Irish children’s deaths: Media may be returning to sanity

Are cooler heads finally prevailing in that story of the children who died at a nun-run home in Ireland? There are some signs. But the temp is not yet back to normal.

As you may recall from a previous column of mine, a local historian determined that hundreds of children died at St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, between 1925 and 1961. She couldn’t find their graves in nearby cemeteries, and she concluded that most of the children were buried on the premises.

That birthed an avalanche of stories about mass deaths, mass graves, even mass dumpings of dead babies into a septic tank. A headline on the radio station Newstalk even quoted a media priest screaming that “Tuam mass grave like ‘something that happened in Germany in the war’.”

Numerous articles at the start of June also parroted the accusation that babies born inside Irish mother-daughter homes were “denied baptism” and, if they died there, were “also denied a Christian burial.” As Kevin Clarke of America magazine points out, the claim is repeated with no attribution or attempt to prove it.

Over the last week or two, though, sanity may be creeping in. Some media are dialing back the hysteria, keeping more in line with what they really know. What a novel idea, eh?

The Limerick Leader follows the Irish Times — by six days — in saying that Corliss has “distanced herself from more sensationalist reports of 800 babies “buried in a septic tank.” Most of the story is a cautious profile on a young computer expert who is compiling a narrative on the children’s deaths from contemporary newspaper archives.

 

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All Catholics oppose death penalty and all Baptists favor it?

In the wake of the nation’s first executions since Oklahoma’s botched lethal injection, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has an interesting story on a young Republican concerned about the death penalty:

Late Tuesday, as the clock approached midnight, Marcus Wellons rode to oblivion on a state-inserted needle, his punishment for the rape and murder of a young Cobb County neighbor 24 years ago.

That same day, Marc Hyden, a 30-year-old confirmed conservative Republican from Marietta, hopped a plane for Washington D.C. Today, he will open a booth at the fifth annual gathering of Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Hyden is a national coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a two-year-old, GOP-based group that carries tea party suspicion of government into a new but highly logical arena:

If you don’t trust your government to deliver a piece of mail to your doorstep, how can you trust it to competently decide who lives and who dies?

To its credit, the Journal-Constitution recognizes that religion plays a role in this debate:

An extensive national survey conducted last year by Barna Group showed that 42 percent of Christian baby-boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, agreed that “government should have the option to execute the worst criminals.”

But among those born between 1980 and 2000, the approval rate dropped to 32 percent among self-identified Christians. Among actively practicing Christian millennials, only 23 percent approved of the death penalty.

Then comes this:

The religious connection is important, especially in terms of Georgia politics. An alliance between Southern Baptists and Catholics has been a large part of the success enjoyed by religious conservatives at the state Capitol when it comes to issues such as gay marriage or abortion.

But the death penalty divides the two denominations. Catholics oppose executions. Southern Baptists do not.

That last sentence assumes a lot. Is it really true that Catholics oppose executions, while Southern Baptists do not? Technically, the answer is probably yes.

From a Pew Research Center primer on religious groups’ official positions on the death penalty:

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Nuns, strippers and the never-boring Godbeat

Put another one in the “Godbeat sure ain’t boring” file.

I first read about the dispute between a group of Chicago-area nuns and a neighboring strip club in the Chicago Tribune:

A group of nuns is suing to shut down a strip club next to their convent in Stone Park that the sisters say keeps them awake at night.

The Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo Scalabrinians say in the suit that Club Allure has ruined their peace with blinking neon lights and loud thumping music. The nuns say they have witnessed drunken fights and found condoms littering the area.

The suit, filed against the club and the village of Stone Park, states that the club violates a state law against operating adult entertainment within 1,000 feet of a school or place of worship. The club is also near houses, and three neighbors have joined the suit.

“I think most people would find that offensive, to put a strip club next to a home for sisters,” said Peter Breen, attorney for the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit law firm that filed the suit on behalf of the nuns.

The Tribune offers a straightforward, non-cheeky account of the conflict, highlighting the nuns’ concerns, the tricky legal issues involved and the strip club’s response — all in less than 450 words.

The paper even provides a link to the lawsuit.

All three sources quoted — one each on behalf of the nuns, the municipality and the strip club — are attorneys. While that is entirely proper and journalistically sound, I found myself wishing I could hear directly from a nun. Or even a stripper.

The Chicago Sun-Times did quote a nun (although I’d rank its overall story below the quality of the Tribune’s):

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Did a British judge compel a child to have an abortion?

Reader beware. A story that is too good to be true is often that, not true.

An article in the Huffington Post reporting that a British judge compelled a 13-year-old to undergo an abortion sparked outrage on pro-life blogs and news sites this week. Unfortunately the key claim of the story — what moved this from a tragedy to an outrage — was false.

The Huffington Post ran a story on June 9 entitled “High Court Orders 13-Year-Old Girl To Have Abortion.” This prompted sharp reactions from commentators, while LifeSiteNews.com — a conservative Christian advocacy site — ran a story entitled “UK judge orders 13-year-old to have abortion. This is medical rape.”

The lede in this advocacy piece stated:

This story is truly disturbing. According to the Huffington Post UK: “A ‘very damaged’ 13-year-old girl was ordered to have an abortion by Britain’s most senior family judge, it has been revealed.

The girl, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was impregnated by a 14-year-old boy and initially wanted to keep her baby.”

That’s right. This girl, because she was considered mentally incompetent, was forced — forced — to have her child dismembered, decapitated, and disemboweled by the medical establishment because one Sir James Munby decided that capital punishment was most appropriate for being the child of a someone he described as “very … impaired.”

Where does the error lay? Did the editorial writer at LifeSiteNews misconstrue the Huffington Post story? Here is the lede from the Huffington Post — what would you take this to mean?

A “very damaged” 13-year-old girl was ordered to have an abortion by Britain’s most senior family judge, it has been revealed.

However, other press reports of the incident did not say the judge compelled the girl to have an abortion. The Daily Mail reported the girl had at first declined to have an abortion, but then wanted to have an abortion.

The judge said evidence had been prepared on the basis that the teenager was opposed to a termination. But when the hearing began she was ‘wavering’ and by the end she had wanted a termination. He said the ‘preponderance of evidence” pointed to a termination being in the girl’s best interests and said he had, in any event, concluded that a termination was in her best interests.

The Huffington Post piece did hint at a change of mind.

But Sir James said the girl’s opposition to an abortion had wavered during the hearing. ”It was clearly appropriate for me to supply the necessary consent to enable the termination to proceed,” he said.

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Ghosts after Seattle Pacific shooting? Not in this story

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Here at GetReligion, we blog often about holy ghosts in news coverage. However, we much prefer stories that leave no room for spiritual ghostbusting.

Such is the case with an exceptional Seattle Times report on the “grief without despair” that followed last week’s shooting at Seattle Pacific University.

Given the university’s evangelical Christian ties, religion has been a part of this tragic story from the beginning, as tmatt noted earlier.

In a piece published Sunday, the Times explores the faith angle in a simple-but-remarkable way:

In the hours after a gunman killed one Seattle Pacific University student and wounded two others, what struck many was the way the students responded.

They clasped hands in prayer circles; lifted their voices together to sing hymns; prayed for the shooter as well as the victims.

“I have never been more proud of this institution,” Richard Steele, a professor in SPU’s School of Theology, wrote in an email to friends. “The faith, courage and calmness were just stunning,”

The response of the students, faculty and staff to Thursday’s startling violence highlights the role of religious belief at SPU. The small evangelical Christian college, on the north slope of Queen Anne Hill, stands out in the Seattle area for the degree to which it works on developing students’ faith and for fostering a tight-knit community.

Yes, the reporter — a former Godbeat pro named Janet Tu — provides relevant background on Seattle Pacific:

All undergraduates must take at least three courses in theology, and are encouraged to attend worship services, Bible studies, Bible retreats and other such activities to nurture their faith. They are expected to adhere to a code of conduct that prohibits premarital, extramarital or homosexual sex, as well as the use of alcohol or tobacco on campus, and marijuana on or off campus.

The some 4,000 students are predominantly Christian, although there are a few non-Christians at the school, which was founded in 1891 by the Free Methodist Church of North America.

Faculty and staff must be professing, practicing Christians.

But this story (relatively concise at 1,000 words) is at its best when Tu steps backs and allows her sources — three professors and two students — to discuss the role of faith in their own words:

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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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United (for now) Methodists and the same-sex debate

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Amid talk of a possible schism over homosexuality, the United Methodist Church is back in the news.

On the heels of an exceedingly positive profile of Methodist gay-rights advocate Frank Schaefer, the Washington Post reported this weekend:

Hundreds of American pastors from the United Methodist Church have signed a proposal released Friday that aims to keep the global denomination of 12.5 million members from splitting over the issue of homosexuality.

It offers churches and regional bodies the option to make up their own minds on issues like affirming gay clergy and same-sex marriage.

The proposal, titled “A Way Forward,” includes some prominent pastors, including Adam Hamilton, who leads an 18,000-member church in Kansas and delivered the sermon at President Obama’s 2013 inaugural service, and David McAllister-Wilson, president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.

The gist of the proposal, as described by the Post:

“The Church leaders that offer this proposal believe that the current debate is virtually irresolvable if left to the choices that the General Conference has been faced with recently. These leaders believe division would be shortsighted, costly, detrimental to ALL local congregations, and out of step with God’s will,” Friday’s statement read.

“One side believes the ‘practice of homosexuality’ is incompatible with Christian teaching. That is what’s written into the UMC Book of Discipline. The other side believes that scriptures related to homosexuality reflect the values of the time period in which scriptures were written more than the timeless will of God.”

The response from those opposed to budging on homosexuality? More from the Post:

It wasn’t possible to get immediate comment from the leaders of the traditional wing of the church, but the proposal came a few weeks after a group of conservative pastors issued a call of their own for “a way forward” that sounded more like a request to split.

It wasn’t possible? Seriously, what does that mean? Would the traditional leaders not answer their phones? Did the Post get the story too close to deadline? (But give the Post credit for including after that paragraph the most recent statements from the denomination’s traditional wing.)

In most of the reporting on debates such as this, you have one side pushing for something — such as compromise on the issue of homosexuality — and another side opposing it. To a large extent, that’s the nature of news. At the same time, these debates — in real life — often are marked by as much gray as black and white.

With that in my mind, I found a Florida Today story this weekend refreshing in that it reflected the complexity of the discussion among many Methodists:

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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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