Search Results for: haiti orphans

Chaos surrounding Haitian orphans

We have a very complex and ugly story developing right now down in Haiti, one than calls up the demons of all the tensions that exist in that nation between Americans and Haitians and, it must be stressed, between competing religious groups inside Haiti.

But before we get into that, the Washington Post needs to run an immediate correction on a mistake at the top of this story:

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI – Ten American Baptists who tried to leave Haiti with 33 destitute children were stuck in legal limbo Monday, with Haitian and U.S. officials negotiating over whether the church members should be prosecuted in the United States.

The Americans, Baptist church members from Idaho and other states, said they were taking the children to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic and deny any wrongdoing. But Haitian authorities said members of the group, who have little experience in international adoptions, did not have permission to leave the country with the children. On Monday, the church members were being held in a dank room at the judicial police headquarters, where they had not yet been charged, as Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and other Haitian authorities met with U.S. officials to discuss their fate.

Fortil Mazar, a prosecutor in Port-au-Prince, said members of the group face kidnapping and child-smuggling charges. In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the United States is helping in the investigation but has not yet determined the “appropriate course” of action.

Now, if you know anything about the complex state of Baptist life in America, you know that there are American Baptists — as in members of the more liberal American Baptist Churches USA — and then there are Baptists who are Americans, which could mean that they could be members of the giant Southern Baptist Convention, members of hundreds of other Baptist bodies or simply members of completely independent Baptist congregations.

The lede says “American Baptists” — which is simply wrong.

The Post story does follow the trail, via the Internet, to the proper congregation. But the story does not pay attention to the status of that church, in terms of its national or state affiliations.

The Baptists said that they were simply saving the children, ages 2 to 12, in their care and that they had come from orphanages that had been devastated in the quake.

“The children were being taken to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic where they could be cared for and have their medical and emotional needs attended to,” said a statement on the Web site of Central Valley Baptist Church, which is based in Meridian, Idaho. “Our team was falsely arrested today and we are doing everything we can from this end to clear up the misunderstanding.”

Meanwhile, the SBC’s wire service has some crucial information on the identity of these Southern Baptists, who happen to be from Idaho (far outside the South, in other words):

Members of two Southern Baptist churches in Idaho are awaiting word on what a Haitian judge will decide Feb. 1 when he hears the case of 10 Americans accused of unlawfully trying to remove 33 children from Haiti.

Five of the 10 are members of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, and three are from Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, including Eastside’s pastor, Paul Thompson. Two others are believed to be from other states.

“Both churches are very missions-minded and have sent members overseas many times,” said Rob Lee, executive director of the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention. “They went over to help. I really don’t believe they had anything less than perfect motives.” Lee said while he had been informed by email that the churches were planning trips to Haiti, the trips were not coordinated through the Utah-Idaho convention.

According to Clint Henry, pastor of Central Valley Baptist, the Baptists lacked one document at the Haitian border and returned to Port-au-Prince to get it, where they were confronted and detained.

For me, the most crucial information that is in the Baptist Press report — with credit given to the Associated Press — is in this section:

Henry said Laura Silsby and another member of his church started New Life Children’s Refuge before the earthquake as a way to help orphaned Haitian children. According to an AP report, given the living conditions for the children and the breakdown in government control, Silsby said she didn’t think about Haitian permission to take the children out of the country. She said they only had the best intentions and paid no money for the children, whom she said were brought to a Haitian pastor by distant relatives. …

Silsby and her team had been working with a Haitian pastor named Jean Sanbil of Sharing Jesus Ministries, AP said. The earthquake destroyed the orphanage facilities, and facing the chaos that followed the earthquake, the ministry team was trying to help Sanbil ensure the immediate safety and welfare of the children. Sanbil had made arrangements for housing the children temporarily in the Dominican Republic, and the team was working to help him transport the children there.

In other words, it appears — I stress appears — that the members of this Baptist team were working with a Protestant Haitian ministry called Sharing Jesus Ministries and that a Haitian pastor was working with them, including making some of the arrangements.

But one fact is not clear and it is crucial: Is “Sharing Jesus Ministries” actually an orphanage? In other words, were the Southern Baptists from America working with a Haitian pastor who was already in charge of the children in question, through connections in their families?

This is a crucial question for reporters, when investigating the hot, hot accusations of kidnapping and trafficking.

However, it is also clear that the religious tensions in Haiti between Protestants and Catholics, especially Catholics who have blended Voodoo practices into their daily lives, are at the heart of this story. As I have stressed all along (here is a crucial post to catch up), these tensions are powerful among the Haitians themselves, as well as between Haitians and American missionary workers.

Consider this passage in a USA Today blog post by veteran religion-beat specialist Cathy Grossman.

Are Haiti earthquake ‘orphans’ fair game for evangelizing? … Some critics say the race to remove Haiti’s children is culturally insensitive, if not downright illegal. Others are offended by the prospect of children from a Catholic culture being airlifted into evangelical institutions or families — losing their faith along with their families.

Valid questions, although it may be a rush to assume that all of the people in “a Catholic culture” are (a) Catholics or (b) practicing Catholics, a distinction that has been the subject of talks between Protestants and Catholics of good will for decades. The native Protestant presence in Haiti is rising rapidly, as has been mentioned in some press reports.

However, this time around there is a more basic question that must be asked first: Were the Baptists, in fact, working with Haitian orphans who had been brought, by their relatives or others, to an orphanage operated by Haitian Protestants where they were to be cared for and, one would assume, potentially adopted? In other words, had Haitians arranged this transfer of the children?

It seems that someone needs to talk to the pivotal Haitian figure in this story — Pastor Jean Sanbil of Sharing Jesus Ministries — pronto.

On Haiti: Yo, Washington Post copy desk!

To the Washington Post copy desk:

I know it’s a really busy day, with the blizzard blowing in and all, but I wanted to make sure that your received a copy of the following letter from a strategic leader of the American Baptist Churches/USA. I think I received at least three copies of it by email yesterday and it seems that it was sent to news organizations across the nation.

Then again, I’m a journalist who specializes in covering religion news. People send me things like this all the time.

The wording in this online version focuses on broadcast journalism, although I could have sworn that I received a neutral or print version.

Dear Sir or Madam:

As I watched your report of the Baptists arrested for suspicion of kidnapping the children, I was concerned about mis-communication in your report. While the people involved are Baptists from the United States, they are not American Baptists, a title belonging to the churches who are part of the American Baptist Churches/USA based in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Please correct this in future broadcasts.

The American Baptist Churches/USA are very involved in earthquake relief through our partnerships in Haiti as well as through our missionaries there. We do not want any misunderstanding of our work.


Ruth Clark
President, Board of International Ministries

I hope that this letter is helpful. Words matter, on the religion beat — kind of like politics, or sports, or the food page.


Terry Mattingly

Oh well, whatever, nevermind.

I realize by now that many GetReligion readers really do not care about this picky little journalism issue. However, the American Baptists care about it and that’s enough for me. There are plenty of ways to get around this particular issue in news style while writing stories about the now infamous Southern Baptists from Idaho.

You think? Alas, here’s the latest from the Post:

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI – Ten American Baptists who said they wanted to save orphans after Haiti’s earthquake were charged with child kidnapping Thursday in a case that has raised fears about the trafficking of minors.

The Americans, most of whom belong to a Baptist church in Idaho, were arrested last week after they tried to enter the Dominican Republic in a bus loaded with 33 children, ages 2 to 12. The group’s attorney here in Port-au-Prince, Edwin Coq, told reporters that nine of his 10 clients had little idea what they were doing.

Note, please, the “American Baptist” wording is still in the lede. Note, also, the missed opportunity to simply add the word “Southern” in front of the words “Baptist church” at the start of the second paragraph.

Nowhere in the article is there a word — zero, zip, nada — that tells readers anything about the denominational affiliation of this ill-fated mission project. Then again, that might require explaining that, while this group is from a Southern Baptist congregation, it was acting totally on its own, not in cooperation with foreign missions efforts planned by the Southern Baptist Convention (the nation’s second largest religious group, after the Catholic Church). It might require explaining something about how Baptists work.

How did another major news organization open a similar update on this story? Let’s try the New York Times:

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Ten Americans who tried to take 33 Haitian children out of the country last week without the government’s consent have been charged with child abduction and criminal conspiracy, as Haitian officials sought to reassert judicial control after the Jan. 12 earthquake.

The Americans, most of them members of a Baptist congregation from Idaho, had said they intended to rescue Haitian children left parentless in the quake and take them to what they described as an orphanage across the border in the Dominican Republic. But they acknowledged failing to seek approval to remove the children from Haiti, and several of the children have at least one living parent.

This story contains all kinds of new information on the case and, as in previous efforts, the Times has been talking to Haitians and focusing on other trends that have helped turn this case into an international incident.

It’s also interesting — note the video at the top of this post — that some journalists have discovered that there are Haitian religious leaders linked to this story. In fact, the Baptists from Idaho claim that Haitian pastors and former Haitians made most of the arrangements that set this train wreck in motion. So far, however, I have seen no evidence of legal authorities focusing on the Haitian connections. Clearly, this story is not going away anytime soon.

The Times report ends with yet another wrinkle in the case, yet another reason for making a capital case out of the misadventures of this independent Baptist group:

One expert said that by pursuing the case Haitian authorities seemed to be trying to make a point.

“Haiti’s decision to prosecute the Baptist missionaries may be motivated, in part, by the need to show its own people and the world that it is a viable entity that is tackling the grave problem of international child abductions in Haiti,” Christopher J. Schmidt, a lawyer with Bryan Cave L.L.P. in St. Louis who has been involved in multiple cases of international kidnapping, said in a statement.

An American expert said that. I wonder what people think in Haiti?

One Haitian pastor found, but another missing

GetReligion readers who are closely following that twisted story of the Southern Baptists from Idaho and the case of the 33 Haitian “orphans” — the quote marks will be explained shortly — need to know that there has been an important development.

A reporter from the Associated Press has found, and interviewed, one of the Haitian pastors who was supposed to have been doing the set-up work for the 10 Baptists from America who have been caught in the middle of an international media storm.

Do they deserve to be in that storm and, of course, in a Haitian jail? They certainly made serious mistakes and the New York Times has dug up some strange information about the rather shoddy nature of their operation back in Idaho. More on that later.

First, let’s walk our way through some of the claims by Pastor Jean Sainvil, who admits that the Americans failed to fill out the proper paperwork in Haiti. Oh, and it seems that this pastor now lives in Atlanta?

The 10 Baptists from Idaho were arrested at the border after authorities said they tried leaving the country without papers. An orphanage director also said many of the children had parents. But Pastor Jean Sainvil, who returned to Atlanta last week from Haiti, told The Associated Press the children and their relatives knew of the missionaries’ plan.

“They did not act foolishly in any shape or form. They acted with a good heart. These kids desperately needed help and they did everything they could have done to help,” said Sainvil, a Haitian-born pastor who leads a suburban Atlanta church. “I don’t think they stepped over the line, they just didn’t know the full process.”

This is interesting since the Americans seemed to have been saying that Sainvil was in charge of paving their way, in terms of making arrangements.

It is also clear here that Sainvil is not the person in charge of the orphanage mentioned in previous stories.

Keep reading:

Sainvil said he worked with Idaho-based New Life Children’s Refuge as an unpaid consultant because of his knowledge of Haiti’s customs, his background as an orphan himself and his fluency in French Creole and Spanish. He traveled with the missionaries to the orphanage, and said he agreed to a plan that would send a busload of them across the border even though some of the children still had living parents.

“When we think orphanage, it’s someone without a mother and father. In Haiti, it’s not the case,” he said, saying that many children in orphanages there are given up by parents who cannot care for their children. After last month’s devastating earthquake, he said, the need for help was even greater.

“These parents are homeless and hopeless,” he said. “Everybody agreed that they knew where the children were going. The parents were told, and we confirmed they would be allowed to see the children and even take them back if need be.”

The children whose parents were still alive were to be kept in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Officials there were to help the parents get visas to visit and work to reunite them in Haiti, he said. The plan for those without parents was still murky, though Sainvil said some of them could have been put up for adoption.

So “orphans” are not always orphans, even though they live in an orphanage.

Now, that is this pastor’s side of the story and what he is saying certainly contrasts quite a bit with details reported elsewhere. However, it is a plausible story, especially if one reads all the way to the end of that New York Times story mentioned earlier.

Early on, this story includes some of the details that point to the low-quality — at best — nature of the Idaho operation. These details about the planned facility in the Dominican Republic certainly jump off the page (ditto for the strange detail from Idaho):

In addition to providing a swimming pool, soccer field and access to the beach for the children, the group, known as the New Life Children’s Refuge, said it also planned to “provide opportunities for adoption,” and “seaside villas for adopting parents to stay while fulfilling the requirement for 60-90 day visit.”

An empty house in an unfinished subdivision in Meridian, Idaho, is listed on the nonprofit incorporation papers filed in Idaho for the organization. The address was listed in November on papers Laura Silsby filed to establish New Life as a nonprofit. Two days after the papers were filed, records show, Ms. Silsby sold the house at a substantial loss. Signs in front of the house on Tuesday offered it for sale as a foreclosed property.

But things get really interesting near the bottom, where several controversial threads are woven together — showing just how complex this story is, once you have made it past the cable news reports.

Several parents denied accusations that they had been given money for their children, or that they wanted their children to be put up for adoption.

They trusted the Americans, they said, because they arrived with the recommendation of a Baptist minister, Philippe Murphy, who runs an orphanage in the area. A woman who answered the door at Mr. Murphy’s house said he had gone to Miami. But she also said that he did not know anything about the Americans.

So we have another Haitian pastor involved in this transaction — another Protestant, operating in a land of great tension between Protestants, Catholics and those who blend Voodoo and elements of Catholic tradition.

Who is Pastor Philippe Murphy? Is he the leader of the orphanage — surely Protestant — that the Idaho Baptists worked with to find these children? Why has this Haitian pastor gone to Miami? One more question: Are the Baptists from Idaho major funders of his orphanage?

After my first post on this subject, several people — in the comments section and in emails — claimed that I was trying to defend the Baptists from Idaho. That was not my intent.

What I was saying is that early stories raised all kinds of practical, factual questions and that journalists might want to slow down and try to find out if some of the claims being made by the Americans were true. There may be enough sin and tragedy in this story to cover all kinds of people in Haiti — Americans, Haitian pastors, a government official or two and perhaps even some desperate parents. Who, for example, is making claims that some of the parents were given money in exchange for their children?

After these two stories, I have more questions than before. This is not comforting.

Yoga mats as misguided charity

A few weeks ago, I spotted a pair of TOMS in Goodwill. Knowing the shoes run anywhere from around $50 to $100, it seemed like a cultural moment where the trendy shoes have made it into a second-hand store.

Of course, with any well-intended business, you can find TOMS critics. For instance, Foreign Policy recently examined unintended consequences of well-intended gestures, such as donating t-shirts or shoes to impoverished countries. The article and an accompanying slideshow poke at religious organizations’ efforts without really offering a nuanced solution. One of the article’s main critiques was aimed at the US food aid program.

Bottom line: Donations of cash are nearly always more effective. Even if there are good reasons to give stuff rather than money, in most cases the stuff can be bought locally. Economist Amartya Sen, for example, has conclusively shown that people rarely die of starvation or malnutrition because of a lack of food in the neighborhood or the country. Rather, it is because they can’t afford to buy the food that’s available. Yet, as Connie Veillette of the Center for Global Development reports, shipping U.S. food abroad in response to humanitarian disasters is so cumbersome it takes four to six months to get there after the crisis begins. Buying food locally, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has found, would be 25 percent cheaper and considerably faster, too.

In the comments section, William O’Keefe, senior director for advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, says that Kenny makes valid points but brushes a broad stroke.

To use the Clinton-era mistakes with rice in Haiti — well-documented and freely admitted by the former president — to dismiss the entire US food aid program is also misleading at best. That was a specific program that had specific problems with very little relation to, say, the large US food-assisted emergency relief programs that we at Catholic Relief Services are helping to run in countries like Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. At CRS and other humanitarian organizations, we are constantly monitoring the state of local markets and the effect of aid on local production. We also actively support agricultural development around the world to help people escape the poverty trap and end the need for food aid. This is a complicated and long term endeavor, and the approach varies by community. But until nations and communities are capable of feeding themselves, we are glad that the US aid program helps us feed so many hungry people.

Even though the main article barely touches on religion specifically, an accompanying slideshow touches on a few religious groups. In an attempt to illustrate ways that charities send unnecessary goods that could have unintended consequences, FP took on organizations like the popular TOMS, the company that sells loafer-looking shoes and sends a pair to someone in need.

The brand has become somewhat of a combination fashion statement and public advertisement for the plight of unshod feet in poorer countries. But Saundra Schimmelpfennig, a blogger with experience in non-profit management, criticized TOMS and related ventures as being “good marketing, but bad aid.” Schimmelpfennig argued that these programs do nothing more than contribute to poverty tourism and only serve to further undermine the productive capacity of the recipient countries.

It also included a photo of yoga mats, illustrating a yoga studio’s request that people donate old yoga mats for Haiti.

Critics questioned the gesture, but the owner of the studio later offered other uses for the mats, including bedding and makeshift shelters.

This is an example of how the slideshow kind of offers a pro and a con, but it doesn’t always attempt to look at both sides. For instance, it looks at a few religious groups.

Rows of hand puppets await being shipped off to countries as part of Puppets for Orphans evangelical Christian charity.

Perhaps one might argue that spending even $1 per puppet (judging from the website) is a waste of money, but the slideshow fails to flesh out how this might negatively impact an economy or something else. Here’s a similar line from the slideshow:

Clowns from World Vision, a global Christian charity, pose for a picture in the Balkans. World Vision has been sending clowns to visit children in war torn areas of the Balkans to help their recoverery from PTSD.

I’m not interested in defending either of these religious groups and am only interested in the questions journalists should pursue. Maybe this is obvious to the editors at FP, but why are clowns harmful to the children in the Balkans? Is the argument that it’s a waste of staff resources? Did a reporter contact World Vision to ask why they do this program?

It seems too easy to take, “Haiti Doesn’t Need Your Yoga Mat” and turn it into “Haiti Needs Your Money.” Perhaps talking with the organizations about where they allocate their resources would strengthen FP’s main point. Otherwise, “just give cash” seems too simplistic.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A Southern Baptist by any other name …

From time to time here at GetReligion, we post “Got news?” items and wonder why the mainstream media haven’t tackled a particular issue or topic that we deem newsworthy.

Yesterday, denominational press links circulated among your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas concerning a possible name change by the Southern Baptist Convention. (See one report from Baptist Press and another from the Associated Baptist Press.)

I woke up this morning ready to question why no one in the secular media picked up on this mildly important religion story.

But it turns out that there’s no reason for me to weep or gnash teeth today. Darn it!

In fact, the story made the front page (above the fold, no less) of The Tennessean. Perhaps we should all take a moment and pay homage to the writer, Bob Smietana, the Cornell Religion Reporter of the Year. (Smietana is a Red Sox fan, so he needs all the encouragement he can get these days. Go Rangers!)

Seriously, the top of Smietana’s report:

The nation’s largest Protestant denomination may be getting a new name.

The Southern Baptist Convention isn’t just for the South anymore, its president contends, and rebranding could open up other parts of the country to new churches. It’s a strategy other denominations are trying, and at least one is claiming success.

SBC President Bryant Wright announced Monday at an executive committee meeting in Nashville that he’s set up a study group to research changing the 166-year-old denomination’s name.

“There are not a lot of folks in New York City interested in going to a Southern Baptist church,” he said. “Or in Cheyenne, Wyoming, or Boise, Idaho.”

(I know Smietana was on deadline for a daily story, but it would have been interesting to contact a Southern Baptist pastor in Cheyenne or Boise and find out his thoughts on a possible name change.)

But Smietana was not alone in smelling mainstream news: The Houston Chronicle’s Kate Shellnut blogged about the proposed name change. And at Fox News, Todd Starnes (a former Baptist Press editor) developed the story for a national audience.

As the news reports indicate, this is not the first time Southern Baptists have contemplated a possible name change. In a 2004 interview for The Associated Press, I remember discussing the subject with the Rev. Jack Graham, then the convention’s president:

Q: And I understand that you have proposed studying whether even to change the name of the Southern Baptist Convention.

A: I have made that proposal and there will be a motion at this convention from the floor that a study be done and that we consider the possibility of a new name that would reflect this national and international presence of Southern Baptists.

Q: Any names that come to your mind?

A: No, that will be the challenge of this committee will be to find a name that would somehow better represent us. There are many Baptist groups and there are many names and we don’t want to confuse people as to who we are or our identity. There is a certain value of our current identity.

Concerning the latest discussion, it’ll be interesting to see if the story gains legs outside Southern Baptist strongholds (such as Houston and Nashville) and outside the conservative press (talking about you, Fox News).

Some thought-provoking angles, IMHO:

Possible names: How about American Baptist Association? National Baptist Convention? United Baptists? World Baptist Fellowship? Oops, all of those are taken. International Baptist Convention has been proposed — and rejected — in the past, according to the Associated Baptist Press article.

North vs. South: How far has the Southern Baptist Convention really come from its slave-era roots? How diverse is the convention? What do black Southern Baptists say about the proposed name change and the need for it?

From The Tennessean story:

The Rev. Michael Allen of Uptown Baptist Church in Chicago, a member of the name change study group, thinks the time is right for rebranding. He said the Southern Baptist Convention traces its roots to the Civil War — Baptists in the South wanted to appoint slaveholders as missionaries, and Baptists in the North disagreed.

Baptist or not?: In a post-denominational age, do the Southern Baptists want to drop just “Southern,” or will they consider chopping the “Baptist” too?

By the numbers: The Southern Baptist spin is that a name change may be needed because the denomination has a national and international reach. But what number of Southern Baptists really reside outside the South? It would be interesting to see a specific chart of membership by state and country. (GetReligion readers may remember the media confusion created last year by Southern Baptists from Idaho who got in trouble for trying to take orphans out of earthquake-ravaged Haiti.)

Marketing: What are the pros and cons of a name change? The costs? The legal ramifications?

Got news? It would appear so.

Rest of the Idaho Baptists story?

More than three months ago, 10 Baptist mission workers from Idaho made major headlines when they tried to take 33 children from earthquake-devastated Haiti.

The latest twist in the strange, confusing case came this week:

BOISE, Idaho — The leader of an American group detained while trying to take 33 children out of Haiti after the January earthquake returned Tuesday to Idaho, deferring questions about her conviction for arranging illegal travel.

Laura Silsby was freed Monday after she was convicted by a judge for arranging illegal travel and sentenced to time already served in jail. She was welcomed at the Boise airport by a cheering crowd that included her sister, mother and members of her Idaho church.

Silsby cried while hugging family members, raised her hands in the air as her pastor led the group in prayer, and sang a hymn with members of her church congregation.

“It feels incredible,” Silsby said. “I just give praise to my God and I thank him for bringing me home.”

Before I get into the meat of this post, let me say that I appreciate the description in the third paragraph of that Associated Press story. It helps paint the scene of Silsby’s homecoming. I do wish, however, that the writer — or his editors — had gone all the way and named the hymn. Or am I the only reader who wondered what hymn they sang to welcome this woman home after 100-plus days behind bars?

The Idaho Statesman included this interesting religious nugget in its story:

The three visited Silsby twice a day at the Port-Au-Prince jail, where Silsby was held in a roughly 12-by-12-foot cell that had one cot and an ever-changing number of inmates.

Some left the cell with newfound faith, Mel Coulter said.

“She witnessed to at least 10 people who became Christians,” he said. “What began as a children’s ministry became a jail ministry.”

But the point of this post really isn’t to analyze the homecoming coverage. Rather, this is my question: Is this story — which made such big headlines in the beginning — the victim of media attention-deficit disorder? It seems to me that there are still nagging questions about the Idaho mission workers and the Haiti government’s prosecution that need to be explored. Unfortunately, media interest seems to have waned.

A later version of the AP homecoming story focused on Silsby’s personal problems — including a failed business with disgruntled employees and a custody fight with her ex-husband. While those are legitimate questions, the story does not make clear the extent, if any, to which her time behind bars exacerbated those issues.

However, it seems that the storyline concerning what happened in Haiti has been paved in concrete by the media when, in fact, questions remain that still need to be investigated — questions that might be easier to pursue with the last mission worker out of custody.

Baptist Press raised a number of those questions this week in what it labeled an “exclusive” report on the 10 Baptists from Idaho. The Southern Baptist news service interviewed mission worker Paul Thompson, who gave a “radically different” account from most media reports of what transpired in the earthquake-ravaged nation. His specific claims:

– The 10 Americans did not, as has been alleged in some accounts, go through the streets of Port-au-Prince passing out flyers and going door-to-door looking for children, Thompson said. Instead, the 33 children they were trying to take across the border in a medium-sized bus came from two orphanages, and orphanage workers told them that none of the children had parents.

– The group was told multiple times before they got to the border that their documentation and paperwork — the source of the controversy — was sufficient, Thompson said. A Haitian child services official said as much, as did a Haitian policeman and an orphanage director who has extensive experience transferring orphans from Haiti to the Dominican Republic.

– The 10 Baptists were arrested in Port-au-Prince, and not at the border. They thought they would go free until UNICEF — a United Nations agency — got involved and pressed charges, Thompson says.

– They were arrested on Jan. 30, and not Jan. 29 as has been reported repeatedly.

The 4,000-word account by Baptist Press goes into great detail conveying Thompson’s side of the story. Certainly, his side is just one piece of the puzzle, but delving into his claims could help shine further light on this situation. AP, among others, went to the trouble to investigate this case — or at least certain aspects of it — in the early stages.

But while the original story plot — sinister missionaries attempt to kidnap Haitian children — made for sensational coverage, the actual circumstances may be more complicated.

Will anyone in the media attempt to figure out what really happened?

Clearing one missionary’s name

It’s time for a flashback to an earlier stage in the story of the Idaho Baptists and the Haitian orphans. You may recall that, while tracing the trail of Laura Silsby and her short-term mission team from Idaho, the New York Times heard people discussing this name — Philippe Murphy.

Here is the key Times reference:

Several parents denied accusations that they had been given money for their children, or that they wanted their children to be put up for adoption.

They trusted the Americans, they said, because they arrived with the recommendation of a Baptist minister, Philippe Murphy, who runs an orphanage in the area. A woman who answered the door at Mr. Murphy’s house said he had gone to Miami. But she also said that he did not know anything about the Americans.

Thus, I asked the following questions here at GetReligion based on that report:

Who is Pastor Philippe Murphy? Is he the leader of the orphanage — surely Protestant — that the Idaho Baptists worked with to find these children? Why has this Haitian pastor gone to Miami? One more question: Are the Baptists from Idaho major funders of his orphanage?

Logical questions, but they were based on an error or a misunderstanding. I am happy to report — and I hope the Times team noticed this too — that reporter Cary McMullen of The Ledger in Lakeland, Fla., has found this missionary and added some crucial information.

This is a perfect of example of what can happen when reporters are working in very complex and traumatized environments, especially if they are working through a translator. To cut to the chase: A reporter from the Times heard Haitian parents talking about Phillipe Murphy, a local pastor who runs an orphanage. They trusted Silsby and her team because of his endorsement, but someone at his house said he had gone to Miami.

Not quite. McMullen’s report shows that there is a man named Phillip Murphy, but that the Times reporter misunderstood what the parents were saying or the parents were not very clear about what they were saying. Then again, there may have been language issues involving the translation from Creole to English.

Thus, here is some crucial material from the top of this new report on Murphy and his work in Haiti:

A Lake Wales man, a former missionary to Haiti, has found himself embroiled in the controversy over the arrest of 10 Americans in Haiti accused of trying to take children out of the country illegally. But Phillip Murphy says he has no connection to the group and that the arrested Americans may have caused heartache for parents of the Haitian children.

“It’s an unfortunate and horrible situation. I feel guilty, because I think if I were there I might have been able to prevent it,” he said.

Murphy, associate director of the HEART Institute, a missionary training facility at Warner University, was briefly mentioned in a story in Wednesday’s New York Times about the detained Americans. He was incorrectly identified as “a Baptist minister, Philippe Murphy, who runs an orphanage in the area” of Fermathe, Haiti. … But Murphy said he is neither Baptist nor a minister, and the orphanage he and his wife founded in 1986, House of Blessings, is in the village of Callebasse.

So what happened? Murphy founded the orphanage, lived there for years, has a continuing role in ts work and visits frequently. Drawing on material from the missionary and from the Associated Press, McMullen works through the layers of the misunderstanding — which is based, in part, in the fact that Silsby and the Southern Baptists from Idaho were working with a Haitian translator, Isaac Adrien, who grew up in the House of Blessings.

Adrien took Silsby’s group to House of Blessings, which houses about 20 children, but the director, Joana Jean Marie Desir, turned them away, Murphy said. … Adrien conveyed the offer of Silsby’s group to gathered villagers, acting as a translator, and because of that connection, the villagers assumed they could trust the Americans, despite a warning from Desir not to, Murphy said. …

“We lived there so long and people knew us, and when they saw Isaac with them, they assumed we were part of that (group),” he said.

The story ends with another anecdote that shows how confused things are right now — in Haiti and in the United States — even for veteran missions workers who know the rules and are doing everything they can to follow them. The current director of the orphanage asked Murphy if he could take her three children back to the United States after the earthquake, so that they could continue going to school during the crisis.

Although the children had valid passports and visas, Murphy and the children were stopped by the Department of Homeland Security upon their arrival in Florida, and the children were temporarily detained. Department officials said a letter of entrance had not been properly notarized.

Keith Rupp, communications director for U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam (R, Bartow), said Putnam’s aides helped put Murphy in touch with the proper authorities, and the children were released four days later.

You really need to read the whole report and, like I said, the Times copy desk needs to add some kind of clarification to its earlier story.

Photo: From a House of Blessings weblog item in 2005. Phillip Murphy is shown in the back row, just to the left of center (look for the trunk of the palm tree).

Question: Who set all this up?

If you want to be truly depressed, read this New York Times report that ran under the headline: “Bleak Portrait of Haiti Orphanages Raises Fears.” Here’s the start of Ginger Thompson’s report from Port-au-Prince:

The floors were concrete and the windows were broken.

There was no electricity or running water. Lunch looked like watery
grits. Beds were fashioned from sheets of cardboard. And the only
toilet did not work.

But the Foyer of Patience here is like hundreds of places that pass as orphanages for thousands of children in the poorest country in the hemisphere. Many are barely habitable, much less licensed. They have no means to provide real schooling or basic medical care, so children spend their days engaged in mindless activities, and many die from treatable illnesses.

Haiti’s child welfare system was broken before the earthquake struck. But as the quake shattered homes and drove hundreds of thousands of people into the streets, the number of children needing care grew exponentially.

The bottom line: Haitian authorities have every reason to believe that orphaned, abandoned and needy children are ending up in the hands of people whose motives are certainly much worse than the now infamous 10 Baptists from Idaho who remain at the center of an international media frenzy.

Many children are on their way to being sold as servants and sex slaves. Some of these victims are passing through “orphanages.” Many more are not. As the Times noted:

While there is no evidence that the Americans, who said they were trying to rescue children in the aftermath of the earthquake, intended any harm, the ease with which they drove into the capital and scooped up a busload of children without documents exposed vast gaps in the system’s safeguards. …

At the front lines of the system are the orphanages, which run the gamut from large, well-equipped institutions with international financing to one-room hovels in a slum where a single woman cares for abandoned children as best she can.

Most of the children in them, the authorities said, are not orphans, but children whose parents are unable to provide for them. To desperate parents, the orphanage is a godsend, a temporary solution to help a child survive a particularly tough economic stretch. Many orphanages offer regular family visiting hours and, when their situations improve, parents are allowed to take their children back home.

The Southern Baptists from Idaho said claim that the purpose of their short-term, independent mission was to set up just such an orphanage — across the border. The claim that some of the true orphans were candidates for adoption and that those with family in Haiti were not. The reporting in the Times has repeatedly demonstrated the confusion surrounding these claims, with new questions being raised in almost every report.

Then there is the even darker world of the criminal networks. Were the Baptists caught because they were not corrupt enough?

There is no precise count of the number of orphanages in this country, the number of children living in them, or of the children who are victims of trafficking, although Unicef estimates that number in the tens of thousands per year. The authorities said thousands of those trafficked were sold as servants, known as restaveks, to well-to-do Haitian families. Others, officials say, are smuggled into the Dominican Republic to do domestic and agricultural work, often in appalling conditions. …

Haitian authorities acknowledge that the fledgling efforts of a financially struggling government long plagued by corruption have proved little match for the highly organized, multimillion-dollar criminal networks.

After reading the latest wave of reporting on this case, I have two main questions — especially since it is clear that the members of the Idaho team were outsiders who do not speak Creole.

(1) While the Americans were said to have lacked at least one crucial document when they tried to cross the border, who obtained and filled out all of the documents that were already in their possession? Who handled the earlier contacts with the government?

(2) Who were the Haitians who handled the contacts with the distressed local parents, before and after the Idaho team arrived? Who communicated the terms of the offer? Who, supposedly, received the consent of these Haitian parents?

In other words, who served as the bridge between Laura Silsby, the controversial businesswoman who led the Idaho team, and its partners on the ground in Haiti? As another Times report notes:

Family and friends of the group members have said little critical of Ms. Silsby or the churches that helped promote the trip. Mr. Lankford said that he was not sure how well his family members knew Ms. Silsby, but that their understanding was that logistical and legal details in Haiti were “being taken care of.”

Haitian officials say Ms. Silsby lacked documentation to take custody of and travel with the children. A lawyer in Haiti for the group, Edwin Coq, suggested to reporters this week that Ms. Silsby might face a difficult prosecution. … When Mr. Coq was asked about the other nine Americans, he echoed their friends and relatives here: “completely innocent,” he said.

The stories keep spiraling back to a central question: Who made the arrangements on the ground in Haiti, handling the contacts with the families and the incomplete contacts with the government?

The odds are very good that they speak Creole.