The Ethics of Outing Courage — UPDATED

A provocative piece (hat tip: Queerty) in Lavender magazine in Minnesota where a reporter attended meetings of Courage, the Catholic ministry for gays and lesbians, and outed a Lutheran minister known for his “anti-gay” positions.  The story, by John Townsend, discusses meetings where he meets Rev. Tom Brock.

In stunning contrast to all this homophobic vitriol, I observed firsthand that the words spoken by the 49-year-old, unmarried Brock from his ivory bully pulpits do not match his actions.

My first encounter with Brock was at a confidential meeting of gay men “struggling with chastity” at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in St. Anthony, a suburb northeast of Minneapolis. It’s not a Lutheran church, but rather a Catholic one. This group is sponsored by Faith in Action (FIA), Minnesota’s official arm of the global Catholic gay-chastity-maintenance organization called Courage. It models itself after the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

FIA holds a two-hour support group at St. Charles every Friday evening from 7 to 9 PM, facilitated by a Catholic priest. It sometimes starts a few minutes late, giving participants a chance to settle in, and grab a cup of coffee or a soda. The men gather around a long table. The priest begins with a scripturally inspired reading—which in one session was referred to as a homily—followed by recitations spoken by participants, and prayer.

Once this opening ritual concludes, the next phase commences, as each person directly shares how well or not he fared during the previous week, or since the last meeting he attended, in his struggle to maintain homosexual chastity. He reports any homosexual fantasies or feelings; any resistance or nonresistance to masturbation; any homosexual contact or activity experienced; and/or any encounter with homoerotic or arousal-inducing images of men. He also may digress to other topics triggered by his “sharing”—which is within permissible parameters.

A group for women meets separately. On one occasion, a middle-aged lesbian fondly regarded by members sat in with us.

After the first round, conversation continues, ranging from discussions about a particular homosexual rut one of the members was in, to financial worries, criticism of progay political efforts, and defenses of Catholicism. The term “gay” is eschewed in favor of words like “disorder” or “gender disorder.” However, very occasionally, unsquelched comments cropped up about homophobic bigotry, plus even grudging admiration for the tenacity of out gay men facing societal ridicule.

When Brock was in attendance, the conversation inevitably would turn political, focusing on gay and church issues, and beyond—not only during his first round, but also in his sharing time, and before the session commenced.

The rest of the story talks about Brock’s comments during meetings, stories he shares, how he looks, etc. It’s a compelling read, especially given Brock’s notoriety in Minnesota. The article also discusses the ethics of outing.

As cantankerous and varied as GLBT activism is, virtually everyone holds privacy sacred. 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. Former Senator Larry Craig’s restroom cruising and Dr. George Rekers’s Rentboy.com allegations come to mind.

The GLBT community and its allies have a wide variety of principled viewpoints, often conflicting, on just how out a GLBT person should or should not be, as well as what constitutes healthy sexuality or sexual excess. Both sides of these big philosophical questions are discussed and argued conscientiously every day.

However, it’s a universal consensus among GLBT individuals and straight allies that to bash GLBT persons physically and/or sociopolitically—but then turn around, and be homosexually active oneself—is hypocrisy

So is it ethical to “out” someone you meet in a program modeled after a 12-step program that operates on anonymity? Does it matter if you attend as a “participant” as opposed to as a “reporter” or “investigator.”

What’s not clear from the story is whether the reporter attended the meetings in a good-faith, or whether he attended in order to disclose information about Brock. Ultimately, it may not matter, but it does raise a question of intent.

Personally, I find the ethics of the reporting suspect. If someone disclosed during a Narcotic Anonymous/Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that they had sexual encounters with men while being openly hostile to gays, would it be OK to report that?

I think the story of how Courage works is an interesting one and the group has been very secretive–obviously–which means there has been little coverage even in Catholic press circles.  While many people disagree with their approach–which focuses on working steps, remaining chaste, prayer, and little contact with openly gay people–the question is whether the practice, itself, is so dangerous that people’s expectation of anonymity should be violated in order to expose it.

Your thoughts?

UPDATE: More insight on the ethics.

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31 Responses

  1. What a complicated situation. My own inclination is that a reporter is not obligated to indulge any organization’s desire for secrecy, particularly when there is a story of public interest to be told.

    If Brock was just some random antigay guy, it wouldn’t be a story. But thefavt that he’s a community and faith leader with a seemingly hypocritical conflict of interest elevates this to newsworthiness.

    And frankly I find the concept of “outing” a bit anachronistic — it assumes that an LGBT person’s “default” state is one of secrecy, but for many of us, that’s no longer the case. I think it’s unreasonable for a person to expect others to abet their closeting. Given all we know about how personally destructive the closet is, I don’t think you do anyone any great disservice by refusing to participate in it.

  2. Whatever it says about my moral compass or sophistication, I don’t find this very ambiguous.

    As I see it, we have a responsibility to treat everyone with kindness and respect, acknowledging their right to self-determination with regard to such things as being out.

    However, I think that we have a higher-order responsibility to ensure that one individual’s self-expression doesn’t harm the well-being of another — or of a group of people, or most generically of humanity.

    Brock rather unambiguously crossed the line. It seems to me that the unethical course in this situation would be to remain silent.
    .

  3. I couldn’t agree less with the first two commenters (whom I note don’t sign their real names).

    Many publications flatly bar their reporters from misrepresenting themselves or their intentions. Those that permit ‘undercover’ reporting usually set a higher standard for it than simply exposing perceived hypocrisy.

    Anyone attending an AA-style group has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Whether you agree with the philosophy or methodology underlying such a group (I don’t, for the record), violating the privilege and misrepresenting yourself in the process is flagrantly unethical in my view. It also has the potential to undermine all kinds of 12-step programs.

    (Also for the record, I am not in a 12-step program, nor have I ever been. But I have a deep respect for what they accomplish.)

    • I wonder if this might be a sign of one of those fundamental differences between traditional journalism and online journalism. Is there an attitude of “the ends justify the means” online, more so than there was at newspapers of twenty years ago? It seems, anecdotally, like there might be. It seems like newspaper people have a lot of esteem for following rules.

      Indeed, when I’m working for a newspaper, I do tend to follow a much stricter protocol than when I’m writing for a blog.

      I think it’s also telling that Tim refers to “mattymatt” as not my real name — it honestly did not even occur to me that someone might not interpret that as my real name. It’s not what’s on my birth certificate, but I think I’m known more by “mattymatt” than by “Matt Baume.”

      • That’s an interesting point, although Lavender is a traditional publication run by traditional journalists.

        There is a tension between the ethics of traditional journalism and those who may not consider themselves as journalists who are operating online. We already know that traditional ideas about balance and objectivity don’t necessarily carry over to the online world where opinion/news blends. We even saw that in the Breitbart ACORN and Landrieu video stings, which have more in common with online (and the Lavender undercover sting) journalism then traditional journalism.

      • I think it’s telling that you’d believe I would know “mattymatt” = “Matt Baume.”

      • I was so busy snarking on the nom-de-web issue, I forgot to say I agree with everything you said about ‘ends justify means’ attitude being more prevalent online. But while I can’t tell for sure from what you say, I suspect we may DISagree on whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

  4. I’m with Tim on this one. Whatever possible hypocrisy there may be by someone attending one of those meetings is outweighed by the hypocrisy of a reporter anonymously attending a self-help group with the intention of disclosing in detail what goes on at the meeting.

    Now, if the reporter had identified himself in advance, and the participants knew about his participation, that would be another thing entirely. But I doubt that was the case.

  5. […] revealed what the pastor told the group. “I find the ethics of the reporting suspect,” says NLGJA blogger Michael […]

  6. […] reports: “A blogger for the National Gay & Lesbian Journalists Association called the publication’s ethics “suspect.” Karl Reichert, a local publicist and former journalist, fears a far more widespread […]

  7. As a survivor of christian-based, ex-gay deprogramming over a period of about 12 yrs, I don’t find the reporting unethical at all. (I don’t use the term “survivor” lightly either. Going back into the closet walls enclosed by self-loathing, disdain for one’s true self, was harmful and destructive, and sent me into a spiral of deep depression that nearly caused my death.)

    Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous and groups like them are based on sound principles rooted in widely accepted psychology…and endorsed by most (if not all) psych. professionals as being helpful to the recovering addict.

    In contrast, the “ex-gay” movement is eschewed by most members of the mental health/helping professionals. It has been shown by case study after case study to be harmful to the participants, in similar fashion that cults can be emotionally/mentally destructive to their followers.

    These fraudulent, farcical and downright nefarious ex-gay organizations and “ministries” (and frankly, all of christianity) should be exposed for the sham that they are. What the reporter did was a public service, and I laud him for having had the courage to do so.

    I hope this Brock character finally wakes up and realizes what a fool he has been played for.

  8. I see three levels of difficulty here:
    1. Outing Brock. This I have no trouble with.
    2. Attending a self-help group undercover. Regardless of my personal distaste for “ex-gay” or “chaste gay” groups, I find this troubling. I certainly think Townsend and his editors have failed to explain the extraordinary journalistic justification for doing this.
    3. Specifically identifying the location, and time. I cannot see any justification for this. When I attended a religious”ex-gay” group (which I referred to as my “bible study”) I would have been horrified if it had been publicly identified. I would not have been emotionally equiped to handle even the potential exposure. This I unequivocally oppose.
    There is sufficient cause to question several aspects of this story and I think the editors and publisher of Lavendar need to respond.

  9. The reporter clearly didnt attend in good faith: See story here: http://www.minnpost.com/braublog/2010/06/22/19134/lavender_outs_lutheran_pastor_–_by_crashing_confidential_support_group

    The above report says: Lavender Media president and CEO Stephen Rocheford confirms Townsend was sent into the program “undercover.”

    Undercover shows intent and not that the reporter was interested in questioning his own behaviors. The fact that he has such detailed information about Brock shows he was targeting him.

    The undercover reporter looked the priest in the eyes shook his hand and said he agreed to and understood the confidentiality factor that was required for participation, then he goes and writes a story that gets published about it? UNETHICAL!!!

    Cleary the undercover reporter and it’s president/CEO can’t fight fair and fighting dirty only shows how vindictive and desparate they are.

  10. All of these people who think it is unethical not to respect confidentiality would make it impossible to do any investigative reporting of any sensitive issue. Brock is a public figure. Courage is a public organization. Both need to be exposed. Following the logic of some of these posters who regard confidentiality clauses sacrosanct, two-thirds of the Pulitzer Prizes for investigative reporting would have to be returned.

    • I’ve held my tongue, but this is over the line. I’m calling bullshit on Jay’s contention that if confidentiality clauses were held sacrosanct (never mind banning all undercover reporting), “two-thirds of the Pulitzer Prizes for investigative reporting would have to be returned.” I say, “Prove it.”

      I took a quick look at the list of Pulitzer Prizes for Investigative Reporting, and in the last fifteen years could not find ONE awarded for a story that relied on undercover reporting. Not one. (In case you’re wondering, most relied on public records, on-the-record interviews, and to a lesser extent, anonymous sources.)

      For more detail on the extent to which undercover reporting has been banned in most cases by credible mainstream outlets, see http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/when-undercover-was-kingmore-bleeding-at-the-sun-times/Content?oid=906124

      The question here is not the ethics of outing in general, nor a cosmic view of whether it was right to do so in this case (which are what most of the commenters seem fixed on). Instead, here on the NGLJA blog, we’re talking about the specific professional question of whether — by current standards — it was unethical *journalistic* practice for the reporter to blatantly misrepresent himself. And on that question, I don’t think it’s even a close call.

      • I admit to hyperbole when I said that two-thirds of the Pulitzer Prizes for investigative reporting would have to be returned if one held sacrosanct confidentiality clauses. But one problem with the current state of journalism is that the kind of undercover journalism practiced in the past is no longer practiced today. No wonder so many scoundrels get away with what they do for so long. In any case, confidentiality clauses are antithetical to good journalism. In this particular case, why should Townsend have honored the confidentiality expected by Courage? It is a reparative therapy group practicing in the guise of a 12-step program the kind of therapy that has been condemned by the American Psychological Association as unethical and harmful. Townsend did not reveal the identities of the other participants in the group; they presumably are private individuals who have a right of privacy; in contrast, Brock is a public figure who long ago gave up any expectation of privacy he might have when he publicly made a media career out of attacking gay people. I think Townsend’s practice was good journalism. I think it would be good journalism to infiltrate other reparative therapy groups and expose them to the light of day.

  11. I have little hope that John Townsend will ever see any harm in what he has done, so my comment is probably wasted. But as someone who is both gay and in recovery, I find his actions reprehensible. Is Brock a hypocrite? Certainly. But Townsend’s hypocrisy shines in every smug word of this article. Basically, his message is that if he disagrees with you, then you don’t deserve to struggle with your personal demons in your own way, even in an environment which is supposed to be confidential. Thus, basic human decency is only accorded to those who adhere to a certain standard of behavior. Isn’t that what we’re trying to avoid in the first place?

    Townsend seems to see himself as a hero, but to me he’s a liar and a gossip, and nothing more.

    • You’re not struggling with your demons in that environment. You’re having demons placed into you, and worse, you’re being instructed on how to place demons into others, which Mr. Brock has done and continues to do.

      This report removed most or hopefully all of Mr. Brock’s ability to convince others that their sexuality is evil and changeable. For all we know it could end up saving lives.

  12. To me Townsend is a hero. A man of courage and initiative.

  13. […] Triplett of the National Gay and Lesbian Journalist Association said the breach of confidentiality was not ethical. Personally, I find the ethics of the reporting suspect. If someone disclosed during a Narcotic […]

  14. Lavender Magazine is completely in the right. More of this should happen. CA just had its ass handed to them by the homophobic LDS church leaders in another state extorting millions of dollars from followers, and only AFTER the damage was done were they found guilty of political malfeasance (the first time in CA history a church was ever convicted). So you better learn to start fighting fire with fire. Otherwise, expect more of the same.

    Just remember: we currently have no stated civil rights in the Constitution, folks. Hello?!

    12-step programs are designed to have addicts face the TRUTH. When Brock realizes that his words and actions having consequences to those that follow him and have family members/relatives who are gay, he gets no pass. Take a look at the youtube video in which he states a church was damaged by a tornado because it affirmed gay love as legit by a “66.6%” majority. If you can watch that and still say going into a counseling group undercover (Courage is basically along the lines of an Exodus International) and outing a guy making PUBLIC anti-gay statements is questionable, then sorry but you have no guts. That’s why young bloggers–and not “journalists”– outed George Rekers and should be awarded for that.

    Bravo for Lavender Magazine!

    • Fine. Just so long as they (i.e. Lavendar, etc.) don’t call themselves “journalists” doing “journalism.”

      “Journalism” MEANS standards. No standards, no journalism.

  15. So sad to see gay journalists enabling our enemies. I suppose investigative journalism just means printing press releases.

  16. Jay:

    “So sad to see gay journalists enabling our enemies. I suppose investigative journalism just means printing press releases.”

    Our “enemies”? I may disagree with their position, but I do not consider Brock or any man (or woman) like him to be my “enemy”. Misguided? Yes. But they are not my enemies. The second you demonize others to serve an agenda, the very moment you are willing to go to a new low to serve a personal vendetta…at that time you have lost all right to call yourself a journalist.

    Remember the words of Nietzsche:

    “Those who fight monsters should take care that they never become one.”

    Roland:

    “These fraudulent, farcical and downright nefarious ex-gay organizations and “ministries” (and frankly, all of christianity)…”

    Woah, woah, woah!

    “ALL of Christianity?”

    What about….

    The Metropolitan Community Church?
    The RCJC?
    The United Church of Canada?
    The United Church of Christ?
    The GAAAP?
    Evangelical Lutheren Church of America?
    The Ecumenical Catholic Church?
    The Episcopal Church?
    …and so on and so forth across the world.

    (This isn’t taking into consideration Internet Ecclesiastical groups like Whosoever Ministries, or groups like SoulForce who reach across denominational lines and seek to defend LGBT rights).

    You had a nightmarish experience. I don’t doubt that. You are angry and hurt. You have all the right in the world to be.

    But do not be so quick to condemn an entire community of faith for the actions of relatively few lost souls.

    As for the story itself,

    I am appalled. My spouse and I struggled, and fought, and sweated, and cried, and bled along with so many others to have our marriage recognized, to have our very human dignity acknowledged.

    But this? This is not the way. This is petty, dishonorable, and low.

    We once called upon the image and inspiration of the great Reverend Dr. Martin Luthor King to rise above the oppression and pain which surrounded us, and to prove to our detractors that we would not sacrifice dignity for safety nor principles for political gain.

    This is not the way. We must operate at a higher standard.

  17. Huh? Who said anything about all of Christianity being our enemies? Our enemies are people like Brock who demonize us and who fight against having your marriage recognized. There is nothing “petty, dishonorable, and low” about exposing the hatred and hypocrisy of someone like Brock. If you don’t recognize Brock (and others like him) as your enemy, you are blind.

  18. “If someone disclosed during a Narcotic Anonymous/Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that they had sexual encounters with men while being openly hostile to gays, would it be OK to report that?”

    If a pedophile priest attending a 12-Step support group for pedophile priests admitted in confidence that he had sexually abused a dozen children the past week and intended to abuse a dozen more the next week, would members of the group be held to the same standard of confidentiality?

    What if a heterosexual husband attending a 12-Step support group for unfaithful spouses admitted that he had had unprotected sex with a dozen prostitutes the past week and intended to have unprotected sex with a dozen more prostitues the following week, AND that he and his wife always had unprotected sex…..would a member of the group who warned his wife be in violation of the group’s standard of confidentiality?

    What if a heterosexual bus driver or subway conductor attending a 12-Step support group for substance abusers admitted that she regularly went to work intoxicated and was so skilled at covering it up that no one had ever detected her? Would a member who tipped off her supervisors as to the public danger she represented be in violation of a standard of such a group’s standard of confidentiality?

    Of course, a fundamental difference is that homosexuality in and of itself is neither illegal, nor immoral, nor a danger to the public as the pedophile priest would be; nor does homosexuality in and of itself represent a threat to innocent people like the philandering husband who frequents prostitutes and engages in unprotected sex; nor does homosexuality in and of itself represent a threat to public safety like a mass transit driver operating a bus or subway under the influence.

    Hypocrites like Tom Brock ARE a threat to gays and lesbians, and particularly to gay and lesbian youth who are made to feel inferior and defective by Brock’s hypocritical, self-loathing rants. Fundamentalist evangelicals, gay and straight alike, who preach the same message of hate that Brock does should be exposed, denounced and condemned at every possible opportunity. Criminals only have a right to confidentiality when speaking to their attorneys.

    • Excellent post. I have been dismayed by the number of people who somehow think that Courage is entitled to some kind of sacrosanct confidentiality. It is not. As the APA has concluded, reparative therapy is not only ineffective, but it also causes harm. Townsend pointedly did not violate the confidences of the private individuals who attended the group. I am glad that he exposed a man who has done great damage to the most vulnerable people. I love your last sentence.

      • courage is a private ,religious group. this man lied to gain entrance. now the location is known to the public. thats not what people expect when they go to their own religious or philosohical gatherings.
        In America, we still have free right of assemby and association and until now, i thought we had freedom of religion.
        i guess comments on this blog contradict some of these rights.

  19. @Barry,

    There is no scientific basis to substantiate christianity.

    Donkeys don’t talk. People do not come back from the dead. If Jesus was “the son of god” why wouldn’t he just tell people that he was healing the brain of the epileptic, instead of going along with the then popular belief that seizures were the result of demonic possession? I’ll tell you why…because he didn’t know, because he wasn’t the son of god, because god is a delusion created by mankind.

    Faith is the delusion that your religion is truth because you believe it to be.

    I stand by my statement. Christianity is one of the major sham religions of the world. It disempowers mankind from achieving the greatness befitting his intelligence.

  20. Sharon, nothing in the article violated people’s right of assembly and association or freedom of religion. Only cults operate in the kind of secrecy you seem to think is appropriate.

  21. […] that tries to help gays and lesbians live chaste lives, and the outing itself was a matter of much criticism among journalists because secretly reporting on confidential sessions like rehab groups or […]

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