GLBT Magazine Walks Perilous Ethical Line by 'Outing' Pastor

A Twin Cities magazine’s “outing” of a controversial anti-gay rights pastor in June 2010 focused national attention on the issue of whether, when, and how the news media should report on hypocrisy among outspoken critics of gay rights.

On June 18, 2010, Lavender magazine, a publication focused on the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) community in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, published a story “outing” Tom Brock, a pastor at Minneapolis’ Hope Lutheran Church, revealing that he attended a local anonymous support group for gay men “struggling with chastity.” In addition to preaching at Hope Lutheran, Brock hosts a radio program on KKMS AM 980, called “The Pastor’s Study,” where he has spoken out in opposition to same-sex marriage, and was a vocal opponent of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s 2009 decision to relax its rules on allowing gays to serve as clergy.

The cover of the June 18 issue of Lavender featured a photo of Brock accompanied by the headline “Anti-Gay Lutheran Pastor Protests Too Much.” The cover story revealed that reporter John Townsend had clandestinely joined a Catholic support group for “gay men struggling with chastity” that Brock attended in order to determine the truth about Brock’s sexuality. Lavender reported that the group is operated by an organization called Faith in Action, which it called “Minnesota’s official arm of the global Catholic gay-chastity-maintenance organization called Courage.” According to Lavender, Courage describes itself as a “twelve-step style” program, where membership is meant to remain secret as the men meet and discuss their faith and struggles with sexuality. The article detailed Brock’s behavior and comments in the meetings, as well as his admission that on a preaching mission in Slovakia he “fell into temptation.”

Townsend explained in the article that although “virtually everyone holds privacy sacred” in GLBT activism, “the exception is if someone in a public position of political, social, or theological influence engages in homosexual or transgender activity while at the same time denouncing the basic civil rights of GLBT citizens.” The article is available online at http://www.lavendermagazine.com/this-issue/featured-article/antigay-lutheran-pastor-protests-too-much/.

Within days of the article’s publication, Townsend’s ethics and those of Lavender Media President and CEO Stephen Rocheford were the focus of criticism. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported on June 23 that Townsend’s story had been widely reported on by GLBT websites nationwide, with online commenters alternately championing and condemning the reporting. Michael R. Triplett, of RE:ACT, the official blog of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists’ Association, was quoted in the Star Tribune story as saying he found the ethics of Townsend’s reporting “suspect.”

In a June 22 post, MinnPost.com media blogger David Brauer observed that “not everyone in the gay community thinks the ends justified Lavender’s means.” According to Brauer, the report could have a broader “chilling effect” on gays who go to support groups for chemical and other dependencies. Brauer quoted Twin Cities publicist and former journalist Karl Reichert: “people go to these programs and trust they are truly anonymous. As someone who’s participated in a support group, it’s not fair to anyone in the group” to betray that trust.

Pastor Tom Parrish, Brock’s supervisor at Hope Lutheran Church, lambasted Lavender, telling Brauer “there are no ethics for them … . To take on a public figure publicly, we expect that--Tom and I have gone through that before. But they’re killing a [12-step] process that has worked for 100 years. I think it’s criminal, and I can’t rationalize it in my mind.”

In a discussion on the Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) program “Almanac” on June 9, Rocheford said that the infiltration of the support group was acceptable because it is not a real 12-step program. In the June 23 Star Tribune story, Rocheford called the group “a Catholic perversion of an honest 12-step program.”

In the June 23 Star Tribune story, Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center and professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, questioned Lavender’s approach to getting the story. “I’m a believer that the use of undercover reporting should be reserved only for the most important stories that you can’t get any other way,” she said. “Whenever you go undercover, you raise the question with the public: If you were prepared to misrepresent yourself to get the story, how can we be sure that the story is accurate?” Kirtley, also appearing on “Almanac” with Rocheford, called the controversy “a classic situation of means and ends,” adding, “whether it was an appropriate story to report--I don’t think there’s a lot of debate about that. It was the way it was obtained” that was ethically problematic.

On “Almanac,” Rocheford asserted that the approach was justified because Brock is a public figure. “We’re only interested in a public figure who makes his living attacking the gay community,” Rocheford said. Rocheford told the Star Tribune “we have a policy here that we don’t ‘out’ people, with one exception: public figures who make [anti-gay] pronouncements and then turn out to be homosexuals.”

Townsend responded to critics in a July 5 Star Tribune “counterpoint” piece explaining his motivations, methods, and a previous investigation into the Faith in Action-sponsored Courage group to which Brock belonged. “Faith In Action participants are required to refer to their same sex attraction as a ‘disorder,’” Townsend wrote, adding that homosexuality has not been classified as a mental illness since 1973. Townsend wrote that although the Star Tribune had described the support group as a “therapy group,” no therapist was present when he attended. Townsend also wrote that he had received tips that other members of the group had said they felt psychologically abused and considered suicide. Such groups are dangerous, Townsend asserted, stating that, to break the story about Brock, “becoming an embedded whistleblower was the only option left.”

On August 2, The Associated Press (AP) reported that Brock had returned to work at Hope Lutheran Church. According to the AP, a church investigation found that although Brock admitted to having homosexual urges, task force members “could find no evidence Brock ever had sex with men.” Parrish would not share the full report, but “confirmed that Brock sought counseling and enlisted another minister as an ‘accountability partner’ with whom he frequently discussed his struggles.” The AP reported that Brock said he will step down as senior pastor at Hope Lutheran, but plans to continue ministering “on a national level” with a “new message: you can have this struggle with same-sex attraction, say no to it, and still follow Christ.”

- Sara Cannon
Silha Center Staff

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on September 13, 2010 10:08 AM.

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