Renascer Case: The Commedia Dell’arte of Journalistic Diligence

Potemkin villages were, purportedly [who purports?], fake settlements erected at the direction of Russian minister Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787. Conventional wisdom has it that Potemkin, who led the Crimean military campaign, had hollow facades of villages constructed along the desolate banks of the Dnieper River in order to impress the monarch and her travel party with the value of her new conquests, thus enhancing his standing in the empress’s eyes. –Wikipedia

Renascer reforma creche denunciada pelo MP: Globo reports, or insinuates, that after being accused public this week of shennanigans in its charitable institutions, the Renascer in Cristo Church is mounting a “Potemkin village” operation to try to rebut the charges.

See also

My wife was just commenting on this last night: We were flipping through the channels, paused for a moment on the broadcaster run by the apocalyptic televangelicals, and we see a report designed to rebut charges that Renascer was using its charitable foundations as fronts to wangle donations out of the faithful as a cover for obscene accumulation of wealth by church leaders.

In the church’s video, we are shown the institutions in question, looking, as my wife comments, bem arrumadinho.

Spic and span. Neat and tidy.

My wife, who does not follow the story closely, is puzzled. “But I heard the place was a Dickensian hell,” she says, more or less in those terms.

Then again, who does follow this story closely, really?

Except for Globo?

Whose general thesis is that all Protestant evangelical denominations are insanely crooked?

It is quite successful at disseminating that point of view, too. Witness the hasty generalization in this article on the Renascer case in the International Herald Tribune.

Hernandes Filho, a former Xerox marketing executive, and his wife founded the Reborn in Christ Church in 1986 and rode the wave of popularity of evangelical churches in Brazil, the world’s largest Roman Catholic country. The churches have drawn millions in the country of 185 million with dynamic services that appeal to younger, working- and middle-class Brazilians. Critics say they exist to enrich their leaders, who demand big donations and offer vague promises that providence will reward the faithful with riches.

Hernandes may have “rode the wave,” but is he a typical Brazilian evangelical? That inference is left open, it seems to me.

But isn’t that a bit like me implying that Hernandes is a typical technology marketing professional? After all, “technology evangelism” is the revolutionary new wave of technology marketing, right? Herandes seems to have taken that metaphor at face value.

But no. I might insinuate that sometimes, for purposes of satirical exaggeration. And I certainly do have a very low opinion of some technology marketing practices, particularly those that use the “evangelism” metaphor.

But the fact is that — I would say — most technology marketers and PR people I have run across in my life and times have been perfectly capable professionals doing respectable, valuable work in an honest and straightforward manner. If I insist on writing about the gizmos mainly from a design and engineering perspective, they fax me over the spec sheet toute suite.

Likwise, critics do say that Renascer exists to enrich its leaders — and there are some credible signs that those critics may well be right. I would be interesting in learning more on the subject. I am as fascinating by Elmer Gantry narratives as anyone. (Recommended: Robert Duvall’s 1997 film The Apostle.)

But I bet you I could find you other evangelical churches here that cannot be credibly charged with such shennanigans. So just how prevalent are the Elmer Gantry types on the contemporary Tupi-Lusophone scene? That would certainly be a meaty question for investigative journalists to tackle. But you will not find much of that in Globo’s coverage of the issue.

Which is why, at a minimum, I would advise boiling that generalization before swallowing.

There is a lot of Aimee Semple McPherson-style televangelism here, it is quite true, but it should also be recalled that Globo’s principal rival is TV Record — which is also owned by the head of an evangelical religious organization. See

Globo has a long, sordid and ugly history of using the art of the gabbling ratfink for fun and profit (as do its rivals, to be fair, but Globo is the reigning heavyweight champion of the blood sport).

And Globo’s Época lost a R$450,000 libel judgment to the Renascer “apostle” and his wife fairly recently, having been found to have reported nonexistent facts about the group.

Fairly or unfairly, I cannot fairly tell you, but the judge did characterize Globo’s reporting — his word, verbatim — as “mendacious.”

The state prosecutor, meanwhile, had said this week that he has a spreadsheet that shows

  1. that church-run orphanages were not receiving financial support from congregant donations, and
  2. that the shelters listed outside revenue sources, and even revenue targets, leading to the suspicion that
  3. minor beneficiaries had to work for their social services, like Oliver Twist.

Which would violate child labor laws.

Personally, I am more interested in what the spreadsheets say.

It is not a hard and fast rule, but in my observation, people do not tend to lie to themselves as much when they are trying to figure out exactly how much money they have.

They may well cook the books destined for the tax man, but they always keep a parallel set that shows how much they really have to spend. You cannot hack up the loot fair and square unless you know how much there is.

A Igreja Renascer mandou reformar parte das instalações da Casa Lar, abrigo para 34 crianças instalado em Franco da Rocha, na Grande São Paulo. A reforma começou depois do dia 10 de outubro, quando o Grupo de Operações Especiais (GOE), da Polícia Civil, fez blitz no local a pedido do Ministério Público. A Casa Lar recebe crianças vítimas de violência, enviadas pelo Conselho Tutelar do município.

The Renascer church ordered a renovation of part of the facilities at Casa Lar, a shelter for 34 children in Franco da Rocha, in the São Paulo metro area. The renovation commenced on October 10, when the Special Operations Group (GOE) of the state judicial police conducted a “blitz” at the location at the request of the state prosecutor.

The police actually denied that they conducted any such thing as a “blitz.”

The Church said they came in heavily armed and locked and loaded, but they deny this, saying they merely followed standard procedure for escorting an inspection team.

The program serves children victimized by violence, send over by the foster care council of the city government.

A diretora da Casa Lar, Talita (ela não quis dar o sobrenome), afirma que requisitou a troca do gesso do teto antes mesmo da vistoria do GOE. “A parte que eles filmaram a gente está reformando, mas a reforma começou depois da visita”, afirmou.

The director of Casa Lar, Talita (she did not want to give her surname), says she requisitioned the replastering of the ceiling before the GOE conducted its inspection. “The part they filmed we are renovating, but the renovation work started after the visit,” she stated.

Na terça-feira (23), o Ministério Público e a Polícia Civil afirmaram que a Casa Lar e mais duas entidades mantidas pela Renascer recebem menos recursos do que deveriam. Em depoimento no processo em que são acusados de lavagem de dinheiro, os donos da Renascer alegam que o dinheiro arrecadado dos fiéis vai para as três entidades assistenciais.

Repeating the charges as reported earlier.

O G1 esteve na Casa Lar nesta quarta-feira (24) com autorização da assessoria da Renascer (veja acima imagens gravadas no local). A reportagem não pôde conversar com o funcionário que trabalha na obra e nem teve acesso à sala de TV, para onde, segundo Talita, foram destinados os móveis da área. Na sala em reforma, o trânsito é livre. A casa é simples e há móveis em mau estado. As cenas mostram que a porta da geladeira, por exemplo, tem fios aparentes.

G1 was at the location on Wednesday with the authorization of the Renascer press relations office. We were not have to talk to the employee doing the work and were not given access to the TV room, where, according to Talita, the furniture destined for the area were being kept. In the room being renovated, the floor was clear. The house is of simple construction and some of the furniture is in poor condition. The scenes we filmed show that the door of the refrigerator, for example, has exposed wires.

Na busca realizada em 10 de outubro, o GOE encontrou feijão com data de validade vencida na despensa. Talita não quis gravar entrevista, mas disse ao G1 que o feijão encontrado foi uma doação recebida na véspera. “É tudo doação, roupa, calçado, brinquedo. Tudo”, disse ela. Talita afirmou também que além das doações, as despesas da Casa Lar são pagas com um “caixa semanal” que a entidade recebe. Ela não quis mencionar o valor. Esse caixa, de acordo com ela, provém de contribuições arrecadadas por meio de um carnê voluntário denominado Gideão da Conquista.

In the search conducted on October 10, the GOE found beans whose serve-by date had expired in the cupboards. Talita did not want to be interviewed on camera, but told G1 that the beans were donated the previous day. “It is all donated: clothing, shoes, toys, everything,” she said. Talita also said that besides donations, the program’s expenses are paid by a “weekly stipend” it receives. She did not wish to disclose the amount. This stipend, she says, comes from contributions collected by a volunteer group called Gideon of the Conquest.

O promotor de Justiça Marcelo Mendroni e o delegado do Grupo de Operações Táticas (GOE) da Polícia Civil Antônio Sucupira Neto apresentaram, na manhã de terça-feira (23), material apreendido em três unidades assistenciais mantidas pela Igreja Renascer.

Prosecutor Mendroni and GOE captain Sucupira presented material seized from the three facilities run by the church on Tuesday morning.

And what did he say was in those materials?

The question is why — except as a function of feeding Globo’s confirmation bias regarding evil, hypocrititcal Protestant heretics with TV stations — this story deserves “poster child” treatment?

Or five minutes of my limited attention budget?

I certainly do not care much about it, per se — except as an interesting case study in the folklore of financial crime for our growing file on the methods and modalities of Brazilian “lynch mob” journalism.

Because not all victims of lynch mobs are necessarily innocent, remember.

I mean, just in terms of dollar figures: How big a fraud are we talking about here? The Apostle and his wife supposedly have net worth of $60 million. How much of it allegedly comes from this scam, or scams like it?

I personally do not get too excited until the maracutaias mount into at least five figures per month.

Here, we have a camera invited in to inspect premises being renovated.

The source on the scene says the reform was ordered before the raid, and that the facility does get funds and donations, unlike what the prosecutor said, with his charges about illegal child labor and the running of the joint as a sort of Dickensian workhouse.

Is her story credible or not? Why should we even think she might be in a position to know? Globo does not bother trying to reality-test her statements or defend their relevance.

And it does not even bother to recap the contents of the prosecutor’s account of spreadsheets indicating otherwise.

The story is pretty much devoid of critical journalistic content. It advances the story not one iota.

As often occurs in stories like this, the images are presented as if they spoke for themselves.

But they do not.

It reminds me of that Televisa report I saw earlier this year in which a reporter goes out to an address listed as belonging to Zhenli Ye Gon, the DEA’s “man behind the Mexican meth.”

The five-minute segment shows the reporter finding out absolutely nothing after asking everybody in the modest working-class neighborhood, “Ever see any Chinese people around here?”

In the background, tense theme music.

Nothing is revealed, but airtime is consumed.

The reporter is essentially enacting an empty ritual of diligence that is the entire content of the piece.

Which we are supposed to accept in lieu of his actually finding something out.

It is pure theater.

See also Geraldo Rivera opening of Al Capone’s vault, live in primetime.

Remember that?

There was nothing inside.

The astonishing thing is that Renascer and Globo have now both aired dueling footage of the exact same scene.

Renascer says its footage rebuts the prosecutor.

Globo’s footage does not succeed, or really even attempt, to suggest otherwise in any concrete, credible way.

Globo might as well have just rerun Renascer’s footage and saved itself the trip.

Or just waited until something actually happened before filing a report on the case.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s