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September 18, 2009

"Outing" a public figure: standards of evidence

A recent column by Mike Ference of the Pittsburgh Independent Examiner raises questions about what evidentiary standards should apply when "outing" a public figure. Ference writes about Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl:

Donald Wuerl’s personal battle over the legalization of same-sex marriage in Washington D.C. is nothing more than a classic example of the pot calling the kettle lavender. According to an article in the Washington Post, Wuerl sent a letter to 300 local Catholic priests, reminding them that the Catholic Church opposes same-sex marriage - as if they already didn't know. Wuerl unleashed a barrage of staged media conferences and interviews, in order to reinforce the church’s stand on the topic. Perhaps a more suitable messenger is needed.

For those who are either in denial or have been asleep for the past 50 years, Donald Wuerl, like so many other Catholic clerics, is an alleged homosexual. Was he celibate as a cleric? This writer would be willing to bet the farm and my first-born that Wuerl was about as celibate as the growing number of rabbits that invade my vegetable garden every new season....

While being known as Donna Wuerl by the Pittsburgh gay community, administrators at a prominent Pittsburgh hospital openly discussed in a private venue Wuerl’s homosexuality, pointing out the inherent need to cover it up. This revelation only suggests, very strongly, that Wuerl must have been practicing the gay lifestyle while he was bishop of Pittsburgh. That revelation is based on a highly credible source.

The speculation on display above, particularly the "willing to bet" phrase in the second paragraph, is in stark contrast with the reporting of Michael Rogers, who outed South Carolina Lt. Governor Andre Bauer in an Aug. 31 report. As Rogers says:

I'm a reporter. I meet with people and I talk to them. Then based on a review of all of the facts, I report closet cases that hurt the gay community. You may not like my style, but I have a track record of 100%....

So, what is the deal with Bauer? I have confirmed and spoken to four individuals who I have no doubt are telling me the truth. These men have been hit on by Bauer, with one of them telling me it happened at least five times since Bauer's election in 2003. To a varying degree I have met with and believe the sources. And, as you'll recall, I have that 100% record.

This was still not enough for me to report on him. Then another call came in and I met with the source while he was visiting DC recently. "He's gay," the source told me.

"How do you know?" I asked.

"Because I've had sex with him on two separate occasions." That too, was not enough for me to report on without confirmation from others. I was led on a path to chatting with acquaintances of the source and two former employees of Bauer who served on his staff between 2004 and 2007. They reported to me that on a total of three occasions Bauer spent hours alone with men in hotel rooms. Each of them explained that the visits were with younger men who were not on the staff of the Lt. Governor nor had any official reason to be with him. The two men each confirmed that they had not known each other and each described similar circumstances under which these interactions occurred. One of them confirmed that he was told by the Lt. Governor's visitor he had a sexual encounter with Bauer.

The combination of the reports and the first hand experiences were what I need to maintain my 100% record of being right in my reporting on this site.

What we have from Ference on Wuerl does not appear to meet the journalistic standards upheld by Rogers. I have known a lot of closeted clergy in my day, many of whom by the way were not right-wing zealots. I myself have written about one of the zealots, though I used a pseudonym and omitted certain details because "outing" him was not my purpose. I respect the reporting of Mike Rogers, because he does his homework and has a track record of getting it right. Others who want to get into the business should learn from him.

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