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It’s not personal, it’s not business, it’s the mission

Happy Wednesday friends,

A couple of things happened in the last few weeks that I have been mulling over, and they kind of crystallized for me yesterday. 

So I wanted to take a second to explain something about what we’ve been doing here at The Pillar since we launched two-and-a-half years ago this weekend.

Yesterday Bishop Rick Stika of Knoxville resigned

No reason was given in the Vatican announcement, and no successor was named, but the bishop said in his own statement that “questions about my leadership … weighed on me emotionally and physically” and led to his making the decision to ask to leave.

Of course, we reported last month that the pope had asked for Stika’s resignation, following years of reporting on problems in his diocese. And we did a lot of that reporting — for a long while, we were the only ones reporting any of it. 

This isn’t about spiking the football, Absolutely not. Whatever the issues in the Knoxville diocese, Bishop Stika is a bishop of God’s Church, and we don’t take any kind of pleasure in a bishop leaving office under a cloud.

It’s not even the fact of Stika’s resignation that I wanted to talk about. But it’s something related to it. 

When JD and I were in Orlando two weeks ago for a USCCB meeting, we sat and talked with a lot of bishops, some of them I think of as friends of ours: good men, faithful stewards of their dioceses, trying to serve God and their people every day, often under a lot of stress.

A lot of these bishops are Pillar readers, in a good way, and they told us so. I’m immensely honored by that. 

And many of them told us they get what we’re doing and why — in fact, they encouraged us to keep at it. Hard. They said that the Church needs The Pillar. And that encouragement means a lot to us.

But a very few of them said — usually to JD — something to the effect of “but what’s your beef with Bishop Stika?” 

Why, they asked, did we “go after him” for so long? Was it some personal grudge, they wanted to know?

“What did Rick Stika ever do to you guys?” one bishop asked in Orlando. 

Stika himself echoed that sentiment to a TV reporter yesterday, when he said that: “I got to be honest, there’s a particular website that has been obsessed with me … I don’t believe anything that they say.” 

So for their sake, and for Bishop Stika’s peace of mind, I want to be absolutely clear: Our coverage of Bishop Stika and his diocese was not personal. 

But actually it wasn’t “strictly business” either. It wasn’t “good business,” anyway.

The truth is, when we do long detailed, ongoing reporting, for years, on stories other people aren’t touching, like Knoxville or Vatican finances, it’s bad for business. A lot of people, bishops and lay readers, think we’re being a little obsessive and weird. 

But the thing is: it’s not personal, and it’s not business. 

It’s the mission. 

It is for this, exactly this, kind of reporting that we set The Pillar up in the first place. 

Knoxville isn’t a diocese on a lot of people’s maps, and Bishop Stika isn’t someone who most people had heard of. 

But he told us, on the record two years ago, that he’d squashed an investigation into allegations of serious sexual assault by a seminarian because he “knew in his heart” the guy was innocent — he even went on to blame the alleged victim of the assault, calling him the aggressor several times. And he lavished special funding and status on the seminarian while some of that was going on.

That kind of leadership makes a mockery of reforms like Vos estis lux mundi, and it doesn’t make any difference to us if it happens in Knoxville or New York.

Our coverage of the issues in Knoxville wasn’t personal to us, but it was personal to victims’ advocates, who have staked their hopes of change on reforms like Vos estis, and for the dozens of local priests who wrote a letter to the apostolic nuncio begging for “merciful relief.” 

We know, because they told us.

All that happened in the lead up to bishops discussing privately in Orlando the results of a study in which priests said they can’t trust their leaders. 

I think those things are related. 

When priests say they don’t have trust in reform in the Church, it has a lot to do with the fact that a bishop, like Stika, can tell us he canceled an independent investigation into sexual assault in his diocese, and then stay in office for another two years. 

That isn’t meant as an indictment, it’s just a reality. There are deep cultural divides in the Church that need to be bridged. Acknowledging that isn’t to make excuses, it doesn’t need to presume bad faith either — and I think we shouldn’t — but it does need to change. 

The Church has had a rough five years since the McCarrick scandal of 2018, and a rough two decades since the Spotlight scandals of the early 2000s, really. 

The bishops, as a body, have taken a lot of flak in that time — some of it earned and much of it, I think, unfairly directed at the many for the sins of the very few.

Priests, too, have suffered a lot, laboring under a general cloud of suspicion in society, and squeezed by strict diocesan policies and processes, passed in response to scandals and abuse that happened decades before many of them were even ordained.

And for us, the laity, we’ve had to watch what has often felt like the slow-motion pile-up of bad news story after bad news story, even as the Church and her leaders keep promising reform — and passing new, often important measures aimed at transparency and accountability. 

For the last two-and-a-half years, we’ve tried to stand The Pillar in the middle of these three parts of the Church’s body — the bishops, the priests, and the faithful. We’ve tried, I think with some success, to speak fairly and frankly to and for all sides.

We take the business of reporting stories, like the Stika saga, seriously — even if people sometimes question our motives. We also take seriously the need to have constructive and, when we can, supportive conversations with chancery officials in dioceses, and with the bishops when we’re at USCCB meetings. 

It’s important that they know we, and I mean all of us, love the Church, love our priests, and love our bishops. We want the best for them and from them, and we want to play the part we can in supporting reform. 

Breaking news, sweating the details, and making a long-term commitment to unpopular stories is a big part of that. So is actively trying to foster a collaborative culture of renewal. That’s The Pillar’s mission, and we want it to continue. 

We think it needs to continue. And I really hope you agree.

As a journalism outfit, I think we’re firing on every cylinder we have. But as a business, we’re still trying to find our feet. 

I said this weekend marks two-and-a-half years since we started. When we launched we gave ourselves five years to see if we could make The Pillar something sustainable, not just a pop-up project or a personal crusade, but something that can last. 

We’re halfway to five years, but we are not halfway to our target of what we’d consider sustainable in the long term. We aren’t far from our goals for this point, but we definitely aren’t there. And, as we head into some tough conversations with people like our accountant and our bank, it would make a real difference if we were.

So, really, if you have been reading our work for the last two weeks, two months, or two years, and if you see the value of what we’re doing, and believe in the mission we are working towards, now’s the time to make it real.

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The Pillar has a mission, and we’re all part of it. Everyone who writes and works here, and everyone who reads and shares our work, too. 

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See you Friday,

Ed. Condon
The Pillar