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Issue Date:  November 9, 2007

A legacy of journalistic scrutiny

It is only in recent decades that religion reporting, once an enterprise largely confined to reprints of Sunday sermons and schedules of services, began to become more visible as a respected component of general news. Gerald Renner, a writer most recently known for his investigative work on the secretive Legionaries of Christ, was one of those instrumental in helping to move religion reporting from the pious ghetto of the old “church pages” into the mainstream of newspapers and magazines.

Renner, who died Oct. 24 in Connecticut, had a long career that included positions as spokesman for the U.S. Catholic bishops, editor of Religious News Service, religion reporter for the Hartford (Conn.) Courant newspaper and a significant contributor to the pages of NCR.

Renner was doggedly determined and utterly meticulous in following a story. He had a passionate commitment to pursuing the truth. That last phrase may sound quaint in today’s world of screaming talking heads and off-the-cuff bloggers who often fancy themselves journalists even though they’re rarely within a jet’s flight of the news bit on which they are pontificating.

Renner knew you had to be there, talk to people, spend the time doing the research and always understand the larger picture. He was good at all of that.

His understanding of the importance of the press first surfaced publicly in the mid-1960s when he resigned as acting director of the then-U.S. Catholic bishops’ bureau of information to call attention to what he deemed a wrong-headed approach to news and the media.

At the time, he wrote a memo to the bishops urging that they abandon the attitude that the general press is the enemy of the church; lift the secrecy surrounding the activities of the bishops; stop fearing the general media because it amplified “competing voices in the marketplace of ideas”; and that the bishops accept “the educational value of honest reporting of debate” among people of goodwill.

He upheld those standards from the other side of the fence during his years (1976-84) first as managing editor and then editor of Religious News Service, a project of the then-National Conference of Christians and Jews. The service has since been renamed Religion News Service under the ownership of Newhouse News Service.

These were significant years during which religion became front page news, and Renner was one of the most reliable and knowledgeable editors in making sense of the new phenomenon to the public.

All his experience came to the fore in the work he did as religion writer for the Hartford Courant. In its account of Renner, the newspaper said that he “was known for his encyclopedic reach on topics touching all faiths, whether profiling a Bloomfield rabbi returning to his native Belarus to provide a proper burial for Jews massacred by the Nazis, or chronicling the growth of Islam in America.”

He didn’t shy from the tough topics, either. It was his reporting at the Courant and subsequently in NCR, along with Jason Berry, that revealed the extent of sex abuse allegations against the founder of the Legionaries, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado. It is highly unlikely that the Vatican would have disciplined the aging and infirm Maciel if Renner and Berry had not pursued the reporting in articles and in their book, Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II.

All religious institutions -- and their adherents -- are better off for the kind of scrutiny that has become routine because of the pioneering work of people like Renner.

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2007

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