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.

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