The church, the Globe and cognitive dissonance

Crux cardPreviously published at WGBHNews.org.

Some two decades ago Cardinal Bernard Law invoked the wrath of God in denouncing The Boston Globe for its coverage of the pedophile-priest scandal. “We call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe,” Law told a crowd. Ten years later the Globe had Law himself on the run with a series of reports revealing the cardinal’s role in covering up the scandal.

And now? Cardinal Seán O’Malley was the star panelist Thursday night at an event sponsored by the Globe to mark the debut of Crux, its website devoted to covering the Catholic Church. O’Malley thanked Globe owner John Henry and his wife, Linda Pizzuti Henry, for launching the site. He praised John Allen, recruited from the National Catholic Reporter to write for both Crux and the Globe. And he expressed the hope that Crux would help foster “a better understanding of Catholicism.”

Among the crowd of several hundred: Globe reporter Walter Robinson, who led the Spotlight Team in its Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of O’Malley’s predecessor. Michael Keaton will play Robinson in the movie.

Needless to say, much has changed over the past dozen years. A lot of it has to do with the man who was the subject of the panel discussion: Pope Francis, whose openness, humility and charisma have given the church an infusion of energy, even as he struggles to deal with the sexual-abuse crisis — an effort in which Cardinal O’Malley is his principal lieutenant.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine a project like Crux without a catalyst such as Francis, the subject of endless fascination since his selection in 2013. “We saw a need for more reporting, more journalism about the church,” said Globe editor Brian McGrory in his introductory remarks.

Crux, as I wrote last week, is a free standalone website aimed at the English-speaking world, and intersects with the Globe only tangentially. How tangentially? Well, this morning Michael O’Loughlin has a story on the BC event in Crux, and Derek Anderson covers it separately for the Globe.

If you were looking for some critical analysis of Francis’ pontificate thus far, you didn’t find much on Thursday. O’Malley called Francis “one of the most extraordinary leaders of our day,” and there was no disagreement from panelists Allen; Mary Ann Glendon, a professor at Harvard Law School and a former ambassador to the Vatican; BC theology professor Hosffman Ospino; and Robert Christian, the editor of Millennial, a website aimed at younger Catholics.

On a range of hot-button social issues such as LGBT rights, divorce and the role of women in the church, panelists talked about Francis’ compassion and outreach but played down the possibility of significant shifts in doctrine. As O’Malley said of the pope, “He hasn’t changed the lyrics, but he’s changed the melody.”

One of the more interesting lines of discussion began when Margery Eagan, who writes a column on spirituality for Crux (and who co-hosts Boston Public Radio on WGBH 89.7 FM), asked if Francis might bridge the gap between someone who is “a liberal Catholic” or “a cafeteria Catholic” such as herself and “a conservative Catholic” such as Glendon.

“I’m going to resist being called a conservative Catholic,” Glendon replied. “I think Francis helps us to explode those categories, which I don’t believe are relevant to Catholics.”

That led to a question from the audience, read by Crux editor Teresa Hanafin (audience members were instructed to write their questions on cards), as to whether Crux could help Catholics get beyond the liberal-conservative divide that Glendon believes is irrelevant.

“The purpose of Crux is to get the story right,” Allen replied, adding it was his goal to offer “an intelligent, thoughtful, serious presentation of the Catholic Church.” He described the divide as having a lot to do with a lack of contact with people outside their own groups: “I think we’re less polarized than tribalized. We live in affinity communities.”

He offered as an example his wife, whom he described as liberal, Jewish and suspicious of conservatives. Several years ago, when he was researching a book about the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei, he said, his wife became friendly with some of the members.

“Friendship is the magic bullet when it comes to tribalism,” Allen said. “I want to create a space where all these tribes can become friends.”

The Globe’s detailed look at student housing abuses

Shadow Campus

As a Northeastern professor, I’m certainly aware that many of our students live in less-than-ideal conditions. But to the extent that I’d given it much thought, I had assumed the squalor was largely of the students’ making (see this, for instance), compounded by greedy landlords who pack too many residents into their buildings.

According to The Boston Globe’s just-completed series “Shadow Campus,” that may be true, but it’s just the beginning. From Sunday’s account of a fatal fire, to Monday’s story on hazards elsewhere in the city, to today’s profile of landlord-from-hell Anwar Faisal, the series, by the paper’s Spotlight Team, documents the dark side of Boston’s student-fueled economy.

The series was many months in the making, and (full disclosure) was reported in part by student reporters, including some from Northeastern, who are not identified in the story. Certainly the large universities in Greater Boston — particularly Boston University, Boston College and Northeastern — will be challenged to build more on-campus housing. Given the failure of the city’s overwhelmed inspectional services to do better, the story also removes a bit of a shine from former mayor Tom Menino’s legacy and puts Mayor Marty Walsh on the spot.

Online, “Shadow Campus” has all the multimedia bells and whistles we’ve come to expect with long pieces: a beautifully designed, easy-to-read layout; lots of photos and video clips; and official documents the Globe dug up in the course of its reporting.

Overall, a very fine effort.

More: Here’s a complete list of everyone who worked on the series. Student reporters are listed under “Correspondents,” though not everyone in that category is a student.

Obama White House tramples on academic inquiry

Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams

This commentary was previously published at WGBH News.

Once again, the Obama White House has demonstrated its contempt for journalism and other forms of independent inquiry.

As we should all know by now, journalists do not have a First Amendment right to protect their anonymous sources. Following the same principle, academic researchers have no constitutional protection if they wish to keep secret the identities of people who provide them with evidence about serious crimes.

Thus it should be no surprise that U.S. District Judge William Young last year ordered Boston College to turn over parts of the Belfast Tapes, an oral-history project involving members of the Irish Republican Army. Those tapes led to the arrest Wednesday of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, who has been accused of involvement in the notorious 1972 murder of an innocent woman named Jean McConville. (Adams denies the charges.)

The struggle for Irish independence was a decades-long guerrilla war. All sides, including the British military, conducted themselves shamefully. When seeking a resolution to such horrors, the parties generally agree that reconciliation requires them to overlook acts that would never be tolerated in normal times. Nelson Mandela’s magnanimity in South Africa is the best-known example, but there are many others.

But the British government leaned on the White House, and Attorney General Eric Holder subpoenaed the tapes. There was little either BC or the courts could have done about it once Obama and Holder made up their minds to go along with British demands rather than stand up for free academic inquiry. As former lieutenant governor (and former BC trustee) Tom O’Neill puts it:

In the Boston College case, our “special relationship’’ with Britain is raising serious and troubling questions: Are we abridging academic freedom in ways that will prevent participants in major international issues from stepping forward with their stories? Is the British demand for documents, and its search for alleged wrongdoing, driven as much by the politics of Ireland today as it is by the search for justice for past crimes? And why, when both sides in the Troubles were guilty of so much wrongdoing, is the British prosecution seemingly intent on only pursuing crimes allegedly committed by only one side?

As the journalist Ed Moloney, a leader of the Belfast Tapes project, tells The Boston Globe, “The damage is done. The whole process of conducting academic research in the United States of America on sensitive subjects with confidential sources has been dealt a death blow by the Obama Department of Justice.”

Finally, I should note that the legal case involving the Belfast Tapes has been enormously complex and marked by enmity between Moloney and Boston College officials. If you would like to learn more, Beth McMurtrie wrote a long piece earlier this year for The Chronicle of Higher Education.