Praying for better coverage of prayer

football prayerWriting about a court’s opinion in a lawsuit should be easy. At least you may think it would be. The court’s opinion typically contains all the relevant facts, important quotes, the history of the law and how it applies in the particular case. For example, you’d expect that news reports of a opinion finding a coach’s participation in pre-football game prayers unconstitutional would include the words of the prayer, right?

At least that’s what I would be looking for as well as many other people in America who participate in some form of high school sports. Alas, such is the case of legal reporting in the mainstream media, where reporters routinely avoid getting into the depth of opinions that often have huge impacts on the way people and communities deal with religion.

For example, here are a few of the paragraphs from the coverage from The New York Times of a recent controversy involving a football coach bowing his head while a member of the football team prayed before games. This controversy took place, by the way, right next door to the NYT in New Jersey:

Marcus Borden, who has been the head football coach at East Brunswick High School since 1983, sued the district in 2005, saying its policy violated his rights to free speech and due process, as well as to academic freedom and freedom of association.

In July 2006, the United States District Court for New Jersey ruled that Borden could bow his head and bend his knee when the team captains led the players in prayer, but three judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned the lower court’s ruling Tuesday, citing Borden’s history of leading prayers in the past.

Judge D. Michael Fisher wrote in his opinion that “the conclusion we reach today is clear because he organized, participated in and led prayer activities with his team on numerous occasions for 23 years.”

“Thus,” Fisher continued, “a reasonable observer would conclude that he is continuing to endorse religion when he bows his head during the pre-meal grace and takes a knee with his team in the locker room while they pray.”

In case you were curious what one of the prayers said, here it is from the court’s opinion. As for the difficulty in acquiring and reporting this information, it was as easy as cut and paste:

“[D]ear lord, please guide us today in our quest in our game, our championship. Give us the courage and determination that we would need to come out successful. Please let us represent our families and our community well. Lastly, please guide our players and opponents so that they can come out of this game unscathed, [and] no one is hurt.”

Also included in the court’s opinion are the juicy details like the school’s policy on coaches and teachers praying and the controversy leading up to the lawsuit.

Are there word counts on the Internets that I’m unaware of prohibiting reporters from including this excellent background information in a story about prayer? Or how about at least a link to the PDF of the court’s opinion?

That kind of information, that takes less effort than writing this sentence, should be standard in stories like this. It doesn’t even take up the news organization’s bandwidth since the document is hosted on the appellate court’s servers.

Above is a photo of one of these prayer sessions taken conveniently from the court’s opinion on the matter, in case you were curious about that minor major detail.

While the NYT may deem itself above and beyond covering this issue, other than its mere 10 paragraphs, the Associated Press at least touched upon the significance of the ruling and why it is likely that the Supreme Court will take up the matter.

The story does a good job giving the background of the case, which is easily accessible in the court’s opinion, and the significance, even if it did come from the coach’s attorney:

Borden’s lawyer, Ronald Riccio, said he would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case to clarify what he says is murky law — especially given Tuesday’s decision — about student-led prayer.

“As the matter now stands, some coaches can bow their head and take a knee,” Riccio said.

As we’ve said many times before, when dealing with First Amendment legal issues, there are dozens of law professors out there that would love to spout off about the legal background of the case. It is frustrating that stories like this don’t deal with any of the legal precedents that are involved. It would be like writing about the 2004 election without mentioning who won in 2000.

Lastly, neither of the news stories bothered to mention a rather significant fact about the case: The district court agreed with the plaintiff/coach in finding that the school’s policy on prayer was unconstitutional. However, the appellate court in ruling against the coach didn’t just find that the school could implement this policy. The court found that the act itself was an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause.

In other words, public school athletic coaches within the Third District: bowing your head with your athletic team is violating the Constitution.

Reporters should note that this includes Pennsylvania, and last time I checked, there is a rather significant primary election going on in that state. Anyone want to ask candidates Obama and Clinton about how they feel about coaches bowing their heads with their athletes?

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What’s in a name?

T Shirt Hello My Name is TROUBLE 766236Religion reporters have had some time to reflect on the raid on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Texas.

A few stories look at how members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have responded to the news about the FLDS. Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune had a typically thoughtful piece about the matter. She spoke with LDS members, especially those with polygamist ancestors, about how it feels to see a group on the wrong side of popular opinion and the law:

They hear echoes of 19th-century salacious – and false – rumors about their Mormon forefathers seducing women and having sex on temple altars. And they worry about government officials having power to decide what’s best for children.

“As the FLDS are, we once were,” says Guy Murray, a lawyer in Southern California who has been blogging daily in defense of the FLDS community’s civil rights. “Back then, we were the ones in the compound. We’ve all seen the photos of our brethren who went to prison rather than give up their wives.”

The story also made sure to point out that a poll of a small group of Latter-day Saints found that over three-fifths felt the raid was justified.

Nancy Perkins and Amy Joi O’Donoghue of the Deseret News, which is owned by the Latter-day Saints, provided a detailed look at the raid from the perspective of those inside the YFZ ranch. I’ll note that they make sure not to use the word compound:

Texas authorities entered the YFZ ranch last week armed with a search warrant, automatic weapons, SWAT teams, helicopters, dozens of law enforcement vehicles — including an armored personnel carrier — and were met with no resistance from the more than 600 residents of the polygamous community.

“They first got under the gate under false pretenses,” said Isaac, a 33-year-old FLDS man who did not want to be identified because he has several children who are now under state custody. “They had police cars box in the whole property.”

One of the more interesting things I’ve been looking at is how the media describe members of the FLDS. Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch included in his Saturday column an interesting tidbit about who gets to be called Mormon:

“It is frustrating at times,” said David Sylvester, a 46-year-old from Herculaneum who serves as the president of one of four Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints territories (called stakes) in the St. Louis area. “The nickname given the church — Mormon — seems to be tagged to every one of the splinter groups that’s left the church, so people believe we’re one religion, and such is not the case. I don’t know how many times I’ve addressed this question. It’s an interesting challenge every time it happens.”

Polygamy is another reason non-Mormons sometimes confuse the mainstream church with breakaway groups. The church was founded by 1830 and by 1890 it had officially discontinued polygamy. But more than a century later, members still have trouble shaking that part of their church’s history.

“This is 100 years ago and kids go to school and they get asked, ‘How many moms do you have,’” said Jim Hendricks, a 48-year-old from St. Charles who works for the church’s religious education program. “There’s a little bit of ignorance out there about our doctrine and belief, but then again, I’m not an expert on other people’s religion.”

Terry Slezak, a 44-year-old O’Fallon software consultant and president of the church’s north St. Louis County and St. Charles stake, said the media are partly to blame for the confusion for applying the term Mormon — which only applies to the 13 million members of the mainstream church — to the fundamentalist sect.

I was very surprised to see that last bit. Should the word “Mormon” only be used to describe members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Here’s what the LDS says on its Web site:

In the public mind, the word Mormon has come to mean something very specific. It conjures up images of Mormon missionaries on bikes, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Mormon temples. It has become a synonym for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Consequently, when Mormon is used to describe polygamist groups, it causes great confusion about our beliefs among the general public and frustration to our members, which number over 12 million worldwide.

The Associated Press Stylebook has recognized this difficulty and specified that the term Mormon is a nickname that should be applied exclusively to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that it is not accurately applied to any other person or organization (see entries on “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The” and “Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”).

book of mormon 01
The AP Stylebook — or the 2003 Stylebook I have handy, at least — says that the term Mormon should not be applied to those Latter Day Saints churches that “resulted from the split after Smith’s death.” I think this could be worded much better. “The” split after Smith’s death was the one that separated the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now known as Community of Christ) from the LDS. Their division was mainly over authority and, specifically, over who should become president. But the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints emerged in the 1930s over the issue of polygamy. Officially the LDS had abandoned polygamy in 1890, but the fundamentalists left when the LDS hierarchy really began cracking down on polygamists, rooting them out and excommunicating them. That didn’t happen until the early 20th century. So that’s also a split, but it’s not “the” split after Smith’s death.

I think that reporters should go to great pains to make sure that the LDS church and any other Latter Day Saints groups are carefully delineated, but it is interesting that the AP Stylebook recommends against the use of the word Mormon to describe people who believe the Book of Mormon is sacred scripture. It is particularly interesting in light of LDS efforts to be described as Christian. I think it is incumbent on reporters not to use the phrase “Mormon church” to describe these offshoots, since that could cause confusion, but I think the way reporters have used “offshoot” or “fundamentalist” as modifiers is helpful. It is so tricky to respect the beliefs of both groups and not game stories by using flash words.

The Dallas Morning News‘ Jeffrey Weiss ran a helpful, brief Q&A that deftly handled these issues:

Is the FLDS Mormon?

Members say they represent the only true Mormon church — a claim otherwise rejected by people who consider themselves Mormon. As Mormon historian Martha Sontag Bradley of the University of Utah puts it: “The FLDS is as foreign to contemporary Mormons as they are to outsiders.”

It takes more words to put the various “Mormon” claims in context, but Weiss was still quite efficient about it. He also answers what the shared history and major differences between the FLDS and the mainstream Mormon church are.

It’s important for reporters to explain how the LDS church and various Latter Day Saints offshoots are different. Just saying that they are separate isn’t enough and can give the impression that there are more similarities than there are. Those reporters that have engaged the issue, seem to have done a good job with it.

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B16: Seventh storyline — sex abuse

pope2 I wrote yesterday about the six storylines of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States. In their stories this morning, the big dailies added a seventh storyline: the Pope’s Reaction to the Sex-Abuse Scandal.

Together, the stories portray the church’s response to the scandal with some balance and insight. Separately, they are above average, offering a few insights into the church’s response but little else.

The New York Times focused on the cry of sex-abuse victims and the response by the Pope. Reporters Ian Fisher and Laurie Goodstein wrote that the pope might change canon law in order to deal with the problem:

The pope might actually be signaling that he was close to authorizing a change in canon law that would explicitly bar sexual abusers from the priesthood, said Nicholas P. Cafardi, dean emeritus of Duquesne Law School. A civil and canon lawyer, Mr. Cafardi was an original member of the National Review Board appointed by the American bishops at the height of the abuse scandal, in 2002.

There is a section in the church’s Code of Canon law that specifies that a man cannot be ordained a priest, or cannot remain a priest, if he has committed certain acts, like homicide, self-mutilation, attempted suicide or procuring an abortion, said Mr. Cafardi, the author of “Before Dallas: The U.S. Bishops’ Response to Clergy Sexual Abuse of Children” (Paulist Press, 2008).

“It’s time to add to that list pedophilia and sexual abuse of children,” Mr. Cafardi said. “I’m reading Benedict’s remarks as heading toward a change in the law of the universal church, so that this can be implemented throughout the Catholic world.”

He said it was unlikely that the pope would use a papal visit to announce a change in canon law. But, he added: “He’s raised expectations now, and he’s not an unkind person. You don’t raise expectations to bash them.”

This is interesting: Benedict wants to change church law. Of course, this information alone is inadequate. Unmentioned is the number of seminarians this might affect and whether Vatican officials will in fact change canon law. But in this story, it’s a bit much to ask the reporters to provide answers to these questions. (But don’t even think about not following up!)

What the Times failed to note is whether Benedict thinks that the priestly sex-abuse problem is related to homosexuals in the seminaries. The Vatican is concerned about homosexuality. Filling the void, The Washington Post mentioned this very topic. Reporters Michelle Boorstein and Jacqueline L. Salmon got this quote from Benedict:

“I would not speak in this moment about homosexuality but pedophilia, which is a different thing,” Benedict said. “We would absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry . . . because it is more important to have good priests [than] to have many priests.”

My only question is whether Benedict might address the issue of homosexuality at some time during his visit. Considering the Vatican’s restraints on the media, the reporters could not have gotten this information from the Pope. I wonder though if they could have gotten this from Vatican officials.

The Post‘s story was notable, too, for another detail. The reporters noted that Benedict seeks to tackle the problem at multiple levels:

“We are deeply ashamed, and we will do what is possible that this cannot happen in the future,” he said, speaking from the front of the main cabin. He said the church needs to act on three levels: a legal level, a pastoral level and a level at which seminaries are changed so they don’t harbor pedophiles.

This information, too, is interesting. Neither the Times nor The Los Angeles Times mentioned this three-level approach. Yet the solution begs many questions. As Rod Dreher and Philip Lawler insist, can’t bishops be disciplined for transferring priests accused once or multiple times? Is this approach new?

The LA Times‘ story contained the least news about the Pope’s response to the sex-abuse crisis, perhaps because it also focused on immigration (illegal immigration?) and the Iraq War. Reporters Tracy Wilkinson and Rebecca Trounson added one bit of news:

No meeting with victims is scheduled, although Vatican officials have hinted that one may occur, perhaps informally and in private.

Such a session with the church’s highest leader could be healing for at least some victims and, perhaps, the American church, one analyst said.

I should not overplay the sex-abuse angle in these stories. For example, The New York Times had some good quotes from the pope about the United State’s form of government representing a “positive secularism.” But it was the dominant angle.

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B16: Adding angles to the pope’s visit

pb 03Tmatt wrote about two storylines in the press so far about the pope’s visit. Daniel added a third. And in their spirit, I will add three more angles.

Each reflected a major story recently in the big papers. Let’s see how the papers did.

The fourth storyline is the Faltering State of the American Church. Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times documented its decline in recent decades:

Of 18,634 parishes in 2007, 3,238 were without resident pastors. More than 800 parishes have been closed since 1995, most since 2000. (Some bishops are preparing their parishioners for more closings ahead.) The number of priests ordained in 2007 fell to 456, less than half the number of new priests in 1965. Nearly 3 in 10 Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more said they had been personally affected by the priest shortage, according to the Georgetown poll.

I thought that Goodstein used statistics and figures to impressive effect, showing the extent to which the church has fallen. While a few of her numbers suggested that the church’s future is bright — witness the influx of Hispanics and converts — most suggested that it is glum.

My only quibble is that Goodstein might have broken down those figures by region of the country or given her readers some sense of this. Isn’t Catholicism in the Northeast and West breaking down? After all, several states have recently enacted culturally liberal policies: gay marriage in Massachusetts, domestic partneships in several states, human cloning and embryonic stem cell research? Are some religiously observant Midwestern states bucking those trends and if so, how so?

The fifth storyline is that the Pope Loves America. Perhaps picking up where Time left off, Tracy Wilkinson and Rebecca Trounson of The Los Angeles Times emphasized that Benedict appreciates Americans’ religiosity and separation of church and state:

Benedict sees a dynamic church, one that has navigated with fair success the maze of living a faithful life in a secular, materialistic world. For him, the church in America is less a challenge and more a potential model, as is the growing role of religion in American society.

“From the dawn of the republic,” the pope said recently, “America has been . . . a nation which values the role of religious belief in ensuring a vibrant and ethically sound democratic order.”

Like Time reporters David Van Biema and Jeff Israely, Wilkinson and Trounson were right to mention Benedict’s appreciation for America; after all, the pope might simply have not commented on American’s form of government. Yet I continue to think that this angle is overstated. Benedict made his remarks about America to the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, not in a homily or encyclical. While Benedict’s remarks no doubt were sincere, they do not strike me as at all central to his message.

The sixth storyline is the Pope’s Dictatorship-of-Relativism Theme. Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post wrote a softer variation of this thesis, summarizing Benedict’s thinking this way:

Benedict feels that Western, secular societies don’t take profound, supernatural religious faith seriously, a condition that he believes leads to rampant consumerism and nonchalance about such things as poverty. Religion-inspired terrorism shows, he believes, the opposite phenomenon: faith unhinged from reason.

Many here predict he will expand that idea at his address Friday to the United Nations by talking about the link between freedom and religion. He believes, essentially, that there is such a thing as right and wrong, that it comes from God and that it is the basis of free societies. He is worried that people have lost the larger point of religion, experts say.

Boorstein deserves a tip of the hat for writing this story. It addresses theology and philosophy, two topics that get short shrift to the say the least in newspapers. It reflects one of Benedict’s central themes. And it cited an example in which Benedict will apply this theme, though she might have noted that he will likely do this at the public Masses in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Overall, these stories offer more hope than hand wringing. I still think that reporters should write about another storyline — the Pope’s Message that Christianity Alone Offers Hope, Faith, and Love — but I’m not banking on it.

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B16: American Hispanics get ready

Neocatechumenal WayOne of the biggest stories in American Catholicism is the growth of the church through the southern migration of Hispanics. What that means for the Catholic Church in America is difficult to say at this point, but reporters should be able to get a few solid ideas with the pope’s visit to Washington, D.C., this week.

Here is The New York Times perspective on a Texas family of “ardent Roman Catholics” taking a 1,600-mile journey of their own to hopefully see the pope. The story gives the reader six paragraphs of scene setting before getting to the point of the story:

With the church struggling to stem an erosion of faith in the face of secularism and scandal, the fast-growing Hispanic population of Texas and the Southwest has long been a major bulwark of Roman Catholicism in America — and an avid constituency for Pope Benedict’s visit.

The Pequenos and their fellow pilgrims are a particularly ardent band. They are followers of the Neocatechumenal Way, a communitarian church movement, founded in Spain in the 1960s and accepted by the Vatican, that emphasizes a return to early Christian roots, evangelism, intense religious practice and sacrifice.

The Pequenos’ house is filled with Bibles and Christian images. Over the fireplace hangs a copy of an icon by the Spanish painter Francisco (Kiko) Arguello, who co-founded the movement.

The story is really about the lives of people going to see the Pope. I suppose it is possible that this family represents Hispanic Catholics in America, but there is little in the story that explores this trend in any depth. Hispanics make up one-third of American Catholics, and the number rapidly growing. A personal perspective on the Pope’s visit is wonderful, but it fails to connect the personal story with the larger issues, such as the growing numbers of Christians in non-Western cultures and immigration trends and policies.

The BBC on the other hand, in a similar story, examined the significance of the development in a first person account from reporter Kevin Connolly:

Luis Lugo of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life says that is simply evidence of an old historical pattern repeating itself in a new community.

“The growth (of Hispanic influence) has really been since the major changes in US immigration policy in the mid 60s, so it really would once have been very much a European Catholic church: Irish, Italian, German influence,” he says.

“Clearly now, it’s the Latino’s turn to become part of the Catholic Church which has always been a Church of immigration.” . . .

We already know that the Pope won’t be heading for Chimayo — not this time around anyway — and in a way, it’s a shame.

If he wanted to get a feeling for how the American Church will look in the future – more Hispanic, more charismatic, more populist and perhaps more mystical – he could do worse than to travel into New Mexico’s mountains to see for himself.

The personal editorializing-style aside, the story takes an outsider’s perspective toward a complicated story that skillfully merges immigration, religion and cultural issues in a way that makes sense of it all.

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Media rules for Obama’s church

media IDThere is something unfortunate when a church creates limits on whether or not journalists can attend its religious services. How are journalists supposed to understand religion if they are limited or prohibited from attending what is generally considered the most important and frequent public event in that religious tradition’s week?

Fortunately, the recent media excitement hasn’t resulted in an all-out-media-ban at Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s Trinity United Church of Christ. Instead of some sort of draconian ban, the church has created some rules and requires reporters to register a few days in advance.

Here is The Chicago Tribune‘s Manya Brachear in a first person account of what the new rules mean and how she feels about them:

Recent media scrutiny of Trinity United Church of Christ, where Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has worshiped for more than 20 years, has raised new questions about 1st Amendment rights, in some ways pitting freedom of the press against the freedom to practice religion.

Should reporters, like the rest of the public, have full and unfettered access to houses of worship? Or is there a time when churches should guard their gates to protect their flocks?

At a news conference Thursday, Trinity’s leaders laid down the law for reporters who want to cover the church in the future. Permission must be granted on Thursday for reporters to attend Sunday worship services. All media must check in, wear a badge at all times and refrain from interviewing members on church property.

Though journalists may carry a notepad, they may not send text on their BlackBerries nor use recording devices or cameras anywhere on the church campus. Audio and video recordings of the sermons are available for purchase immediately after the services at the church bookstores.

Brachear goes on to say that the new policies force her to send e-mails and make phone calls from the restroom in an effort not to “disrespect members during the worship experience” and make deadline.

Is this really a first amendment versus the journalists issue? If the church wanted to keep journalists from covering their worship services, would anything in the law stop them? The bigger question is whether these types of rules are intended to lower the church’s profile.

It would be interesting to compare these policies with other church’s policies on journalists. I am sure there are more than a few stories regarding media coverage of the Episcopal Church battles. Were there policies at Ted Haggard’s former church? How do they all compare and how did it effect the news coverage?

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Who does Benedict say that he is?

pope Cathy Grossman of USA Today talked to a lot of Catholics sources for her mini-profile of Pope Benedict XVI. Yet the one source she did not quote from, aside from one seven-word sentence, was the pontiff himself.

Grossman’s story dealt almost exclusively with American perceptions of Benedict — his image, his persona, his public relations. Consider her lede:

When Shepherd One lands outside Washington, D.C., on April 15, the jet carrying Pope Benedict XVI to a six-day visit in the USA will deliver a complex and surprising man.

His image is cast in a stern adherence to orthodoxy. He has been true to that, but his first three years as leader of the Roman Catholic Church also suggest he is not exactly the harsh disciplinarian some fans had hoped for — or many critics had feared.

One thing hasn’t been a surprise: Benedict, shy and scholarly, has not shown the public relations acumen of his predecessor, John Paul II, who radiated such charisma that not everyone saw his steely inflexibility on theology and traditions.

Leave aside the pejorative use of the terms “steely inflexibility” and “harsh disciplinarian.” Grossman’s initial focus is fair and accurate. The German pontiff is not well known. To the extent that he is, his reputation is that of “God’s Rotweiller.” Plus, Benedict’s comments during his Regensburg lecture were perceived, incorrectly, as an attack on Islam. Any national reporter introducing Benedict to a mass audience should probably do the same as she did.

The trouble is, Grossman did not stop there. She continued writing about people’s perceptions of Benedict:

But those who have watched the new pope closely say he probably has been a surprise to Catholics who expected him to appoint more conservative bishops and crack down swiftly on Catholic universities that conservatives see as having allowed students and faculty members to stray from Catholic teachings and values.

Biographer David Gibson quips, “The Catholic right is actually somewhat disappointed that he hasn’t been tougher,” while the left “is happy not to get a bull (edict) of excommunication in the mail.”

Benedict’s admirers hope people will come to see him as they do: kind, warm, intellectually open and engaging.

The roster of Catholic commentators that Grossman quoted from are smart and knowledgeable. (Did she talk with Ray Flynn? He is the former ambassador to the Vatican.) But I think that she relied on them too heavily. At some point, a reader wants to hear from the pope himself.

But other than a seven-word quote from his book Jesus of Nazareth, the story did not do this. I think this is problem. A reader should know how the main protagonist in the story perceives his message and its importance.

Yes, Grossman’s story summarized Benedict’s message for his visit:

To the laity and clergy, Benedict will promote authentic Catholic identity: More than going to Mass, it is understanding and fully living by Catholic values. To politicians and religious leaders, he’ll emphasize the common ground in natural moral law that rests in reason.

And to all, he’ll denounce “moral relativism,” which “does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

Yet the reader is not told why Benedict is choosing this message. In the absence of this information, a reader would be better informed by reading or the Vatican News Service. And it’s not as if the Pope does not have something to say.

By not quoting more from Benedict, USA Today sold him short. And it is easy to find his words, there are shelves full of his writings and websites packed with texts on a wide variety of subjects.

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Sacred seizure

FLDSbookYesterday I raised some of the journalistic questions surrounding coverage of the raid on the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints in Texas. And I was happy to see I wasn’t alone in being intrigued by those questions.

In the comments to the post, reader Joel asked:

Did you notice that when the temple was searched, there was little or no mention of the taboo-ness of gentiles entering it? I wondered about that, and I still haven’t seen anything that mentions the FLDS reaction to having their sanctum sanctorum violated.

Enter Miguel Bustillo’s story in today’s Los Angeles Times.

Authorities searching a remote polygamist compound for a 16-year-old girl who had claimed she was sexually abused discovered a bed inside a towering limestone temple and were told by a “confidential informant” that men used it to have sex with underage girls, according to a court document unsealed Wednesday.

The Associated Press ran a video report on the raid, that puts the size of the temple and the ranch in context.

Some folks wondered how it was possible that the group’s sacred temple and the contents therein could be subject — rather easily it seemed — to a search and seizure by law enforcement officials. Here’s the Times, again:

The allegation that sex between adult men and underage girls was occurring inside the monolithic white temple came Saturday from a confidential informant who formerly belonged to the religious sect and who had been cultivated over several years by Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, according to the affidavit.

In addition, Texas Ranger Leslie Brooks Long disclosed in the affidavit that investigators had interviewed numerous underage girls who were pregnant or married to men with multiple wives. While inside the compound, Long saw a document “indicating marriages between one man and more than 20 wives, all of whom resided in the same residence” as of last August.

When an investigator asked one girl her age, the affidavit states, the girl turned to her husband, Lee Roy Jessop, who said, “You are 18.” The girl then told the investigator that she was the fourth wife of Jessop, 33, and that “he was still married to the other three wives” in the eyes of the sect.

The initial search warrant does not appear to have been executed solely due to one complaint from a 16-year-old girl who said she had been raped and beaten. The Texas officials had been working with a confidential informant who had, on more than 20 previous occasions, given information that had been corroborated. The affidavits for search warrants have been unsealed so I hope the media report the further details.

Reading through the search warrants, some of the girls with children of their own claim not to know their age. So clearly law enforcement officials are looking for records which establish precisely how much statutory rape is going on among the FLDS. That presents concerns not only related to religious freedom but also attorney-client privilege. FLDS attorneys are arguing they have the right to review the seized material:

“The church has rights. Entry to the church is a sacred area,” said Gerald H. Goldstein, an attorney for church elder Lyle Jeffs. He argued that seized texts and genealogies considered holy by the FLDS should not become part of any court cases if they don’t directly relate to crimes.

Tom Green County District Judge Barbara Walther agreed that with help from an independent special master, the group should have the right to review evidence — for example, to ensure that attorney-client privilege is not violated if the evidence contains correspondence between attorneys and members of the sect.

I think Bustillo did a great job with the story, answering so many of the legal questions that have been raised. One minor point is that the temple had multiple beds, not the singular one that he mentions in the lede. Bustillo wrote an engaging story without falling into some of the overheated langauge we’ve seen in other reports.

For those still wondering about whether the term “compound” is appropriate, read the search warrant and let us know what you think.

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