The curious incident of the Catholic school in the L.A. Times

In one of the most famous Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Silver Blaze, the clue that led to identifying the criminal was a dog that didn’t bark.

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” ask the Chief of Police.

“Yes—to the curious incident of the dog in the night time.”

“But the dog did nothing in the night-time.”

Holmes, “Ah—that was the curious incident.”

In the media’s coverage of religion, we often stumble upon these “curious incidents” when something that should have happened doesn’t happen—and shapes an entire story.

Consider, for example, a recent story in the Los Angeles Times on the “Gay teacher at Glendora Catholic school fired after marrying partner.” The teacher, Ken Bencomo, was fired by the school “after he married his partner of 10 years” and the photos of the ceremony were published in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. Bencomo doesn’t comment in the story, but allows his attorney, Patrick McGarrigle, to speak on his behalf.

Take a look at this section and see if you notice anything unusual:

On multiple occasions over the year, McGarrigle said, Bencomo has introduced Persky as his partner to administrators at school events.
In a statement released through an attorney, the school said it is “a community of faith for those who wish to express, practice and adhere to values in education based on the Roman Catholic tradition.”

“While the school does not discriminate against teachers or other school employees based on their private lifestyle choices, public displays of behavior that are directly contrary to church teachings are inconsistent with these values,” the statement reads. “These values are incorporated into the contractual obligations of each of our instructors and other employees.”

Bencomo hopes to resolve the situation without legal action, but he has not ruled out filing a lawsuit, McGarrigle said.

“The school went to the draconian measure of firing him without warning and without legal reason,” he said. “They haven’t expressed any interest in finding a way for Ken to return.”

Is there any point, dear reader, to which I would wish to draw your attention? Indeed, to the curious incident of the omission of the reporter in reporting the “contractual obligations.”

I suspect even the L.A. Times recognizes (though doesn’t approve of) the fact that the Catholic Church considers a same-sex marriage ceremony to be “directly contrary to church teachings are inconsistent with these values.” The question that should have been asked, therefore, was whether whether the ceremony (and subsequent publicity) would violate the terms of the employment contract.

If so, it would certainly explain why no lawsuit was filed since it would be, contra Mr. McGarrigle, a “legal reason” for the firing. But it would also undermine the reason for publishing the story. “Teacher fired for violating employment contract,” would not be as catchy a headline.

However, if the marriage ceremony was not in violation of a contractual agreement, then it raises questions about the motives of the Catholic school administrators. Either way, by not asking for clarification about the “contractual obligations” the L.A. Times has left its readers uninformed about an essential element of the story.

What the omission does show, however, is that sometimes it’s the “dogs that don’t bark” that say the most about media bias.

UPDATE: Just realized that Tmatt beat me to this story.

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  • Julia B

    No worry. It’s a good topic.

    • Kevin Spencer

      And you caught what TMatt was unsure about: the probability that a contractual obligation was implicitly made.

      What seemed clear in both stories is that, despite the teacher’s public appearances prior to their marriage, school officials gave him the benefit of the doubt. His partner could have been any friend. Only when he formalized his union did the school take action as it was explicitly clear and on public record that he was in violation of this presumed contract.

  • hrobertking

    Your criticism is either poorly written or poorly argued.

    The reporter clearly provided both sides of the story – the school claims they had a binding agreement and the lawyer claims they did not. Whether the agreement was binding is a question for the parties in question or the court, not public opinion.

    Claiming the lack of reporting of further details demonstrates media bias presents a false dichotomy. There are other possible explanations for the omission, and to demonstrate, I’ve just presented one – the intention to not affect a possible court case.

    Further, the argument that the headline choice was motivated by something other than describing the article is a thinly-veiled ad hominem attack. If we were to engage in that sort of behavior, I would have to argue that you used “The curious incident of the Catholic school in the L.A. Times” rather than “Conservative pundit sees media bias where there isn’t any” for the same reasons.

    • http://Culture11.com Joe Carter

      ***the school claims they had a binding agreement and the lawyer claims they did not***

      Nowhere in the article does it say that lawyer is claiming the teacher and the school didn’t have a binding agreement. He merely claims that the school fired the teacher “without legal reason.” But the legal reason was given in the paragraph just before the lawyer’s statement.

      My guess is that lawyer was unaware of what the school had told the reporter and so didn’t realize they were (potentially) disproving his claim. Also, if the school’s statement had been included *after* the lawyer’s statement it would have looked like a he said/they said attempt at balance. But the lawyer is given the first and last word — with no followup. That certainly *looks* like an attempt, perhaps unconscious, to frame it in favor of one of the parties involved.

      Keep in mind that the first question every reporter has to ask is, “Is this a newsworthy story?” If the teacher and the school had a morals clause in the employment contract then the answer is, “No, this is not newsworthy.” So why not follow up on the story’s existential question? It’s either incompetence or implicit bias. (I prefer to believe it’s bias since all reporters — and critics (like me) — have biases.)

      ***Further, the argument that the headline choice was motivated by something other than describing the article is a thinly-veiled ad hominem attack.***

      First, I never said that. As far as accuracy goes, the headline is indeed technically accurate. Person X at Job Y was fired after Activity Z. Nothing wrong with the construction of the headline. My point was merely that by doing a bit of basic reporting, the headline could have been constructed in a less catchy, but more useful manner that would have shown the reader didn’t need to bother reading the story since it wasn’t newsworthy.

      Second, why does no one on the Internet not seem to understand what an “ad hominem attack” means? That term seems to be misused in 99% of the times it is used. In the strictest, philosophical sense, there is no such thing as an ad hominem fallacy (it’s really just an ignoratio elenchi fallacy). But the reason why ad hominems are typically considered a fallacy is because they are irrelevant to the argument. But my statement about the headline was not part of my argument. It was mere commentary. You can’t have a logical fallacy when no logical claim is being made.

      • UWIR

        Are you not aware that Disqus has a quote feature? Or do you just find asterisks easier to type?

        Also, your comparison to the dog that didn’t bark is rather curious, as Holmes noted that the dog didn’t bark, not that no one mentioned to him whether the dog barked or not.

        But the legal reason was given in the paragraph just before the lawyer’s statement.

        The alleged reason. Had a contract for the next year been signed by both parties?

        If the teacher and the school had a morals clause in the employment contract then the answer is, “No, this is not newsworthy.”

        You don’t find anything at all newsworthy about a school having requiring its employees to get its approval to get married? Seriously?!? Maybe you don’t care about such things, but there certainly are people who do.

        My point was merely that by doing a bit of basic reporting, the headline could have been constructed in a less catchy, but more useful manner

        Again… seriously? The current headline explicitly states that the teacher was fired for a SSM, and anyone with any sense would be able to infer that the employee had done something the employer did not want them to do. If it had had your proposed headline, the reader would be completely uninformed as to what the alleged violation of the contract is. “Employee fired for violating employment contract” pretty much boils down to “Employee fired for doing something the employer didn’t want them to do”, which is completely uninformative. What they did is what the important part of the story.

        that would have shown the reader didn’t need to bother reading the story since it wasn’t newsworthy.

        Apparently, you believe that as long as an employer puts its bigoted policies in its employment contracts, its firing of employees due to those policies is not newsworthy. So, presumably, in your world, firing someone for being black would not be noteworthy, as long as the contract specifically states that black people are not allowed to hold the position. So for people of your viewpoint, both headlines would be equally useful; seeing an article with the headline “Gay teacher at Glendora Catholic school fired after marrying partner”, you would surely be able to deduce that the school has a policy against teachers participating in SSM, and unless you were simply dying to know whether this policy had been formalized in employment contracts, you would know that the article has nothing that would interest you (and yet you read it anyway).

        There are, however, people who find the particular contractual provisions that are being violated to be a noteworthy issue.

        • James Stagg

          Intractable!

      • hrobertking

        Saying “without legal reason” implies there is not a binding contract – a claim that the school could not have disproved (potentially or otherwise) outside a court. Had the lawyer been arguing that there had been a binding contract, the lawyer would have stated something that indicated their behavior was counter to the law – something along the lines of “in violation of the contract”.

        As for the lawyer’s statement being last – that could easily have been based on the legal practice (in the US at least) of the party bearing the burden of proof being given the opportunity to offer a rebuttal. Of course, not being the author, I cannot *know* this and therefore any assumption about it would not be substantiated, but your assumption of bias based on a lack of knowledge is equally invalid.

        Although I will address your response regarding the headline, I would also point out that to offer a critique that says your proposed, more precise headline is not as “catchy” is meaningless. The point of a headline is not only to describe the article but also to catch the reader’s attention. To claim that a less “catchy” headline is somehow better is to misunderstand one of the primary purposes of a headline.

        That having been said, you are correct in stating that you did not claim the headline choice was motivated by something other than describing the article. However, claiming x “would not be a catchy headline” implies that the primary reason for selecting x is because it *is* a “catchy headline”.

        Although there may be those who do not understand what an ad hominem attack means, I am not in that particular set. While I may not be in a group of experts regarding news reporting practices, and certainly am not a professor of journalism, I have more than a passing acquaintance with both philosophy and religion, so although I’m not generally used to having to, as my primary school teacher would say, “show my work”, let me clarify because it seems you missed my reasoning.

        I referred to it as a “thinly-veiled ad hominem attack” because the subtext is that the author sacrificed good practice (or “basic reporting”) in favor of some darker, unnamed motivation to get readers. That criticism is a personal attack (albeit veiled) and is therefore a fallacy of relevance called “ad hominem”.

        By the way, if you feel the need for a tutorial in what is, or is not, a fallacy I would recommend the resource at http://www.logicalfallacies.info/ and if you’re wondering where your “logical claim” is being made, it’s in the claim that the dogs that don’t bark saying the most about media bias.

  • Tom Lewis

    Well lets be blunt, before signing the agreement did the teacher directly inhibit information regarding his sexual orientation. It he did, then, he already bridged the contractual agreement, as he was signing it. First it indicated that the teacher was hiding a liability.

    If the contract said (and most do) that you cannot have a criminal history (a negative liability) as must acknowledge the truth via a Federal and State background check that any concealment of same would demand an immediate dismissal once the evidence was revealed that said person has a negative police record.

    The question here is would there be any difference?

    Only that there is no background checks for sexual orientation. However, if the by-laws of a Catholic School were provided to the newly hired teacher and required reading before signing a contract with the Catholic School, then obviously, the inhibited sexual orientation breaks the contract that the teacher has signed.

    • Rick Connor

      The problem is not sexual orientation. Most Catholic agencies would not fire or refuse to hire someone who is gay but chaste. The problem, from the Catholic perspective, is acting on the orientation. Even acting on the orientation is not an issue if the person acknowledges it was a sin, goes to confession and amends his or her life. The orientation does not abridge the contract since the contract refers to behavior not orientation

  • Dale

    Perhaps the news article was revised later, but as it currently reads, the contractual obligation is mentioned. The news article quotes from the school’s official statement, released by its attorney:

    “While the school does not discriminate against teachers or other school employees based on their private lifestyle choices, public displays of behavior that are directly contrary to church teachings are inconsistent with these values,” the statement reads. “These values are incorporated into the contractual obligations of each of our instructors and other employees.”

    The threat of discipline, even termination, seems clear to me. But perhaps that is due to my own prior knowledge.

  • dalea

    Until we have more information about both the contract and the laws on discrimination in California, we are not informed enough to speculate. My understanding of California law regarding employment for GL people is that being out and participating in GL politics protects from being fired. I am not sure that a contractual obligation can over ride the basic right all Californians have to participate in civic life. But, I am not a lawyer. It would be helpful for the coverage to have legal experts explain the ins and outs of the situation.
    For example, if the employer required the employee not to vote, could he fire someone for voting? Or does the basic right to participate in civic life take precedence? There really does need to be more expert advise on the subject in these stories.


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