ALEX COHEN, host:
Back now with DAY TO DAY.
William Lobdell is the former religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He asked to be taken off the beat after eight years. In a Times column that appeared a few days ago he wrote about a born-again experience he had at a retreat in 1989. He told readers that he planned on becoming a Catholic and was in the midst taking conversion classes. And, Lobdell wrote, he felt it was God's plan for him to report on religion for the Times and bring light into the newsroom. He was tired of reading stories that treated religion like a freak show, of church coverage that almost always focused on either abortion or homosexuality.
This week, William Lobdell dropped by our studios to talk about his professional and personal religious journey.
Mr. WILLIAM LOBDELL (Former Religion Reporter, Los Angeles Times): It was always weird. People always ask you like what's your religion? That's one of the first questions when we're interviewing somebody. I always told them I was very religious, but I didn't always tell them what my religion was because I didn't think it really mattered. But I think they did sense in me that I was serious about faith and that I really was curious about faith. And so I think it helped me as a journalist.
COHEN: You write in your column that you started to lose faith over the course of your reporting. When did that first start happening and why?
Mr. LOBDELL: The first body below was really about - it was about three years into the beat and it was about six months before the Catholic sex scandal erupted across the country. And there was a story in Orange County about a sexual abuse victim that - who got $5.2 million in a settlement.
And as I was exploring this story, I was pulling up documents on the - about the lawsuit and uncovering things that really haven't been uncovered. It just showed just incredible corruption within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and conning the victims into thinking that they're the only ones and letting the church spokesman call this guy an icon of the priesthood, even though they knew there was huge problems, and his lawyer calling the accusers liars and sick individuals.
And the church did nothing. They knew what was going on, but they didn't step forward. And so for me, I took the easy explanation, which was this is a morally corrupt diocese, not that the church has some big problems.
COHEN: But then it seems like the issue became less bearable for you.
Mr. LOBDELL: Yeah, I talked to scores of victims, hundreds of victims, and their stories - if you haven't talked to a victim of clergy sexual abuse, you have no idea what they've gone through. These are kids that at a very young age usually have been sodomized, all kinds of horrible, horrible things, by someone who they believe and their family believes is Christ's representative on Earth.
So what happens to them is their emotional development, their spiritual development, gets so twisted that they're never the same again. And that's why when people say, well, these guys are in their 40s or 50s, why don't they get over it? They can't get over it.
After talking to all these victims and seeing these documents and these lies by the bishops and cover-ups and bishops telling priest to get out of the country because the cops are about to get them, I just decided on - I was one day from going into the Catholic Church - it was actually in Good Friday - I said I just can't belong to this organization.
COHEN: But it also affected your career?
Mr. LOBDELL: Well, I saw a lot of - I saw a lot of man's footprints on these institutions - religious institutions, not just in the Catholic Church. And I covered a lot of the - and this is an easy one to deride, but I covered the televangelists. And my problem with that is not the televangelists. I mean they're going to do what they're going to do. It's just like the child molesters, they're going to do what they're going to do. But it's that no one will stand up for the people that are getting ripped off.
My point is that man is sinful, but when they're following God and being in God's institutions, they should do something, they should be a little bit better than just a regular institution. To answer your question, it's just hard to be a religion reporter if you don't want to cover Christianity anymore. And I didn't know if I had lost my religion or not, but I knew I was losing it. And if I had any chance of holding onto it, I'd need to step away from the beat.
COHEN: So how do you characterize your own personal faith now? Do you believe in God?
Mr. LOBDELL: Could you ask a tougher question? I would say I'm agnostic, leaning towards atheist at this point.
COHEN: Why do you think losing your faith in religion led to losing your faith in God?
Mr. LOBDELL: I felt as though - and this after long hours of prayer and reflection, etc., and reading and everything else, but I just felt if there was a God - God as we know him, someone, you know, all powerful, loving, etc., he'd be better reflected in the institutions on Earth.
COHEN: You mentioned the word him. I mean it sounds as if you really envision God as a person, as a he, as...
Mr. LOBDELL: Sure, yeah. The, you know, the long beard and everything. I'm not sure if - you know, that's from my childhood. But yeah, I view him as a being, as someone who when I was religious, when I was a Christian, I viewed him as someone who's compassionate, cared about everybody, whose prayers were - you know, who answered prayers. One thing that bothered me covering religion, and I've seen a lot of prayer vigils and people praying who are sick and I see people get well, praise God, the kid dies. We don't - we can't know God's plan, praise God. It just didn't make - it ended up not making sense to me.
COHEN: You wrote that you were drawn to Christianity because of the teachings to love your enemy, to protect the vulnerable and to bring lost sheep back into the fold. I'm curious if you're still committed to those teachings and do you think that they can still be an integral part of your life even if God may not be?
Mr. LOBDELL: Sure. I have great respect for people who do that - the people who follow the gospel and really believe that it's true and live the life like they do. I have just complete admiration and almost jealousy of what they're doing. I - one of the biggest points I want to make the story is what I found out - at least for me - is that faith wasn't a choice.
You know, I really want to believe. I really want that religion. It's comforting. It's - you know, I loved it when I had it. But it's not like you go to the supermarket and am I going to Golden Delicious or Granny Smith? It just happens to me, or it happened to me. And you know, right now I don't have faith.
COHEN: William Lobdell covered religion for the Los Angeles Times for eight years. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. LOBDELL: Thank you.