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'Recovering Catholics' reveal spiritual journeys
According to a 2008 poll, 31% of Americans were raised Catholic, but only 24% describe themselves as Catholic.
June 19th, 2012
09:36 AM ET

'Recovering Catholics' reveal spiritual journeys

By Jim Spellman, CNN

Denver (CNN) - Kristen Kelly was raised Roman Catholic, attended Catholic elementary school and considered herself a good Catholic, but when she was 21-years-old that changed.

“A coworker asked me if I believe in Jesus Christ,” she says.

Despite spending her entire life in the Roman Catholic Church she couldn’t answer the question.

“I never really got exposed to Christ," she says. "It was more about Mary and the Church and a condemnation of everything I was doing wrong.”

She looked at her coworker and saw someone who appeared to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and decided that was what she wanted. She said this prayer:

“Jesus I accept that you are my lord and savior, and I ask you to come into my life.”

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And from that moment Kelly, now 41 and living in Florida, considered herself born-again, and an ex-Catholic.

“I like to call us recovering Catholics,” she says with a laugh.

According to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religious Life and Public Life, 31% of Americans were raised Catholic, but only 24% now describe themselves as Catholic. Read the study (PDF).

That means about 1 in 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. If they were a denomination they would be bigger than Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans and Presbyterians.

The total U.S. Catholic population has remained at about 24%, as immigrants have filled the pews the ex-Catholics have left behind.

Video: Why do some Catholic outsiders remain inside the flock?  

Kathleen Cummings , associate director at the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame, says that some people leave the Catholic Church after a defining event like the priest abuse scandals or because of a disagreement with the Church over social issues, but most leave because they feel their needs are not being met.

“They are not experiencing something that fulfills them spiritually,” Cummings says.

Church supporters are urging wayward Catholics to return to the fold. For example, Catholics Come Home, a nonprofit lay organization formed in 1997, has been putting out the welcome mat via the media.

The group has an interactive website www.Catholicscomehome.org and airs what it calls “evangomercials” on radio and television. The group says that since 2008 more than 350,000 people have “come home” to the Catholic Church through their campaign.

Tom Peterson, president of Catholics Come Home, says some worshipers who've returned to the Catholic Church report leaving because they had disagreements with church officials or had divorced and feared they wouldn’t be welcome. But, he says, the majority never really gave up on the Church.

“They just drifted away and life got too busy," Peterson says. "Most say they didn’t dislike the Church, nor were they opposed to the Church teachings.

“An overwhelming majority of returnees tell our diocesan partners that they came home to the Catholic Church, 'because you invited me,'" he says.

But it may not be so simple to lure back ex-Catholics like Matt Rowe, a 35-year-old married father of two living in Denver. Rowe attended 16 years of Catholic School in Illinois and attended a Catholic university.

But by the end of college, Rowe was adrift. He found himself disagreeing with the Church on everything from the role of women to the concept of original sin and what he saw as the Catholic Church’s dependence on guilt as a motivating factor.

Rowe gave up on religion for most of his 20s but never stopped believing in God. When he got married and had kids, he started feeling a void in his life.

“I wanted my kids to grow up in a religion, but not Catholicism,” he says.

After “church-hopping” for a few years, Rowe ended up at Pathways Wash Park, a multidenominational Christian church in Denver.

After years of feeling disconnected in the Catholic Church where he says sermons rarely connected to his life, he has finally found the connection he has been looking for at Pathways.

“I wanted spirituality. I wanted God. I wanted all those points to go back to what I’m dealing with today,” Rowe says.

Fred Viarrial, 59, grew up as an altar boy at St. Leo’s in Denver. Six days a week he donned his cassock and worked the 6 a.m. Mass.

“Books or bells. You are ringing the bells or moving the books for the priests,” Viarrial says.

But as he grew up he began questioning elements of Catholicism. One day, when Viarrial was somewhere between age 10 and 12, he had something especially embarrassing to confess, so he trekked over to a Spanish language parish where he was unknown.

“The priest pulled me out and spanked me on the spot,” Viarrial says with a laugh. “That got me to question this whole thing of confession.”

When he was just 14 the precocious teenager went so far as to schedule an appointment with Denver ‘s then-Archbishop James Casey to discuss his doubts.

“I took a two-page list of questions starting with the Hail Mary. I wanted to find them in the Bible, their origin … where is that in the Bible?”

Viarrial says the archbishop humored him but ultimately did not answer his questions.

He still believed in God, but was losing faith in the Church.

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By his 20s he was searching for a new church and ended up at Arvada Covenant Church, an evangelical congregation in a Denver suburb.

At Arvada Covenant he says the focus is on a personal relationship with Jesus and that his questions about his faith and the Bible are not met with derision, but with a search for answers through Bible study.

He has found a home at Arvada Covenant, but says he holds no grudge against the Catholic Church and still feels echoes of his Catholic upbringing in his faith today.

“It’s like a spiritual tattoo that you receive as a kid," Viarrial says. "Those roots don’t ever disappear, you just better try to understand them.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Colorado • Faith

soundoff (2,511 Responses)
  1. Freethinksman

    The Catholic Church needs to evolve in order to stay relevant in its members' lives. All churches change over time, amending their stated dogmas and demands. Unfortunately, while these demands can be made (and obeyed) in 3rd world countries, in the West there is more access to dissenting opinions, scientific fact, and a more heterogeneous society. People feel free to think for themselves. Catholicism is dying in places where Papal decree is not seen as divine. And uneducated, scared, poor peoples of South and Central America can't really afford to finance Rome's lifestyle. Either the Church learns to live within its means, or it will be forced to adapt in order to keep the collection baskets full.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Pat

      You make some good points here. But remember, the Church was built on a rock, not a current!

      June 19, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  2. Rchmd2004

    I wish they would leave; there are way too many so called American Catholics who believe in very little that makes up the true Holy Roman Catholic Faith and the Church; priests who do not believe in Hell or the Divinity of Christ, nuns who refuse to dress, act and live as nuns, church members who only give lip service but no belief in what they say; there are plenty of Protestant churches that would welcome you. Let us who truly believe in the truths held by the Holy Roman Catholic Church be free to worship, accept the Eucharist while kneeling and not have to listen to your snide "oh, we don't believe in doing that any more".

    June 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Bob

      Wow, what a loving, Christlike sentiment!

      June 19, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  3. John McNay

    The main problem is that most of the bishops and too many of the priests have become merely a political action committee for the Republican Party. If you get down in the mud with the right-wing politicians, you end up looking and sounding just like them.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  4. Keel Hauler

    Hey Pope and crew, try coming out of the dark ages and maybe you'll retain some followers.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  5. Bob R

    The Catholic Church, like every other religious organization, is not without its faults. Every religious organization is run by people, and people are flawed - some moreso than others. But Christ promises us forgiveness for our transgressions. All we have to do is ask. If YOU can't find forgivenes of others, then are you saying you are smarter and more omnipotent than God? Try forgiving others and see how much better YOU will feel. Jon...yes, the Catholic Church may seem to be all about money, but did you realize the Catholic Church is the LARGEST charitable organization on the planet. You can't give what you don't have, so money is a necessity.

    And Yes, peole have left the Church because of the abuse crisis, just as they have left every other denomination for similar scandals. I don't in any way try to minimize what was done and how the Church mishandled it - everything from ignoring it to covering it up - and I pray for those who were hurt by Priests. But I also pray for those similarly hurt by Rabbis and Pastors and Preachers and Imams and Scout leaders and Coaches and Teachers and Police officers and Elected officials and everyone else. And for those who don't beleive, I pray for you too.

    I encourage everyone to experience the Church from the inside. Go to a shelter and feed and clothe the homeless. Care for a battered spouse and his or her children. Sit with a pregnant teen who has courageously decided to keep her baby and give it to another family through adoption. Visit a sick person (someone you don't know) in a hospital or nursing home. Visit someone (again, someone you don't know) in a jail or prison. Give of yourself to help rebuild a village battered by storm. And when you do that, there's a good chance that many of the people ahead of you in line are Catholic and other Christians and the faithful of other religious organizations, waiting to give of themselves for the betterment of others.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • tom

      Thanks you for this!

      June 19, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Sabina

      Bob, I already do plenty of what you suggested and guess what? I am not a catholic. It is important to remember that there are plenty of great people in the world doing wonderful things without being religious. Thank you for listening.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • Jim

      Thanks, but 2e can do all of those things in your last paragraph without Catholicism.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • truebob

      I left the Catholic church because after 8 years of Catholic school and untold hours of religious education I didn't see any real faith in the clergy or the parishioners I knew. I was exposed to another religion and was interested in the apparently devout beliefs I saw and really looked into it. What I came to realize is that no religious ideology holds up to close intellectual scrutiny and the people with the deepest faith are usually the most flawed or damaged and trying to compensate for it. I'm raising my kids in the church because the moral lessons are valuable to children, but when they are more mature and start asking the questions that dogma can't answer I intend to be candid about my experiences and encourage them to seek the answers for themselves.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  6. NOT MY CHAIR

    i read the headlines and thought "great people are finally turning away from those fairy tales" only read the article and come to realize that they are just following other fairy tales no what a shame

    June 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      The Catholic church is the most evil and corrupt organization to ever exist. I'd much rather them leave and go to another religion than stay Catholic.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  7. Michael D. Hartley

    I don't trust any Catholic priests.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Welled

      I never encountered a priest or nun that I had any problem with or even heard of one thats done wrong. So I can't say. But leaving is the smart thing to do. The Catholic religion was invented in Rome or nearbouts. A lot of it makes no sense at all. Romes a place that shouldn't be because its a volcanic region. Very potentially dangerous. They should consider that a lot of what they read makes no sense. The earth is a very comfortable place. Unless you turn it in your thoughts to a bad place. The news spells danger in need of a lot of defense. However everyday life does not reflect the need for such defense. Get away and have a new life. Senseless suffering only serves some other persons interests. Having a good crew of people that are good and behave serves someone elses interests. The people who run things need a well behaved labor force that will not trouble them.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
    • Joe M

      It's not about trusting a caholic priest, it's about building a moral compass, about believing in right from wrong. Priests are people and unless you trust everyone you meet, you should not trust them. They don't walk on water, they are human.
      Just because the catholic church has gotten the visibility put on it, doesn't make religion bad. People just don't get what's happening to this country because of the void children being raised that answer to nothing. It's right from wrong people, it's teaching kids to help others.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  8. Smarterest Human

    Catholics are a bunch of perverts with sick, archaic beliefs that oppress women. Only stupid people stay in catholicism. In fact, they cater to the stupid masses.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Keel Hauler

      Rather candid, but true.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Horus

      The phrase "ignorant masses" exists for a reason ;-}

      June 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Jim

      Amen. Never going back to the Catholic Church. Can't make me !

      June 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  9. Jeff

    Carzyhorse, please educate yourself on the definition of the word "bigot." It doesn't mean what you apparently think it does, and it's not quite the zinger of a retort for which you were hoping.

    You have, however, succesfully demonstrated the fundamental flaws of religion: It rests on untestable assertions, logic-defying presumptions and blind appeals to authority cobbled together in an attempt to create a screen from genuine inquiry. Religion assumes that God created humans with intelligent thought, then commanded them not to use that intellect.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  10. Magisterludi

    I too was raised, and schooled up through college, as a Catholic. But as Paul wrote, 'When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.' Among those childish things I put away were religion generally and old men with long white beards that live in the clouds in particular.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  11. tom

    Another day another one sided article about Catholic church on CNN.com.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • MK

      There is only one side.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Horus

      Please explain the bias part......thx....

      June 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      CNN will let you know when there is some good stuff to report. So far, nothing.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  12. Bob

    For all you Catholics claiming "bias," how is it "biased" to report the facts? Maybe it's time you pulled your heads out of the sand and started basing your beliefs on reality instead of what old men in funny costumes tell you.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Thinker

      In media the bias is in which facts are reported and which aren't. For example, a puplication that is biased towards a specific group will tend to report things that favor their group or not report things that favor opposing groups. The same facts can also be made to look better or worse by changing they way in which the facts are delivered.

      Imo, this article is biased against catholisism. Most reporting that is more than a paragraph or two is biased. It is nearly impossible for someone to write an interesting article that is not biased, as it is the thoughts and emptions of the writer that makes most news articles interesting. A simple statement of fact is fairly bland and un-interesting; we as people are more interested in how the facts affect us, which in most cases is theorising and opinion, and thus biased.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  13. steve

    Gee, I'm glad I'm not an atheist. Judging by the comments below, if I were an atheist, I'd be a smug, condescending jerk.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • sam

      As opposed to all the other comments, which are just sweet as pie. Passive aggressive, much?

      June 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • MK

      Rather than you who thinks they are special because you belong to the "one true religion"?

      June 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      It's hilarious that you can't see the hypocrisy and irony in your own statement.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Delusions 3:15

      You'd also be making too many generizations.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  14. Joe M

    So the big story is that 7% of people don't remain catholic ? Oh come on , there has to be something better to write about than this. How about a story about the godless egotistical spiritually vacant mass of people being raised in 2012 and what the impact on society has been, and will be in the future ? hmmmm like what people become in the lovely public school system with no focus on right and wrong ? sounds like a much more useful story

    June 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • MK

      Religion has done nothing to fix "wrong" for 2000+ years.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Thinker

      Joe, now please define 'right and wrong' in a way that is acceptable to everyone. Right and wrong are not concrete things. They are the opinions of the people of the time. What is considered right now may be considered wrong in the future and vice versa. Now we don't generally go around stoning children for badmouthing their parents, but several thousand years ago that was the right thing to do. Taking slaves after a conquest used to be considered right as well, but we would consider that horrible now.

      Fyi, the taking of slaves after conquest can be considered a form of compromise in the ancient world: a tribe that had most of its males killed in a war would be doomed to starvation and death, and the loss of males by the victor would cause a lesser degree of hardship, thus enslaving the survivors of the defeated gave them life while at the same time lessening the impact of the lives lost winning, making it the 'right' choice at the time. Now those conditions don't apply at all nor would our current understanding of human rights and responsibility allow it.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  15. Caiha

    Being raised catholic is easily the best reason for not being catholic that I can think of. Even my mother, despite being a zealot nutjob all during my childhood, is starting to wonder whether she threw her lot in with the wrong crowd. It's not just catholicism, it's the whole of christianity. Maybe if they kept the Bible in Latin so only they could read it, we inferior mere lay people wouldn't have discovered how full of lies and contradiction it is.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Joe M

      Or maybe you are just a self centered egotistical nightmare that thinks the world revolves around you. The fact that you don't believe there is anything larger than you in the universe, quite simply proves how self centered you must be. Christianity does not want you so don't worry about it .

      June 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Joe M

      You are truly a troubled person with serious serious issues. I hope you get some help. Go pray to budda or a statue you buy at the gas station.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Thinker

      I am interested to hear how a belief in a higher power makes you less self-centered than one who does not share your belief.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  16. LOL Religion

    Let's see, the RCC has inst.itutionalized se.xual abuse and has conspired to cover it up and protect the offenders, their stance on reproductive rights and birth control is decidedly misogynistic and has contributed to the spread of HIV and other STDs, and agents of the Church kidnapped and effectively sold thousands of Spanish, Irish, Australian and American children from the 1940s to as recently as 1987.

    Need I go on?

    This isn't a Church, it's the largest organized crime family on the planet.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • BobZemko

      You have a firm grasp of the obvious.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Joe M

      Spoken like a true know it all , ego maniac with absolutely no spiritual foundation. Well done, make sure you pass that along to the next generation so we can see society erode even more thanks to people like you.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • LOL Religion

      LOL, Joe, you're talking to a Catholic apostate. I do know it all when it comes to the RCC, as I was raised in it, that's why I know what a vile and corrupt inst.itution it is.

      But hey, thanks for implying that I'm immoral. That was nice of you.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • MK

      Does one need a "spiritual foundation" to know that child molestation is wrong?

      June 19, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  17. MIke

    More liberal Catholics are bad, look at all these stories about folks who left blah blah blah. How about covering all of the Protestants who convert when they realize their church is all a heresy. Nice try lefties. The Catholic church is THE church founded by Jesus Christ. Pray for those who have left, it is far worse to hear the message and reject it than to have never heard it at all.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • howesr1

      Smoking a little crack this morning, are you?

      June 19, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      The Catholic Church didn't come into existence until many years after Jesus supposedly lived.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Caiha

      People like you make me want to puke. Small minded zealots who know nothing but judgement and hate. If I go to Hell, if there is a Hell, I gaurantee i'll be seeing you there. Don't doubt it for a second.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • sam

      Jesus didn't found it.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Thinker

      Sure he did! Jesus=God right? All the priests, bishops, cardinals, etc were 'called' to their positions be God. The popes also used to claim that they were selected by god because if god wanted someone else to run his church someone else would have been selected instead! Ah the Divine Right argument. I honestly don't know enough about the Catholic Church to say wether or not those are still the accepted beliefs though.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  18. NickZadick

    Sweden has the highest percentage of atheists in the world around 80%.... they also have a great economy and is one of the friendliest and most beautiful places to live on earth! According to most theists in the US, even knowing these facts... the people of sweden will almost all end up in hell because they have not accepted a 2000 year old dead preacher as a real god on earth... does this not prove to you your fairy tales are stûpid??

    June 19, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      I love Sweden! One of the nicest countries you will ever visit. Everyone should see Stockholm in the summer.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Joe M

      It's a great place because you say it is ? LOL A bunch of people running around thinking the world revolves around you and your superior place to live ? Yeh sounds great.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      Joe, I've been to Sweden several times. It is a great country. Maybe you should visit it before you judge. I don't think I've ever met such a nice group of people in my life.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • rosethornne

      No, because adults who actually believe in the sky fairy and the fire monster are fact deficient and reality adjacent.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
    • Nick

      @NickZadick: You are incorrect. "As of 2010, about 70% of Swedes are members of the Church of Sweden." The Church of Sweden is "...an Evangelical Lutheran community of faith manifested in parishes and dioceses."
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Sweden#Church_of_Sweden

      June 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  19. Victor

    I was raised a Catholic, I'm raising Catholic kids, we will remain Catholic until we die. Thanks for asking.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Delusions 3:15

      So you have the kids locked in the basement ? Right.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • BobZemko

      I hope your kids will enjoy being touched inappropriately.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • MK

      Hmmm..I said the same thing after being catholic for 30 years. Eventually you wake up.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • gwunderlich

      Good for you, me too. And no to the person below, my children (three grown and one at home) decided to stay in the Church of their own accord.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • Patti

      Any guilt about handing you children to pedophiles on a silver platter?

      June 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Magisterludi

      Victor, Did someone ask?

      June 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • tom

      Victor, totally agree, same here!!! Cheers!

      June 19, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • Joe M

      Finally , someone who get's it. Way to go Victor ! Here is a man contributing to raising " good " , "solid" people. Not spiritually void ego maniacs that care about nothing but themselves and actually believe there is nothing bigger than them on the planet.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • mfxw

      no one asked

      June 19, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Victor: Exposing your children to pedophiles is immoral. If something happens to them as a result of you exposing them to the peds, you too should be thrown in jail.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Pat

      @Patti – you really love this whole pedophile thing, don't you? It seems to be the only issue you have. Now that the Church isn't hiding / transferring pedophile priests anymore, can we expect to see you at Mass? Or are you one of those people who will find any excuse to bash Catholics just b/c you feel like it?

      June 19, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  20. Tom

    It's SIMPLE! We grew up and learned to THINK FOR OURSELVES instead of listening to what the RCH had to say. We picked up the Bible and discovered THE REAL TRUTH in those 66 BOOKS and learned how to ask GOD for the understanding and WISDOM contained within!

    Martin Luther got it RIGHT!!!

    June 19, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Victor

      Martin Luther was a desobedient christian. Nothing else. He couldn't undo 1500 years worth of christian teachings. His sect has grown because they can't accept the true teachings of Jesus. Luther's followers think that everything is about happiness and wealth creation when they open up these houses they call churches. Jessus was clear, if you want to follow him, sell your possessions, give them to the poor.. he never said "everyone go and open up a church" and tell them they will be happy forever. "TAKE YOUR CROSS AND FOLLOW ME".. Disobedience and separation only comes from the devil.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Delusions 3:15

      pssst Vic hun....
      it also had to do with those pesky indulgences they were selling. Remember those ? I guess they didn't teach you about your get-out-of-hell-free-card did they.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.