Sister Jane drama: Observer still trying to catch up on news

The Charlotte Observer tried to play catch-up this week on the Sister Jane controversy. But it succeeded only partly, and it continued journalistic errors typical of those found in recent articles on this subject.

You may recall my own posts on April 2 and April 4 about the flap that started with the Observer’s‘s story on March 27, in which parents were upset over an assembly speech by Sister Jane Dominic Laurel. Her talk, at Catholic High School in Charlotte, allegedly criticized gay couplings and said children were best adjusted when raised in traditional nuclear families.

After the talk, some students launched a petition (which has since been taken down by its writer), parents launched an e-mail campaign, and the school held a stormy town hall meeting. And Sister Jane — who was a guest speaker, not a staffer at the school — was instructed to take a sabbatical from her teaching post at Aquinas College in Nashville.

The newest Observer episode is a rather unremarkable statement from Bishop Peter Jugis on the matter, after his return from dedicating a mission in the mountains of North Carolina. The article starts rather impatiently, then continues rather provocatively:

Bishop Peter Jugis has finally weighed in on the controversy that recently rocked Charlotte Catholic High School, saying the last few weeks have been “very difficult” for the school and that all concerned have “experienced a great deal of pain.”

In a statement Wednesday addressed to Catholics in the 46-county Diocese of Charlotte, Jugis said that after all the debate over a divisive speech at the school, it’s now time to “move forward toward healing with charity.”

But in comments likely to further inflame the situation, the conservative bishop also criticized parents and others who he said engaged in uncharitable talk before, during and after a meeting with high school officials last week that drew nearly 1,000 parents.

The article then summarizes parents’ objections, but then repeats a questionable statement from past coverage: “Some students who attended the assembly reported that Laurel said, for example, that children raised by single parents had a greater chance of becoming gay or lesbian.” That has yet to be established: The sister’s speech wasn’t recorded, and even the 10-point petition didn’t include such an accusation.

Next, the Observer says that parents at the town hall meeting “sought an apology” from the Rev. Matthew Kauth, the school chaplain, for not alerting them in advance about the delicate nature of the nun’s speech. And it quotes Sister Mary Sarah, president of Aquinas College, that Sister Jane had gone beyond “the scope of her expertise” in some of her high school comments.

The previous day’s story in the Observer was similarly thin: a summary of remarks in the Sunday homily of a priest who has no obvious connection with the Catholic High controversy. The Rev. Timothy Reid was the only source quoted in the Observer’s March 27 story in support of Sister Jane and the school, and he devoted a little more than half the homily to the topic. The Observer did helpfully include a link to the whole homily for any interested readers.

Granted, the Tuesday article includes some vehement quotes from the priest against the protestors. But the quotes are graded as coming from a “traditionalist”:

The priest, known for his traditionalist views and for bringing the Latin Mass back to St. Ann, called on his flock to offer up additional penance during Lent as “reparation for the terrible sins against charity that have been committed in this sad situation.”

He suggested a trip to the confessional for those on both sides of the debate who let their anger morph into “hate-filled tirades and malicious and calumnious accusations.”

Why the reporter didn’t seek out regular parents who were supporters isn’t clear.

The articles this week repeat flaws of the earlier Observer reports, too. The Tuesday story mentions in passing that some parents supported the speech and posted a counter-petition. But none of the newspaper’s six articles directly quote any of the supporters or their petition, although some of the stories did both for the protestors.

And although both Observer stories this week said parents wanted an apology from Kauth, the school chaplain, neither acknowledged that he did give them one on April 2. How did I know that? Because it was mentioned in a surprisingly fair story in The Edge, a pro-gay newspaper based in Boston.

The Edge quotes the priest pretty freely, which is fortunate because the link to Catholic News Herald has apparently expired. In that contrite statement, Kauth says he’d heard Sister Jane’s speech on sexuality three times, but not all of it:

What I didn’t know was that Sister has a section that she sometimes inserts into her talk that focuses on the leading studies of the CMA (Catholic Medical Association) on same sex attraction. She simply assumed that is what I meant for her to do.

The Edge even found what it believes to be the source for the offending material: a 2010 pamphlet by the Catholic Medical Association. Finally, the article not only quotes an excerpt from the counter-petition, but provides a link to it.

If a pro-gay newspaper without an office in North Carolina could be this fair and thorough, why couldn’t a major newspaper do something similar for a story in its own back yard?

Video: Discussion on “Gay Marriage and the Breakdown of Moral Argument,” by the Rev. Robert Barron of WordOnFire.org, was part of the counter-petition supporting Sister Jane and Catholic High School. The Charlotte Observer didn’t mention or link to the petition or the video.

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  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Here’s another question — how much do we know of what Sister Jane said? I have to question the ethics of printing all kinds of accusations of unfair speech when no one says, “And you know what she said? She said…..”

  • Darrell Turner

    Curiously missing from all this is any follow-up from Sister Jane herself. Unless I missed it, none of the stories in either the Observer or the Edge indicated that they had tried to interview her for her explanations. Instead, we have both sides saying, “She said this,” and “No, she said this.” Even if there were a transcript of the original remarks, it would still be helpful to try to find out whether Sister Jane thinks she was misunderstood.

    • Reformed Catholic

      I believe she was instructed by her Mother Superior to keep silent. A nun usually takes a vow of obedience, and as such if told to keep silent, must do so.


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