In Irish children’s deaths, clarity doesn’t thrive in a septic tank

The accounts of cruelty, neglect and other abuse of children under Catholic Church care in Ireland cannot and must not be ignored. But in their tales about babies buried in septic tanks and such, news media need to be scrupulous with facts and clarity.

A case in point: two articles on St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, both from The New York Times.

In his June 4 article, writer Douglas Dalby mentioned “allegations that a Roman Catholic religious order secretly buried up to 796 babies and toddlers born to unmarried mothers in a septic tank over several decades.”

By this past Monday, he backpedaled a bit. He said his main source, historian Catherine Corless, based part of her allegation on a 48-year-old man who said he’d seen a hole filled with 15-20 small skeletons — back when he was 10:

Where and how the bodies of the children were actually disposed of remains a mystery — and a scandal in tiny Tuam, population 8,200, that has for the moment revealed more about the ways local lore and small-town sleuthing can be distorted in the news media juggernaut than about what actually went on decades ago at the state-funded home for unmarried pregnant women run by the Bon Secours Sisters, a Roman Catholic order.

“News media juggernaut” is not too strong a term for what happened in the mainstream press. Our friend and ally Rod Dreher found a clutch of mainstream media outlets — from The Guardian to the Washington Post to Al-Jazeera — alleging that a full 800 children’s corpses were dumped in a scandalous mass grave.

You can see quite a lot of that on YouTube as well, with titles like “Bodies of 800 Babies Found in Septic Tank in Ireland” and, of course, “Another Atrocity from the Catholic Church.”

Who says these media reports are wrong, simplistic or radically blown out of proportion? For one, Corless herself:

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Was Catholic ‘teaching’ involved in latest Ireland scandal?

If I have heard this statement once at pro-life rallies I have heard it a hundred times: There are crisis pregnancies, but there is no such thing — in the eyes of God — as an unwanted child. This statement is especially popular with doctrinally conservative Catholics.

So, try to combine that thought with the news coming out of Ireland. This is from the Associated Press:

DUBLIN – The Catholic Church in Ireland is facing fresh accusations of child neglect after a researcher found records for 796 young children believed to be buried in a mass grave beside a former orphanage for the children of unwed mothers.

The researcher, Catherine Corless, says her discovery of child death records at the Catholic nun-run home in Tuam, County Galway, suggests that a former septic tank filled with bones is the final resting place for most, if not all, of the children.

Church leaders in Galway, western Ireland, said they had no idea so many children who died at the orphanage had been buried there, and said they would support local efforts to mark the spot with a plaque listing all 796 children.

County Galway death records showed that the children, mostly babies and toddlers, died often of sickness or disease in the orphanage during the 35 years it operated from 1926 to 1961. The building, which had previously been a workhouse for homeless adults, was torn down decades ago to make way for new houses.

There is no need to discuss the details of that horrific vision.

The question the story has to address, of course, is why these lost children were buried in such a fashion. Also, the story says it is essential to know that, during the era in which this orphanage was open, Ireland had “one of the worst infant mortality rates in Europe, with tuberculosis rife.”

The essential question here is whether what happened here is essentially an Irish, or cultural, practice or was it justified at the time as uniquely Catholic, in terms of doctrine. Think of this issue, perhaps, as similar to the debates about whether “honor killings” in Pakistan are uniquely cultural, tribal or somehow, for those committing the acts, rooted in what they believe are Islamic beliefs.

This leads us to the crucial paragraphs in the story:

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Bratwurst fest in Wisconsin: You never sausage intolerance

(Rubbing eyes) This is the New York Times, isn’t it? They’re being nice to conservatives and not so nice to liberals!

Madison, Wisc., is known for at least two things: a liberal, accepting mindset, and an annual brats-and-beer festival. But this year, according to the Times, organizer Tom Metcalfe added a new ingredient. Two, actually. Christian music and Bob Lenz, a motivational speaker on teen suicide.

What’s not to like? Wellllppp ….

But this month, a local newspaper noted that Mr. Lenz had ties to anti-abortion groups, particularly one called Save the Storks, which parks buses in front of abortion clinics and offers ultrasounds to pregnant women, a practice that some people consider harassment. Many liberal-leaning residents of Madison (and there are a lot of them) publicly said they would rather skip the Memorial Day weekend festival and its four-day extravaganza of bratwurst and beer.

“My reaction was, this doesn’t have a very Madison feel to it,” said Lisa Subeck, a member of the City Council, who declined to attend. “It really will turn many people off.” With Mr. Lenz appearing as a speaker, she said, “you really have to think, this isn’t reflective of our values.”

Within days, Mr. Metcalfe called Mr. Lenz to deliver a message: You are no longer invited.

Yep, guilt by association again. Just like when residents of Portland, Ore., announced a boycott of a grocer for his anti-gay views. And when HGTV canceled a planned show because the creators had voiced disapproval of gays and abortion.

Each case amounts to speech police: punishing people who dared voice unpopular socio-political views — views that had little relationship with their jobs.

The Times writer is sharp-eyed about the furor in a city — indeed, a state — that prides itself on its liberalism. First, she appears to mourn the way they were:

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Let them eat cake and — in Colorado — make others bake it

I’m no expert on baking, but I suspect that a layer cake should stand straight, not lean to one side. The Denver Post should have followed that recipe for its latest story on the man who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.

The Post article is brief and mostly factual, especially for a newspaper that has written a lot of stories on the case for nearly two years. But it favors the gay side, both in what it says and what it does not say. And it leaves a number of unanswered questions on a matter that has several levels.

Cake shop owner Jack Phillips has become something of a cause celebre for religious rights folks, but he’s still getting, shall we say, battered. Colorado has just imposed a penalty on him that sounds rather like thought police:

The state’s seven-member Civil Rights Commission reinforced a December ruling from an administrative law judge who said Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips discriminated against Charlie Craig and David Mullins when he refused to make them a wedding cake because of religious objections.

In its decision, the panel required Phillips to submit quarterly reports for two years that show how he has worked to change discriminatory practices by altering company policies and training employees. Phillips also must disclose the names of any clients who are turned away.

The article carries three paragraphs of background but sacrifices depth:

Colorado law bans discrimination in a public place on grounds of sexual orientation, but Phillips has argued that forcing him to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples violates his right to First Amendment free-speech and freedom-of-religion rights.

Phillips and his attorney are considering an appeal to the Colorado Court of Appeals. He suggested on Friday that the rights of business owners with similar views were taken away by the commission.

“Not all of life is fair,” Phillips said after the commission’s decision. “I will stand by my convictions until somebody shuts me down.”

Freedom of religion, OK, that computes. If a religion says homosexuality is wrong, its adherents would object to doing anything that might appear to sanction it. But how does making a wedding cake for gays violate free speech?

And exactly what did Phillips mean by “Not all of life is fair”? Was he saying that he had the right to be unfair, or that the court was being unfair to him?

It’s possible that the reporter felt she could talk shorthand because the Post listed seven other stories on the case, going back to Aug. 4. But for those who just dropped in — you and me, for instance — it’s assuming too much.

The article says that Craig and Mullins, the gay couple, has been “inundated with support from people across the country.” Aside from the obvious follow-up questions — “How many? From how large an area? What have they been typically saying? Could I see some of the quotes?” — what about Jack Phillips, the opposition? Does he stand alone? Or have like-minded people spoken up for him as well?

The latter is likely, since the Post quotes a representative of the Alliance Defending Freedom taking Phillips’ side. But the newspaper reveals more favoritism there, calling the alliance a “conservative Christian organization.” It then cites the American Civil Liberties Union without attaching a sticker. It’s a common subtle way of weighting remarks: One group is normal and mainstream; the other group bears watching.

Other ingredients are missing from this story, too.

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It’s strictly taboo: Lancaster paper kills article on a witch

How controversial could a witch be in 2014? Plenty, if you’re in Lancaster, Pa. — where a newspaper ran a feature on a local practitioner, then killed it.

At issue is a long, friendly, garden-variety profile on Kim Cabot Consoli of Bainbridge, in the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal. The May 17 feature, by a former GetReligionista — the Rev. Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans — that described Consoli’s “craft,” how she practices it, her relationship with a Mayan teacher and Salem witch Laurie Cabot, etc. There was also a sidebar primer on things like the definition of “Wiccan” and whether witches worship Satan.

Then, as media watcher Jim Romenesko reports, the newspaper learned that Consoli had another record — an arrest on charges of prostitution.

Then the story was quickly taken offline.

Here is the really interesting journalism hook in this story about a news story. The newspaper’s editors then ran a lengthy mea culpa.

“Had this information been mined earlier, the story would never have been written, let alone published,” executive editor Barbara Hough Roda wrote. She added some idealistic words about the need for “context, balance and thoughtful story play.”

A closer look, though, suggests another motive for pulling the story: objections from readers about a feature article on a local witch. The prostitution arrest took up three of the 10 paragraphs. Consoli’s witchcraft was the subject of four other paragraphs, including the first three:

Last weekend’s Faith & Values pages carried an article about a Bainbridge woman who practices witchcraft.

The topic was not typical fare for the section, nor for our newspaper. Like many stories, its unusual nature made it newsworthy. Yet while the presence of one witch living among us is noteworthy, even unique, it is also true that Lancaster County is certainly not seeing a proliferation of Wiccans.

Our presentation and the amount of space we gave the story wrongly suggested the latter. Our report focused largely on one woman, and did not put witchcraft into a larger context of the faith and values of our community. Our overall treatment was certainly not proportional to the scope of the subject matter.

And further down in the article:

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BBC: Another generic, mysterious ‘honor killing’ (updated)

This time the bloody honor killing took place in a public place, for all to see — outside the Lahore High Court. The short BBC report noted:

Police said 30-year old Farzana Bibi died on the spot after being attacked with bricks and sticks. Her father handed himself in, but police say her brothers and former fiance, who also took part in the attack, were still free. …

Farzana Bibi’s parents accused her husband, Muhammad Iqbal, of kidnapping her, and had filed a case against him at the High Court. However, she testified to police that she had married him of her own accord. Police said the couple had been engaged for a number of years.

Religion, apparently, had nothing to do with this event, which was said to be a mere cultural phenomenon. However, the report ended by noting:

Under Pakistani law, the victim’s family is allowed to forgive the killer. However, in many cases family members are themselves responsible for the killing.

And what legal system forms the foundation of Pakistani law? What, for example, has been the root cause for the headline-generating Pakistan cases in which believers in a minority faith, usually Christianity, are accused of apostasy against the faith at the heart of the nation’s government and culture?

(By the way, the Associated Press included — in its lede — another detail BBC missed or omitted, the fact that Bibi was pregnant at the time she was murdered.)

There is no need to dwell on the Islamic element of this crime and it would be wrong to suggest that all Muslims in Pakistan, and elsewhere, practice, accept or ignore “honor killings.” In fact, a Washington Post report on this same crime did an excellent job of including the essential details. For example:

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Missing elements in NYTimes marital rape report from India

Marriage was a hot topic this week in the Indian press following rulings by two Delhi Courts. The High Court held that apostasy was automatic grounds for granting a divorce under the country’s Muslim Marriage Act, while the Court of Additional Sessions in Delhi ruled that there was no such thing as “marital rape” under Indian civil law and the Hindu Marriage Act.

Religion — in this case the intersection of Hinduism and Islam — played a prominent role in the reporting of the first story. But it was absent from overseas reports on the second. The Hindu reported that a Muslim wife who quits her faith for another may be granted an automatic divorce from her Muslim husband.

A Division Bench of the High Court, rejecting an appeal of one Munavvar-ul-Islam against a decree of a family court in Saket, has held that dissolution of his marriage with Rishu Arora, who first converted to Islam but later reconverted to her original religion, was valid under the Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act, 1939.

“It is an admitted fact that the respondent (Rishu) was initially professing Hinduism and had embraced Islam prior to the marriage, and then reconverted to Hinduism. … The trial court was right in specifying that the marriage stands dissolved from the date on which the respondent apostatised from Islam,” stated the Bench, comprising Justice S. Ravindra Bhat and Justice Najmi Waziri, in its 30-page verdict delivered on Friday.

The Indian Express’s lede typifies the interpretation of the ruling.

One’s religious faith is above any law, the Delhi High Court has ruled while granting divorce to a girl who converted to Islam for marriage and then reconverted to her original religion.

The New York Times picked up the marital rape story, running a piece on page A7 of its May 13 print edition entitled: “India: Court Rules That Marital Sex, Even When Forced, Is Not Rape.”

The Times story, which was reprinted by some Indian outlets, comes down on the side of the wife, while other Indian newspapers were skeptical of the claims made in her pleading. The Times wrote:

NEW DELHI – A Delhi court has ruled that sex between a husband and wife, “even if forcible, is not rape.” The judge’s decision, which was made public Saturday, upheld section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, which does not recognize “sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age,” as rape.

Last October, a Delhi woman filed a complaint against a man she accused of drugging her, abducting her and taking her to Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, to register their marriage. Afterward, she told the court, he raped her.

The judge in the case wrote that there was “no clinching or convincing evidence on record to show that the accused had administered any stupefying substance.” The man accused in the case said that the couple was married in 2011 at the woman’s home in Delhi in the presence of her family, and that they had decided to register with the court only last year on the insistence of the woman. He also said, according to court documents, that the rape complaint was filed by the woman under pressure from her family members, who were not in favor of their marriage.

The Indian Express came down on the side of the husband. Adding these details:

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Should the high court have backed town council prayers?

BRAD ASKS:

[Regarding the U.S. Supreme Court's new Greece v. Galloway ruling that allows prayers before town council meetings]: Is the door being nudged open for an ugly discourse on separation of church and state?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Brad fears this pro-prayer decision might stir up ugliness, but The Guy thinks there’s be more of it if the Court had instead barred invocations like those in Greece, New York. Americans generally like prayers to solemnize civic occasions from inauguration of the president on down, and politicians naturally go along. Briefs in Greece’s favor were signed by 85 members of the U.S. House and 34 U.S. Senators. Most were Republicans, but the Obama Administration likewise filed in support. Though civic prayers are popular or considered useful to the republic, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily good for the Christian faith. Hold that thought.

Politicians aside, many news reports missed that all 9 Supreme Court justices were favorable toward council prayers. The four liberal dissenters, sounding much like the five majority conservatives, stated that local council meetings need not “be religion- or prayer-free” and that’s because “legislative prayer has a distinctive constitutional warrant by virtue of tradition.” Mainly, the liberals protested because Greece loaded up its lineup of prayer-givers with earnest Christians and made little effort to include religious minorities.

The Constitution’s Bill of Rights begins “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Though that commands only Congress, the “incorporation” doctrine (which Justice Thomas rejects) extends this to actions by state and local governments.

Traditionalists say the “establishment clause” only forbids a European-style official church. Separationists embrace the Court’s 1947 interpretation that government cannot show favoritism toward either a particular religion or toward religion in general.

In the 67 years since, the Court has nudged the door open and shut, in what Justice Alito called “our often puzzling” series of church-state rulings. In that time the nation’s religious diversity has increased, especially since the 1965 change in immigration law, and foes of religious faith have become more militant. The key rulings on civic prayers:

*Engel v. Vitale (1962): Outlawed public school students’ recitation of the New York State Regents’ brief, non-denominational prayer to “Almighty God” (decided by 8-1).

*Abington v. Schempp (1963): Ordered Pennsylvania (also Maryland in a companion case) to end public students’ recitation of the Lord’s Prayer along with Bible readings (by 8-1).

*Marsh v. Chambers (1983): Ruled that prayers before sessions of Nebraska’s legislature do not violate the “establishment” ban unless they’re designed to “proselytize,” or “advance” or “disparage” a religion (by 6-3).

*Wallace v. Jaffree (1985): Abolished Alabama schools’ minute of silence for student “meditation or prayer” (by 6-3).

*Lee v. Weisman (1991): Decided a Rhode Island rabbi’s junior high graduation prayer was unconstitutional (by 5-4).

*Santa Fe v. Doe (2000): Opposed public-address prayers before Texas football games from clergy chosen by students (by 6-3).

That brings us to the 5-to-4 decision in Greece v. Galloway, which applies the 1983 Marsh case reasoning about state legislatures to town councils.

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