Some of this story surfaced just before Thanksgiving and unraveled just before Christmas. None of us really had the stomach for it in any of its versions. I just spent several days asking myself, “Do I really want to write about this?” If you read on, you will agree. How could I not?
The tipping point for me came in the mail from Martin Barillas, editor of Spero News for which I am an occasional columnist. I suspect Martin knew his letter would cause the hair on my head, if I had any, to stand on end.
Along with Martin’s letter was a copy of a November 17, 2014 article entitled “Handcuffs and a Hospital Bed” by journalist Ralph Cipriano at his Big Trial blog. I spent much of December fuming about it. The story made me very angry. It will make you angry as well if you read on. In fact, I am counting on it.
It should make you angry because it is the truth, and because it is evil, and because the priest it happened to deserved better. I hope this story makes you angry enough to share this post far and wide because the outcome of this story could just as easily be my fate as well. Please shout this post from the rooftops, and be the prophetic voices of justice God calls us to be. Here is what Ralph Cipriano wrote that so filled me with righteous indignation:
“For Father Charles Engelhardt, the ordeal is finally over. The 67-year-old priest died at 8:30 PM Saturday night [November 15] an inmate at the State Correctional Institution in Coal Township [PA] where he served nearly two years of a 6-to-12-year sentence.”
Father Charles Engelhardt died in a prison hospital bed from untreated coronary disease, his body held in restraints, his left wrist and right foot chained to the bunk with two armed guards, and no one else, at his sides. Prison officials waited three days to notify his family.
Had Father Engelhardt been a diocesan priest, this story might have ended in prison. His bishop may have feared the S.N.A.P. activists and the media enough to avoid his funeral and decline to bury him in a diocesan cemetery. But Father Engelhardt was a member of a religious order, the Oblates of Saint Francis DeSales, with a Provincial superior who was not so eager to denounce him.
A Mass of Christian Burial was offered on November 21st at Saint Anthony of Padua Church in Wilmington, Delaware. Father Engelhardt’s attorney, Michael J. McGovern, called him “a beautiful and holy man… a true martyr.” Father Charles Engelhardt, I am now convinced, was innocent of any crime.
SABRINA RUBIN ERDELY
Bear with me, please, as I leap to another story that unfolded in the days between Father Engelhardt’s death and his funeral. It’s a story with stunning irony for its connections to this one. It’s a story that must be told.
I have never seen a media sensation unravel so completely, so rapidly, and with such force. In the November 19, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone, writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely unleashed a torrent against the fraternity culture at the University of Virginia with the story of “Jackie” in “A Rape on Campus.”
“I feel really pretty,” Ms. Erdely quoted “Jackie,” standing before a mirror adding make-up before the first-year student headed off for a date at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity party at UVA. “I didn’t know it would be the last time I wouldn’t see the empty shell of a person,” recounted “Jackie” as she spoke of turning away from the mirror to commence her date.
The Rolling Stone article went on to describe a horrific nightmare as “Jackie” recounted being led upstairs by her frat date to a darkened room where she was restrained and brutally raped by seven men in a three-hour ordeal. The story was utterly sickening in its terrifying detail, a fact not lost on the prison censors as the magazine never made its way to the few prisoners here who subscribe to Rolling Stone.
The account went on to describe how “Jackie’s” friends, intimidated by the fraternity culture at UVA, pressured her not to report the traumatic crime to police. Then “Jackie” herself reportedly pressured Ms. Erdely not to seek any corroboration of the story by conducting interviews on campus.
In response to the story, the University of Virginia presumed the guilt of the unnamed men and suspended all fraternity activity on campus while an investigation ensued. In a pattern with eerie similarity to a story I wrote about in June, 2011 in “Lessons from a Duke University Sex Scandal,” Sabrina Erdely’s account unleashed a trial-by-media that within days swept the campus, the news media, and the nation.
Then, just a week after exploding in Rolling Stone, the story imploded under the weight of its discrepancies. Investigation revealed, for example, that there had been no party at UVA’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity on the night “Jackie” claimed to have been attacked. “Jackie” herself told multiple conflicting versions of the story.
According to Kevin Williamson at NationalReview.com, Ms. Erdely set out to prove that “American colleges are hotbeds of sexual violence,” but in the process violated every tenet of basic journalism by failing to corroborate the story. Then Rolling Stone issued a retraction.
But despite it, the desperate spin set in. One writer at Politico.com insisted that regardless of the details, “Jackie’s” story “rang true” at UVA. Well, “rang true” should not equate with “true,” but this was not the first time the media, including Sabrina Rubin Erdely, had confused them.
Emily Yoffe at Slate.com cautioned that the Rolling Stone debacle is a warning sign that “feminist activists have stampeded the media” into accepting faulty and uncorroborated data as true, and college administrators are abrogating the rights of accused male students by presuming their guilt.
My sense of déjà vu in this story is overwhelming. Where were these media watchdogs when the United States Catholic Bishops did the very same thing to their priests with the Dallas Charter now in force in its twelfth year? Wrote commentator Andrew Sullivan, when a story like this reinforces our preexisting narratives, “we all believe what we want to believe.”
TROPHY JUSTICE IN PHILADELPHIA
This wasn’t the first time Rolling Stone and Sabrina Rubin Erdely were taken in by an untrue story because “rang true” seemed good enough. In the September 15, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone, Ms. Erdely published “The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex-Crime Files.” Her story profiled a sensational account of gang rape by Catholic priests allegedly perpetrated against a drug addict whose identity was shielded from public view when he was dubbed “Billy Doe.”
The discrepancies in Ms. Erdely’s “A Rape on Campus” pale next to the unraveling of “Billy Doe’s” account fabricated in Rolling Stone. Among its many uncorroborated claims, Ms Erdely failed to uncover and include some crucial facts, including “Billy Doe’s” criminal history. He had been arrested six times, including one arrest for the attempted sale of 56 bags of heroin.
“Billy,” who self-reported that he has been in unsuccessful drug treatment twenty-three times, was described by Ms. Erdely as “a sweet, gentle kid with boyish good looks” before he was turned into “a drug addicted loner” by Catholic priests. Journalist Ralph Cipriano presents a very different picture of “Billy Doe” in any number of real, and really responsible, journalistic forays into his story at the Big Trial blog, the most recent being, “Before Rolling Stone Was Conned by ‘Jackie,’ They Fell for ‘Billy.’”
Like her current journalistic fiasco at Rolling Stone, Ms Erdely’s treatment of “Billy Doe’s” story had some immediate problems. Among them was that the story he told her was vastly different from the one he told to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in a quest to bankroll his future. Sitting before Sabrina Erdely, taken in by this “sweet, gentle” con man’s “boyish good looks,” her subject abandoned his previous stories of being anally raped for five hours by priests, tied up with liturgical cinctures and traded between priests, and then punched and knocked out by one of them.
“Billy Doe” invented an entirely new tale for Ms. Erdely who didn’t bother seeking out the prior versions. In the Rolling Stone account, “Billy Doe” scrapped all the tales of violence for a lurid story about strip teases, oral sex, and mutual masturbation with priests. Even these details kept changing.
I first wrote of “Billy Doe’s” fantastic claims and their slow, tedious unraveling in “Trophy Justice: The Philadelphia Monsignor William Lynn Case.” I call this unraveling slow and tedious because the news media has grossly failed to police itself when it comes to lurid, but untrue stories about Catholic priests.
Three priests went to prison based on “Billy Doe’s” wild claims despite the multiple discrepancies. One of those priests died in November, chained to his prison hospital bed. The media continues to hide behind a shield that these stories “rang true,” and their writers count on your own “pre-existing narratives” to accept them without question. In the end, as one media watchdog predicted, “We all believe what we want to believe.”
In regard to Sabrina Erdely’s UVA story, at least, Howard Kurtz on FOX News’ “The Media Buzz” (December 14) charged that “Rolling Stone has a huge credibility problem… in how this monstrosity of a story was published.” For The Wall Street Journal’s Joseph Rago on the Journal Editorial Report (also December 14) Rolling Stone’s “agenda is more important than the truth.” Conor Friedersdorf at TheAtlantic.com reminded us in the wake of the UVA story that false accusations can and do destroy people’s lives.
There has been a lot more at stake here than just a few bricks thrown through a UVA frat house window. Some in the media’s handling of these stories are complicit in the death of Father Charles Engelhardt, a good priest who died in prison, sent there based not on evidence, but on the media-hyped word of a “sweet, gentle” street hustler, criminal, and con man.
The story of “Billy Doe” remains shielded from real public scrutiny because the media no longer distinguishes between what “rings true” and what is true in its rapid descent toward depravity. Like a rolling stone.
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