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Paradise lost for LA Times religion reporter

by Brad A. Greenberg

July 25, 2007 | 5:43 pm


William Lobdell’s story about losing his faith while covering the Catholic sex scandal for the Los Angeles Times has gotten a lot of play.

The 3,272-word piece, which ran Saturday in the Times’ coveted Column One slot, recounted Lobdell’s born-again moment, his praying and pleading to cover religion (for the same reason I got on the beat: because of a frustration with general news coverage of religion as a circus show) and finally his disenchantment with God’s representatives here on earth.

First as a columnist and then as a reporter, I never had a shortage of topics. I wrote about an elderly church organist who became a spiritual mentor to the man who tried to rape, rob and kill her. About the Orthodox Jewish mother who developed a line of modest clothing for Barbie dolls. About the hardy group of Mormons who rode covered wagons 800 miles from Salt Lake City to San Bernardino, replicating their ancestors’ journey to Southern California.

Meanwhile, Roman Catholicism, with its low-key evangelism and deep ritual, increasingly appealed to me. I loved its long history and loving embrace of liberals and conservatives, immigrants and the established, the rich and poor.

My wife was raised in the Catholic Church and had wanted me to join for years. I signed up for yearlong conversion classes at a Newport Beach parish that would end with an Easter eve ceremony ushering newcomers into the church.

He was going through conversion classes when the clergy sex scandal broke.

IN 2001, about six months before the Catholic clergy sex scandal broke nationwide, the dioceses of Orange and Los Angeles paid a record $5.2 million to a law student who said he had been molested, as a student at Santa Margarita High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, by his principal, Msgr. Michael Harris.

Without admitting guilt, Harris agreed to leave the priesthood. As part of the settlement, the dioceses also were forced to radically change how they handled sexual abuse allegations, including a promise to kick out any priest with a credible molestation allegation in his past. It emerged that both dioceses had many known molesters on duty. Los Angeles had two convicted pedophiles still working as priests.

While reporting the Harris story, I learned — from court records and interviews — the lengths to which the church went to protect the priest. When Harris took an abrupt leave of absence as principal at Santa Margarita in January 1994, he issued a statement saying it was because of “stress.” He resigned a month later.

His superiors didn’t tell parents or students the real reason for his absence: Harris had been accused of molesting a student while he was principal at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana from 1977 to 1979; church officials possessed a note from Harris that appeared to be a confession; and they were sending him to a treatment center.

In September 1994, a second former student stepped forward, this time publicly, and filed a lawsuit. In response, parents and students held a rally for Harris at the school, singing, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” An airplane towed a banner overhead that read “We Love Father Harris.”

It was downhill from there for Lobdell’s faith. His subsequent stories about televangelist Paul Crouch, head of the Trinity Broadcasting Network empire (you know, that gaudy all-white building in Costa Mesa that looks like an oil refinery during Christmas time) didn’t help.

This morning, Lobdell was on NPR’s Day to Day. (Listen to the interview here.) I found this interview much more interesting than the Column One piece. His answers were concise and his reasoning seemed more thoughtful. In the end, it seems Lobdell went from Christian convert to Catholic-in-the-making to agnostic-approaching-atheism because of that age-old problem, theodicy—understanding why a good God would create such an awful world.

(Photo: LA Times)

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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