Sex abuse, religion and forgiveness

Between budget cuts, layoffs and diminishing page counts, it's rare to see newspapers publish long-form stories of several thousand words or so. The Wichita Eagle puts its readers to the test by publishing a 3-part series of about 7,000 words. Its readers appeared to respond with hits, since the series "Promise Not to Tell" is the most-read story on the newspaper's website this week.

The narrative of two girls' rescue from their own family is a story you might see in a book, hopefully fiction. Reporter Roy Wenzl produces a sobering piece about Kellie and Kathie Henderson, twins who were raped and assaulted for years by their older brothers and father before they were rescued by neighbors and police.

Start with the part one and work your way through this compelling series for an example of how a reporter gets religion. Early on, he explains how the girls' neighbors Jim and Shelly Vasey participated in Bible studies and Countryside Christian Church, which explains their later involvement in the girls' lives.

With Brad [the father] gone and no longer able to object, Shelly Vasey had the girls come to a Christian discipleship class at her home. The few Bible passages about sex upset the twins: right and wrong, love and affection. Couples. Consent. Trust.

The girls almost spilled the secret, but fear stopped them.

Sometimes at night Kellie lashed out, and for once Kathie agreed with everything Kellie said.

"Where is God?

"If there is a God, if He is perfect, if He wants everything perfect, why does He let this happen to us?"

Sometimes Kellie ran out of her house, wanting to shout "rape" to all the neighborhood. But she feared for her sisters. So she kept the secret.

Faith clearly played a further role in the neighbors' involvement in the girls' lives.

One day when the girls were 12, Jim Vasey with his big arms and gentle manner dipped the three Henderson girls into the baptismal tub at Countryside Christian and welcomed them to the faith.

Andrew watched, a bulky and muscular lineman for Southeast's football team. At close to 240 pounds, he outweighed his little sisters by about 140, and always had an angry look. Kellie thought this had gotten worse the more he smoked pot.

The girls had told Jim they wanted Andrew there because they loved him.

Apparently so, Jim thought. The boy, now 17, was sobbing like a child; Jim thought he was deeply moved by the baptisms.

But Kathie knew better.

Andrew raped her that night.

A few months after that, he molested his youngest sister.

There's more, but I can't copy and paste everything (and there are photos and video to see). You'll have to read more about the rescue and where the girls ended up. The reporter made a later effort to find out how Kellie--now 19 and taking classes at a community college--feels about religion.

She does not often call her biological mother, because she has nightmares every time she talks to her. She does not often go to church, though she wants to go someday, as Shelly has gently prodded her to. "But I still pretty much think the same thing that I sometimes said to Kathie back when we were being raped. I can't quite get over it. If there is a God, how could he let this thing happen to us? We didn't deserve it."

These quotes shows how religion remains complicated but still present. The third part deals with the efforts to reach out to the primary abuser in the family.

Almost immediately after she saved them, Shelly began doing things that baffled and upset the twins.

She wrote Andrew in prison, hinting at kindness.

She worried that judgmental inmates might hurt him. His answer surprised her.

Putting him behind bars was the best thing anyone did for him, he told her. He said he would not have stopped. He said he was sorry.

The twins scoffed when they heard this. And after she reached out, some neighbors confessed to disgust.

They should burn, one said of the Henderson males.

Why are you being nice to them? Monsters.

Shelly felt sorry for these critics. What kind of Christianity was that?

"I'm not foolish about Andrew," she said one day, with Kathie sitting beside her on the couch. "He hurt the girls too much. I want him to be punished too. But of course he can be forgiven. What Christian should think otherwise?"

You'll have to read the rest to find out what happens to the relationship between the neighbors and Andrew, but it's a really good read.

These kinds of packages offer reporters the time and space to include those kinds of religious details. Nieman Storyboard wrote last year that the Eagle is trying to use narrative to connect to local, larger audience. As an example, the post pointed to Roy Wenzl's 17,000-word 2009 series on a U.S. Army chaplain ordained in Wichita. Hopefully we'll see other daily newspapers follow the Eagle's lead in 2011. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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