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Archive for July, 2011

Today’s blog entry starts with a joke:

This guy dies and finds himself outside the Pearly Gates, at the end of a snaking, miles-long line of people who are awaiting their final accounting with St. Peter.

The people in line are understandably nervous, wringing their hands, wiping their brows, standing on tiptoes and craning their necks to see what’s going on up front.

St. Peter

All of a sudden, like an earthquake starting deep in the earth, the sound of thunderous cheers and jubilation begins rolling through the line. The joy is so overwhelming that people in line are getting knocked off their feet as the celebration ripples backward.

Our guy is one of those knocked down…He jumps up and screams hysterically, “What is it? What is it?”

A jubilant voice can be heard over the cacophony: “They’re not countin’ fuckin! They’re not countin’ fuckin!”

***

I’m sorry if that offended any of you, but there’s a point to it:

The Catholic Church has been so myopic over the years about issues like pre-marital sex and abortion that it lost sight of the importance of protecting children and the need to identify and cull out bad-apple priests.

In a way, I hate to keep harping on the latest priest-impropriety scandal in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, but Bishop Robert Finn’s parrying and counter punching cry out for comment. (Also, it sells…I mean, it gets a lot of views.)

First, the bishop appointed former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves to investigate the botched handling (by Finn) of the Father Shawn Ratigan child-porn case. Then, he appointed a vicar for clergy, a new position. Last week, he created another new position — ombudsman and public liaison officer — and appointed a former assistant Jackson County prosecutor.

My first reaction to this flurry of activity at 20 W. Ninth is that those of you who are looking for work might want to consider applying at the diocese. Looks like jobs aplenty down there.

I have also learned that the bishop has ordered that all diocesan employees get refresher training in a program called Protecting God’s Children, which many dioceses adopted several years ago to ensure safe environments in all parishes, schools, and diocesan programs.

The diocese website says of the program, “The focus of the FREE training is to increase awareness about the nature of child sexual abuse.”

Now, all I can figure on this retraining mandate is that it’s the old trickle-up theory: Finn must be hoping that by putting the employees through more rigorous training, the environment will become so sensitized that even he will be moved to protect God’s children.

Here’s the main reason all this foment out of diocesan headquarters is so laughable: It’s completely redundant.

As letter writer Jennifer Randle of Overland Park eloquently put it in today’s Kansas City Star:

“Why would anyone believe new procedures would help this diocese when the current ones, had they been followed, would have resulted in Father Shawn Ratigan’s activities being reported to the police when the leaders of the diocese first became aware there was a problem a year ago?”

She went on to say, “My thanks goes to The Star for giving this topic as much press as it has to point out that nothing has changed regarding the protection of priests who abuse children.”

Here’s Phase II of the story.

As I have said all along, I think nothing will really change with the church unless people vote with their feet and their wallets. When the money stops flowing, backing the hierarchy into a corner, the church will have to take drastic action.

Fortunately, there are indications that the cash funnel is narrowing. An Associated Press article on Page A12 of The Star today said that contributions to The Vatican fell nearly $15 million, or 18 percent, last year “amid tough economic times and the explosion of the priest sex-abuse scandal.”

Contributions to the Vatican from individual dioceses around the world were down from $31.5 million in 2009 to $27.36 million in 2010.

(On a positive note for the church, the report noted that the Vatican returned to profitability after three years in the red, but that simply indicates, to me, that the Vatican, like many organizations, has had to slash expenses.)

I believe the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese is going to see a sharp decline in contributions this year at the diocesan and parish levels. Many people, I think, will sharply curtail their giving, and, after a while, some of those who cut back their giving will leave the church.

A lot of Catholics, however, will feel compelled to remain true to the church because it’s such an integral part of their lives. And I think that one reason many of those “cultural” Catholics stay put is because, deep in their hearts, they believe the safest and surest path to eternal salvation is through “the one, true Church,” the one that has St. Peter as its foundation.

A lot of Catholics, while they believe that non-Catholics will also go to heaven, have that niggling fear that they shouldn’t leave that big, wide road they’ve been on all their lives; that any other road could lead somewhere scary.

Well now, I’m going to put on my big hat, take up my staff and speak ex cathedra — that is, invoking the doctrine of papal infallibility — and as a Catholic turned Disciple of Christ.

It’s OK to walk. Go in peace. Be not afraid.

There, that’s what JimmyC says on this Fourth of July, 2011, year of Our Lord.

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The tears flowed on both sides of the aisle yesterday as 16-year-old Joshua Pena pleaded guilty in Johnson County District Court to involuntary manslaughter in the vehicular death last year of a close friend, 16-year-old Zach Myers.

As a result of a plea agreement, Pena was sentenced to 60 days in the Juvenile Detention Center and two years of supervised probation. If he fails to abide by the terms of the probation, he could be sentenced to a detention term of 18 months to three years. Also, his driving privileges were suspended for a year.

Zach Myers

Standing behind the defense table, a sobbing Pena told Judge Brenda Cameron:

“Not a day goes by that I do not pray, that I do not wish that I could take it all back and make it like it was before. I would do anything to bring Zach back. He was a great friend…I cannot describe how sorry I am.”

More than once, his attorney, Jason Billam, put his arm around Pena’s shoulders to comfort and support him.

In the audience, Pena’s parents and relatives cried on one side of the courtroom, and Myers’ parents and relatives cried on the other.

A few minutes earlier, Zach’s father, Capt. John Myers of the Olathe Fire Department, told the court that the loss of one of their two sons had been “overwhelming emotionally and physically.”

“It has left a hole in our hearts,” he said through tears and a breaking voice.

Zach, he said, “was well known for his bear hugs, and he sure wasn’t a sissy about giving them out.”

Later, Myers said: “It was an accident. We know he (Pena) didn’t mean to do it.” Turning to Pena, he said, We want you to know that we forgive you and that Zach forgives you.”

Neither alcohol nor drugs was involved in the wreck.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Pena walked back to the railing and gave his mother, Cynthia Pena, a long, tearful embrace. As he turned to leave with sheriff’s deputies, his mother told him to hug his father, standing next to her, and he did.

The father,  who, oddly, had a Bluetooth over his right ear, declined to give his first name.

Myers died as a result of a two-car, head-on collision last December. Pena was driving the car that Myers and another student were in, and Pena admitted to driving at speeds up to 75 mph on North Iowa Street, in an area where the speed limit is 25.

The boys were on the way back to their school, Olathe Northwest, after having attended classes at the district’s trade school in downtown Olathe.

Scene of the crash

The driver of the other car had pulled around a truck that was parked on the side of the street, and there wasn’t room for her vehicle and Pena’s to pass.

Myers, who was sitting in the back seat, behind Pena, was struck in the head by a flying object in the car, perhaps a book bag or backpack, Billam said.

The three boys and the driver of the other car were wearing seat belts. No one other than Myers was seriously injured.

The hearing was so emotional that even Judge Cameron had to pause a couple of times to maintain her equanimity.

“It’s hard to know the right thing to say,” she said, looking at the Myers’ family before passing sentence. “It’s hard to say what would be just or fair. I can’t order restitution or make you whole. I wish I could…I’m very sorry for your loss.”

At the same time, she said that Pena’s apology was “heartfelt.”

“I hope that you can get beyond this and go back to being a successful young man,” she told Pena. “I know the victim’s family wants you to be successful, and I do, too.”

Pena, who has close-cropped black hair, wore a tan, short-sleeved detention center uniform with the letters JDC printed on the back. A thick leather belt was around his waist.

In anticipation of the plea agreement being approved by the judge, Billam had Pena surrender to juvenile authorities early last month. Because of that, Pena got credit for 29 days served as of Friday. After serving the final 31 days, he will be ready to enter his senior year at Olathe Northwest.

Zach Myers also would have been a senior.

Billam and Assistant District Attorney Don Hymer noted that, in addition to the criminal case, a civil lawsuit was pending. Billam and Hymer said the Pena and Myers families had agreed to the terms of a settlement and that the case should be resolved soon.

Correction: This story should have said that Pena admitted to driving at speeds up to 70 mph, not 75 mph.

P.S. I wrote other entries about this case on Dec. 6, 9, 15 and 21.

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For a decade or more now, people in and out of the newspaper business have been trying to figure out what caused the bottom to drop out of the industry.

Gardner Cowles Sr. and Florence Cowles

Was it the rise of the Internet? The cashing in by all but a couple of the renowned newspaper families, such as the Binghams in Louisville, the Cowleses in Des Moines, the Chandlers in Los Angeles? The rapacious demands of Wall Street after many major newspapers were snapped up by publicly owned companies?

All of those and other factors have been fingered by various experts as the bogeyman that did in a lot of top-tier newspapers.

And now comes another viewpoint, presented by Jim O’Shea, a former top editor at both The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times. O’Shea’s new book, “The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers,” was reviewed in the SundayBusiness section of this week’s New York Times.

The reviewer, Bryan Burrough, says this:

“Mr. O’Shea argues that what’s killing newspapers isn’t the Internet and other forces, but rather the way newspaper executives responded to those forces.”

Burrough goes on to quote from O’Shea’s book: “The lack of investment, the greed, incompetence, corruption, hypocrisy and downright arrogance of people who put their interests ahead of the public’s are responsible for the state of the newspaper industry today.”

Now that’s an angry and eloquent sentence.

O’Shea backs up his assertion largely by chronicling a newspaper deal that went terribly wrong and wrecked what once had been two great chains — Tribune (Chicago Tribune and others) and Times-Mirror (Los Angeles Times and others). Suffice it to say the papers ended up in the hands of a goofy Chicago investor named Sam Zell, who knew nothing about newspapers and who hired a bunch of former radio DJs and executives to run the chain.

He’s now out, but the Tribune chain is in bankruptcy, and the 10 daily papers in the Tribune chain are a shadow of their former selves.

Papers like The Kansas City Star, the Omaha World-Herald and the St. Louis-Post Dispatch are lucky in that they have managed to avoid the clutches of thoroughly greedy people…although they, too, have fallen far and fast.

I have a different perspective on the implosion of newspapers. I think the crumbling of demand for the daily, local paper was as inevitable as the rise of “riverboat casinos.”

The winds of change started rather slowly but accelerated to the point that we in the newspaper business (I’m a 37-year veteran) were swept up and away, and there was little we could have done to prevent it.

The advent of the Internet? Yes, that definitely played a part. But what set the stage for that?

The pace of society was already gaining steam before the Internet came along. More people were relying on TV for information and entertainment, people were working longer hours, more and more women were going into the work force, people had less time to read newspapers and they were less interested in reading newspapers.

Ask any circulation supervisor at just about any paper in the country and he or she will tell you this sentence is what they hear most often when people call in to cancel their subscriptions: “I don’t have time to read it.”

We in the business couldn’t grasp the climate change because writing the paper and reading it was our business; it was what our lives revolved around. You bet we had time to read the paper; that’s where most of our story ideas came from.

Yes, some greedy people got in there and made the situation a lot worse and sullied the reputations of some formerly high-class papers. But, in retrospect, I don’t think anything could have stopped the overall implosion. Even if we had reacted quickly and embraced the Internet and started charging for online content at the outset, I think circulation, advertising and readership still would have plummeted.

I mentioned that it was the demand for the local, daily paper that hit the skids. Meanwhile, national papers like The Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today are still doing relatively well. And even though the New York Times Company (NYT) is a public company, the Sulzberger family still holds a majority interest and has the resources to run the paper as it should be run, putting lots and lots of money into the editorial side.

Many people, like me, who still need a substantive paper with a heavy emphasis on world and national news have gravitated to The Times. I take The Star, which I read first, and then I turn to The Times. I’ve got the time (retired five years ago), and my interest in newspapers has never flagged.

But the time is a luxury that most people don’t have, and the interest is… well, it’s an interest that many people just don’t have any longer.

I’m not saying that’s bad, that’s just the way it is, and that’s what’s responsible for the state of the newspaper industry today.

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