Journalism

‘Citizen journalist’ quotes deceased parishioners in article on church closing

When the byline is a clergyman’s, it seems proper to ease in gently and with praise before explaining why Oakland Press editors “will fully investigate” his error-marred article.

No mistakes are in the lead paragraph of Tuesday’s coverage of the final worship service at St. Dennis Church in Royal Oak.

Rev. Lawrence M. Ventline

A serious problem involving deceased parishioners appears soon after that, however.

The writer, a repeated contributor of free content named Lawrence M. Ventline and identified as a pastor in an endnote, blames careless editng – though he doesn’t explain how that introduced two people who couldn’t have attended.

“Unless resurrected for the last service, my parents have been deceased for years,” notes Tim Hurley of Royal Oak, a former altar boy at the church and student for eight years at its school.

In a comment posted under Ventline’s report, Hurley reacts to this passage:

Oak Park resident and minister of music, Tom Zerafa, comforted the faithful and led worshipers in singing a psalm and hymn of the biblical King David, “Shepherd Me O God,” while Tom and Mary Jo Hurley of Madison Heights, listened.

“My parents, Tom and Mary Jo Hurley, were indeed longtime members of St. Dennis Parish,” the 43-year-old son’s online comment says. “My Dad built the advent wreath used for years in the sanctuary. My Mom was very active at St. Dennis.”

Tim Hurley

He learned about the story shortly after publication. “A friend from my high school graduating class (Lamphere 1972) called early Tuesday morning,” Hurley recounts via email. “He said; ‘Timmy, I thought both your parents had passed. You better read what the Oakland Press printed.’ ”

The son’s emotions included disbelief, anger and sadness. “The grief hit while trying to compose a response without using profanity,” he says. “A flood of memories came rushing in.”

He also challenges background in the second paragraph, which says: “St. Dennis was home for 62 years to Eastwood Clinic [and] multiple 12-step groups of Alcoholics Anonymous . . .”

Hurley notes in his message: “Eastwood Clinic moved into the convent in 1986, not 62 years ago.”

For its part, the suburban daily sent a two-sentence response to three e-mailed questions. “We’re looking into this. We will fully investigate this,” says Julie Jacobson Hines, local news editor.

Ventline had a bit more to say – loudly at first – in a pair of phone conversations. “What business is it of yours,” he said initially in response to questions about the late Hurleys. “Why are you bothering me? I already spoke to the editor.”

He attended the Catholic church’s last service, he says, and asked an interviewee to write his name and his wife’s on a notepad. That’s how the Hurleys’ names were used, as he tells it. “I was sitting next to them,” according to Ventline of Harrison Township.

Without knowing that, Tim Hurley suggested this explanation: “I was able to piece together that the guy had ‘interviewed’ or at least talked to my brother Dan.” Somehow, through that son’s mention of his late parents and jotting of their names, they wound up in the article as attendees rather than as former members.

In any event, Ventline insists any errors aren’t his. “Whoever edited it condensed and took out a lot,” he says. “My editor screwed it up.”

The 63-year-old writer — a Press contributor since August 2008, according to digital archives – says his work usually is handled by Hines or online editor Stephen Fry, a former police and courts reporter at the Pontiac paper. He assumes Hines edited the latest contribution.

“I’m a citizen journalist,” Ventline says. “I do this for the community good.”

A biographical note below the article uses the title reverend and identifies him as a doctor of ministry, “a pastor, a board-certified professional counselor, and a former first executive director of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights.”

In contrast, The Daily Tribune and Royal Oak Patch each covered St. Dennis’ farewell worship ceremony with a paid professional journalist. The parish merged last June with St. Vincent Ferrer Parish in Madison Heights as part of an archdiocese consolidation plan for financial reasons.

Tim Hurley wonders “how a newspaper could treat something as emotionally devastating as a parish closing with such cavalier disdain for the truth,” he says in the email response to Deadline Detroit.

[ This post first appeared at the Deadline Detroit news site. ]

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