Some people simply refuse to come to terms with this side of Bob Dylan. They just can't handle it."