Crisis of Faith | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Crisis of Faith

KDKA and Marty Griffin struck at the foundation of this Ben Avon church. Now church members are trying to put the pieces together again.

Brent Dugan was a man of God whose earthly flock adored him. The 60-year-old minister had served the Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon for 18 years. The first child he'd baptized in the congregation was headed for college. Prayer meetings, an early Sunday church service, and children's groups flourished under his leadership.

The church itself was a nearly seamless union of two congregations. By every account, the blending of the two congregations was shepherded along by Dugan's pastoral skills.

"It was Brent's spirit, Brent's goodness" that brought people together, says Susan Edwards, a member of the congregation and friend of Dugan's.

Members of Dugan's congregation speak fondly of his warm presence in their homes and on their family ski vacations, his engaging sermons and appreciation of single-malt scotch. They speak of his intelligence and compassion, his love for fly fishing and sense of humor.

Dugan's time at Ben Avon was drawing to a close. He'd recently been chosen from a field of a hundred hopefuls to be the new pastor at Mendocino Presbyterian Church, located in coastal Northern California. It was the perfect place for a sailor and outdoorsman like him.

"He'd have been leaving on a high note," said Jean Henderson, who served as the church's temporary interim pastor, and whose friendship with Dugan dates back to seminary school. The congregation in Mendocino, she says, was to be his last before retirement.

His last service at Ben Avon was to be Christmas Eve.

Brent Dugan never made it to Mendocino. He never got farther than a motel room in Mercer County. He was found there, dead from a self-administered overdose of aspirin and alcohol, on Nov. 3. It was just days after he got the good news about his post in California.

It was another kind of news that led him to that motel room. In the days prior to his death, KDKA-TV had been running teasers for a story about him, a story set to air Thu., Nov. 2. The snippets never named Dugan, but he was clearly visible on Pittsburgh screens -- being confronted by investigative reporter Marty Griffin at a McKeesport adult bookstore.

Dugan left behind a bereaved sister, mother, nephew and congregation. He also left behind 13 letters found in his home the day before he died, missives addressed to the congregation, the Pittsburgh Presbytery, friends and family members.

"The letters, as hard as they are to read, have helped us understand who he was," says Henderson.

But questions remain -- questions about why Dugan's faith made it so hard for him to be himself, and about the journalistic ethics of exposing his private torment to the world.

Dugan's death "taught me something about his own desperation," says Edwards. "Here was a man I loved who was suffering to the depths of his soul. It was a huge sacrifice. It had echoes of Christ's sacrifice, and there's no doubt about that."

When KDKA-TV news reporter Marty Griffin showed up with a hand-held camcorder at the 10:30 service on Oct. 22, parishioners knew who he was. But they could only guess what he was doing there. Griffin didn't stay long, and he didn't speak to anyone about their pastor. Instead, he filmed the front yard of the church, which was filled with pumpkins being sold for a fund-raiser.

"The assumption was that he was doing a piece on our Fall Fest," says Henderson. "He filmed the first 10 minutes of service."

As it turned out just over a week later, Fall Fest was not where Griffin's interests lay.

During the last days of October, KDKA started running teasers in which Griffin confronted Dugan about his visit to an adult-book store. The promos never made clear what Dugan had allegedly done wrong: Griffin would later tell viewers that the station had "uncovered illicit, possibly illegal, activity by a local minister, activities which at the very least violated the rules of his denomination."

Those promos unleashed a "week from hell," Henderson says. "The spiral was fast and deep."

After conducting a Wednesday morning prayer group on Nov. 1, Dugan disappeared.

Some members of the congregation had seen the KDKA teasers and began seeking their pastor out. No one noticed anything amiss at his final Wednesday prayer group, but "People sensed that something wasn't right" when they couldn't reach him, Henderson says. Church members lit up the phone lines, trying to find Dugan through each other and his family. The church filed a missing-persons report with the Kilbuck Township police.

Their sense of alarm deepened on Thursday, when Dugan's letters were discovered at his home.

Henderson and others who received letters declined to share them with City Paper or others outside the church community, citing a desire to keep them personal and to respect Dugan's intentions in addressing them specifically.

But Jane DeSimone, a church elder and friend of the pastor, and others familiar with the letters say that Dugan wrote of an increasingly physical and intimate relationship with a man, begun four years earlier. He expressed shame about the secret he'd kept hidden, and suggested that the man had set up Dugan's visit to the bookstore -- tipping off KDKA in advance.

"It was clear he felt set up by somebody he trusted," says Jim Mead, pastor to the Pittsburgh Presbytery, which also received one of the letters.

During the 11 p.m. newscast on Nov. 2, when Griffin's story was set to run, anchor Ken Rice told viewers that KDKA had "made the unprecedented decision not to air the story." Griffin himself explained that "we have reason to believe the pastor may be in danger to himself."

But by then, it was too late. "I don't think Brent knew they were going to pull it," says Henderson. "He was [either] not watching or [already] dead," by the time of the announcement. Much of the damage had already been done by then anyway. "Those teasers were enough to end his effectiveness as a minister." And, by many accounts, being a minister was his life's calling, one he'd felt since childhood.

Dugan's suicide left friends, family and the congregation devastated and confused.

"If you'd told me the day before, I'd call you a liar," says DeSimone. "You'd never say, 'That Brent Dugan, he's really on the edge.'" But, she says, he was also an actor: He'd helped to found the Ben Avon Community Theatre Players, and as a pastor he was skilled in holding a congregation's attention ... and, perhaps, in making everything seem OK when it wasn't.

Dugan is survived by his sister, who declined to speak with City Paper. Others in the congregation were wary of speaking for the record, citing the damage media coverage had already done to their church and a desire to grieve privately. But many say Dugan may well have been gay, or at least conflicted about his sexual identity.

After the first time DeSimone and her husband met Dugan, she says, they briefly and privately discussed their impression that he might be gay. "Who cares?" she says with a shrug. "I definitely didn't care. I just dismissed it." She speculates that Dugan may have been confused about his sexual orientation: not necessarily clearly gay or straight, but, by virtue of being a minister, not in a position to figure it out easily. "They can't, like, date."

For all of Dugan's warmth, in fact, congregants say he could sometimes be guarded. He was known as a skilled listener, but in retrospect congregants now wonder: Was he so good at listening to them partly because he was afraid to give away too much about himself?

"If you got too personal, he'd suck back and become more reserved," DeSimone says. "I don't think anybody knew how lonely he was."

To Susan Edwards, Dugan's reserve seemed to say, "I love you people, but there's something of me I'm going to keep from you."

After KDKA ran its first teaser, he no longer had that choice.

"If somebody said, 'I have a file that says everything about everything,' would I read it?" DeSimone asks rhetorically. "No. Do I think Marty Griffin had anything? No."

Did KDKA allow itself to be used as a pawn in a hurtful game, as Dugan's letters apparently suggest? Or was it simply trying to boost ratings during the fall ratings period, as critics such as Pittsburgh Post-Gazette TV columnist Rob Owen have charged?

Griffin and KDKA's news team may be the only ones to ever know. The station that once boasted of its exposé now refuses to discuss it. KDKA has declined any further comment on the story, other than reissuing a terse statement from the day Dugan's body was found:

Our condolences go out to the family and friends of Pastor Dugan at this difficult time. The station conducted a month-long investigation into reports of public and illegal sexual behavior by Pastor Dugan. The results of that investigation were scheduled to air the evening of 11/2. That evening the station received information from someone close to Pastor Dugan that indicated that he was considering doing harm to himself. As a result, the station made the decision not to air the story.

This might sound noble, but the damage was done, says Dr. Dane Claussen, an associate professor at Point Park University who directs the journalism department's graduate program. Though it's impossible to judge the report without knowing precisely it contained, Claussen says, it's unlikely the report would have been a responsible piece of reporting.

Noting that Griffin claimed Dugan had "violated the rules of his denomination," Claussen says, "It's not the news media's responsibility to police which priests, imams or rabbis are upholding the tenets of their faith.

"Unless this pastor were guilty of a crime, and a significant crime, then running a story like this is just sensationalism," he adds.

If Dugan had committed a serious offense, Claussen says KDKA should have aired the piece, suicide or no suicide. In such a case, he says, "The responsibility is to the public, not the person. As a journalist, you have to think very hard about is it really necessary for the public to know this news story. If it is, I hate to say this but you go with the news story."

No criminal allegations against Dugan have surfaced in the wake of Griffin's story. Edwards sat on the church's ombudsman committee, which would deal with any allegations of sexual impropriety. She says no one ever brought Dugan's name up in a context like that; Henderson, meanwhile, says the church has never been contacted about any police investigation of Dugan.

These days, Claussen says, local TV news is primarily about "accidents, fires, floods, scandals and disasters followed by weather and sports." In the age of cable TV and the Internet, local news has almost nothing to add to weather and sports coverage, and the accidents and disasters, while attention grabbing, aren't the most important things to report. "In Allegheny County there are about 145 cities and towns, there are 60-some school districts and that's what local television news should be covering: local government, local politics, local business and economics."

Of course, TV is a ratings-driven business, and the audience for scandal is clearly much larger than the audience for zoning-board footage. But Claussen says journalists must do more than merely give the public what it wants:

"A doctor doesn't take a public opinion poll on, 'Gee, should I prescribe penicillin or something else?' Why do journalists? Journalists need to resist as much as possible base public demands. Any monkey can implement viewer ratings! Hopefully TV journalists are more than monkeys."

What ought to come of this incident, he says, is a sincere apology from KDKA -- followed by a re-evaluation of its values and news judgment. "They and all other broadcasters should learn from this. Go back to basics, ask yourself, 'Is this even news?'"

To the surprise of some church members, neither Griffin nor any other media member attended Dugan's Nov. 9 memorial service.

DeSimone says she was glad that members of the media were not among the more than 700 people at Dugan's memorial service. Still, resentment toward Griffin remains.

"I save my rancor for Marty Griffin," she says. "His aim was the glory of Marty Griffin. Marty Griffin knew he was going to destroy a person. [KDKA] hired him to be a scumbag -- that is his function."

The Bible, she adds, tells us "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord." But "I'm not so patient."

Congregants are also struggling with the scriptures that emphasize forgiveness. "At first, I was very angry at Marty Griffin," says Susan Edwards. "I feel sorry for him -- unless he's some kind of supernatural being, I don't know how this can't weigh on his heart." But Edwards too says she's "become incensed when I hear someone being taken to task in the media -- why do you have to expose it to the media? ... I think the media is exploitative. I think this was exploitation on Marty Griffin's part."

"I certainly have always been a believer in free speech," Henderson says. "As a pastor, I enjoy that privilege in ways that people might not understand." But, she says, "There has to be a limit, and some loving kindness."

Mead, of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, said that it was obvious to anyone who saw the teasers that the story was going to be "sensationalistic."

"It isn't that Brent didn't engage in some culpable behavior," Mead says. Church teaching does forbid sex outside of marriage -- for gays and straights alike. But sinners that we all are, he says, if you follow anyone around with the intention of catching them at something, you'll probably find it. Ministers are no more immune to temptation than the rest of us, he notes, and so they shouldn't be more vulnerable to public exposure, either.

To that end, he and the Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania, an umbrella group of local churches, have requested a meeting with KDKA. "I want to ask them to leave clergy persons alone and to not make them a special target of news stories," Mead says. "It doesn't seem like something a 'hometown advantage' [station] should be doing."

Mead says Griffin has been a poor choice for the station all along.

In 1997, Griffin's then-employer, Dallas station KXAS-TV Channel 5, paid a reported $2.2 million to settle a defamation suit arising from a story Griffin aired about Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin. In that story, a topless dancer accused Irvin of participating in a rape with two other men -- accusations she later recanted, and which resulted in perjury charges against her. Griffin also conducted a hidden-camera investigation of Irvin's purported drug-buying activities, a story for which KXAS paid an informant $6,000. The station admitted no wrongdoing in the 1997 settlement, which Griffin opposed. In fact, Griffin's online bio on the KDKA Web site boasts of winning awards for his reporting on Irvin, and adds, "That's right -- Michael Irvin doesn't like Marty Griffin very much."

Still, KDKA has responded to Mead's letter with a promised meeting later this month, and Mead is optimistic. "I'm confident that KDKA will respond," Mead says. "They're concerned about the community."

Such concern would come too late for Dugan, and those who grieve his loss. Some see Dugan's final act as a form of sacrifice, a way to save the congregation from whatever anguish Griffin's report would bring.

"The one thing that I immediately thought was that he didn't want the church to go through a terrible trial," says Edwards. "And it would have been."

The rules of the Presbyterian church, codified in its Book of Order, require that ministers be either single and chaste, or to "live in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and woman."

That sounds like a straightforward edict, but its meaning has been hotly debated. Mead says that the question was first raised in 1976 when a "practicing homosexual" man in a committed relationship asked to be ordained.

Based on a literal reading of the Book of Order, Mead says, "The church's answer was 'no.'" To Mead, there's nothing ambiguous about the prohibition on gay ministers. But he acknowledges, "Our church continues to wrestle with this. There are those who say we're hard-hearted because we don't ordain gays."

One of those people is Presbyterian minister Janet Edwards.

Edwards (who is no relation to Susan Edwards) made headlines locally for presiding over a marriage ceremony for two lesbians in 2005. She faced a church trial for the wedding, but got off on a technicality: The statue of limitations on the charges had expired days before.

Edwards says the Book of Order is less clear-cut than literalists believe. She notes that "between a man and a woman" is a prepositional phrase, and contends that such a part of speech is less powerful than the rest of the statement. "'Man' has so burst in its definition in modern times to mean men and women," she points out. Expressions like "One small step for man," for example, are understood to refer to everyone.

Edwards also contends that many things considered sinful when scriptures were written are no longer considered sins. For example, the Old Testament's proscriptions on working on the Sabbath and on touching pigskin would, if enforced, require retooling the entire NFL.

Perhaps, Edwards adds, how the rules are written matters less than how they are applied to the living church. Even gays and lesbians who are active in the church and in "faithful relationships with Jesus," she says, often "feel like second-class citizens. The day is going to come when nobody cares, when GLBT is like left-handedness. I hope we don't go into some huge denial and stay there."

Her own trial, she says, shows how tempting it is to do just that: Rather than take a stand on the place of gays in the church, the proceeding found a way to avoid the question entirely. That, she says, reflects how the church prefers to ignore or work around "the elephant in the room."

Mead says that members of the Presbyterian faith run the gamut in their opinions of gay people generally, and of ordaining them. Some would call Dugan a "horrible sinner," he says; others would encourage him to come out of the closet. The more than 700 people that attended Dugan's memorial service, Mead says, represented the "bell curve" of opinion on the subject.

And for all those people, he says, "This is an issue that matters a great deal. It's very painful for the church."

"We've lost our earthly shepherd," Jean Henderson says. "Another shepherd will come along. Earthly shepherds make mistakes, and the Good Shepherd finds them. At the end of his letter, he said stay together, love each other. I think he would be really proud of this congregation."

And in fact, the week after Dugan's memorial service, 25 new members joined the church he left behind.

At the 8:30 service on a brutally cold Super Bowl Sunday morning, Carol Divens Roth takes the helm at the Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon. Roth is the new interim pastor, where she will serve for about a year while a church committee chooses a new replacement.

Only a few dozen faithful have made the trek this early; most come for the 10:30 service. But as Roth leads them through a hymn, a beautiful, oaky tenor soars above the rest of the voices to the dark wood of the vaulted ceiling. It is a song of praise, thanking God

For the joy of human love

Brother, sister, parent, child,

Friends on earth and friends above,

For all gentle thoughts and mild.

After leading the assembled faithful through prayers of confession and praise, she reads from St. Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians:

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again: even so them who have slept through Jesus, will God bring with him. ... For the Lord himself shall come down from heaven with commandment and with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God: and the dead who are in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, shall be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet Christ, into the air: and so shall we be always with the Lord. Wherefore, comfort ye one another with these words.

Then she begins her sermon. Without mentioning Brent Dugan and the hole he's left in their hearts, she talks about him, about their responsibility to move forward and worship God. She says that the role of an interim pastor is to come to terms with the past and shepherd the congregation into the future.

"Death," Roth tells Dugan's flock, "no longer has the last word."

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