Guilt files, Pagan edition

We sometimes reference our guilt files and my guilt file is reaching epic levels so I'm going to try to unload three recent stories into one post. I'm grouping them together under what I'll call The Wild Hunt banner -- they're all stories that would or could be covered over at that blog that deals with Pagan and Heathen communities. The Wild Hunt, for what it's worth, is now appearing over at Patheos so it's interesting to see how Patheos is landing various bloggers across the religious spectrum.

STORY ONE The first was a story from The Tennessean about how Wiccan holidays have been added to the academic calendar at Vanderbilt University. What that means is that students may be excused from class that day should they need the day off for religious observances. It's a fine story, as these things go, but reminds me of how much I enjoyed Associated Press reporter Tom Breen's story on a similar situation at Marshall University four years ago. And you can read Wild Hunt coverage of the story with the hilarious headline "Pagans: Now With Actual Holidays."

STORY TWO The second story was a weird little piece I found at an NBC Philadelphia site. But it's about a practitioner of Palo Mayobe in Massachusetts. His barbershop was, we're told, shut down after authorities found evidence of animal sacrifices in the building's basement. Animal control removed the animals -- two chickens and four roosters, one dead -- but the shop remains closed indefinitely. The shop owner says his religious rights have been violated.

A much better story ran in the local paper South Coast Today. Here's how it begins:

William Camacho has practiced Palo Mayombe, a syncretic Afro-Caribbean religion similar to Santeria, since he was a child.

Camacho, 41, said his religious practices, which include animal sacrificing, have gotten him into trouble with the city, which is considering filing animal cruelty charges against him.

"They violated my moral rights," said Camacho, owner of Bad Boyz Cutz, a downtown barbershop that was closed Tuesday after city inspectors found evidence of ritualistic animal sacrifice there, officials said.

The story does leave some questions. For instance, why is the shop closed indefinitely? We learn that the animals were found after reports of a possible cockfighting operation. Animal control officers realized the animals were instead being used for religious sacrifice. Camacho says those sacrifices take place in rural settings. The technical reason the animals were seized was because they aren't allowed in the city. Animal cruelty charges are pending against Camacho.

The story gives a description of Palo Mayombe which, we're told "incorporates elements of Roman Catholicism along with West African and native Indian traditions. The religion venerates ancestors' spirits and holds a belief in natural earth powers" and:

Like Santeria, Palo Mayombe features animal sacrifices, such as goats and chickens. The animals' blood is thought to have a sacred, powerful life force capable of healing and warding off evil spirits. After the sacrifice, the animals are cooked and eaten.

"The roosters go to heaven after the sacrifice. It's the traditional way," said Camacho, who has tattoos on his arms of his children's names, Jesus Christ and an Indian female warrior. He added that he occasionally uses spells for protection.

The story includes plenty of explanation from Camacho but it might have also been nice to talk to an outside expert on Palo. Still, other context was nice. The reporter mentioned how the law handles ritual animal sacrifices in various municipalities. The ending also wasn't bad:

Also saying that Palo Mayombe has prophetic powers, Camacho said Tuesday's events were actually predicted four days ago in a friend's dream.

"And who shows up at my door today? The cops."

It's a nice combination of including actual religion in a story with some colorful quotes.

STORY THREE And the final story I wanted to look at was the dramatic release of the West Memphis Three. This is a very sad story all around. Three young boys were murdered two decades ago. Three men were imprisoned for 18 years for the crime. They walked free this week, one of them leaving death row to do so.

The case itself is complex, as was the arrangement that got them released. The men maintained their innocence while pleading guilty and the state considers them child killers but safe enough to be set free.

There are also interesting religion angles. Here's a snippet from the New York Times report:

It was May 1993 when the nude bodies of three 8-year-old boys, Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore, were found in a drainage canal in Robin Hood Hills, a wooded area in the poor Arkansas town of West Memphis. The bodies appeared to have been mutilated, and their hands were tied to their feet.

The grotesque nature of the murders, coming in the midst of a nationwide concern about satanic cult activity, especially among teenagers, led investigators from the West Memphis Police Department to focus on Mr. Echols, a troubled yet gifted 18-year-old who wore all black, listened to heavy metal music and considered himself a Wiccan. Efforts to learn more about him through a woman cooperating with the police led to Mr. Misskelley, a 17-year-old acquaintance of Mr. Echols’s.

After a nearly 12-hour police interrogation, Mr. Misskelley confessed to the murders and implicated Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin, who was 16 at the time, though his confession diverged in significant details, like the time of the murders, with the facts known by the police. Mr. Misskelley later recanted, but on the strength of that confession he was convicted in February 1994.

Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin soon after were convicted of three counts of capital murder in a separate trial in Jonesboro, where the proceedings had been moved because of extensive publicity in West Memphis. The convictions were largely based on the testimony of witnesses who said they heard the teenagers talk of the murders, and on the prosecution’s argument that the defendants had been motivated as members of a satanic cult. Mr. Misskelley’s confession was not admitted at their trial, though recently a former lawyer for that jury’s foreman filed an affidavit saying that the foreman, determined to convict, had brought the confession up in deliberations to sway undecided jurors.

The story is lengthy, mentions some documentaries that got the convicted men some help, and also that for all of the celebrity involvement in the case, some local people believe strongly in the guilt of the men who were released. But it's even more complex:

But even some of the victims’ families began to doubt the men’s guilt, including Stevie Branch’s mother, Pamela Hobbs, and John Mark Byers, the father of Chris Byers. Both attended the hearing. “Three young men have had 18 years of their lives taken away,” said Mr. Byers, who appeared in the original documentary profanely condemning the men. “To see them get out and have a normal life is a blessing from God.”

It's an interesting story and one that I expected would receive far more coverage. The part that interested me even more than the guilt or innocence of these particular men was the mood of the era in which they were convicted. The whole Satanic Panic thing. I had hoped to see a few more stories about the Satanic panic and maybe some benefit of hindsight into what was real and what was imagined from that era. Once again, The Wild Hunt has some interesting analysis.

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