murder

Was it counseling or confession? A crucial twist in the cold-case murder trial of a priest

 Was it counseling or confession? A crucial twist in the cold-case murder trial of a priest

Anyone who has spent much time on the Godbeat knows that religion is complicated and that, when dealing with issues of doctrine and religious law, things can get even more confusing.

It's crucial to get the details right, including using the correct words, using these terms accurately and then helping readers understand why these fine details matter.

Thus, I would like to praise a recent Washington Post story about the infamous, and very complicated, cold-case investigation into the 1960 rape and murder of former beauty queen Irene Garza in McAllen, Tex. However, I want to praise this feature while also noting one strange choice of words that will worry many readers, especially Catholics.

Now, it's crucial to know that Garza's faith is at the heart of this story, since she was a daily-Mass Catholic. (Click here for a previous post about coverage of this case.)

One day this young woman went to confession at Sacred Heart Catholic Church and she never came back. The last person to see her alive was the priest who heard that confession, the Rev. John Feit.

There were good reasons to suspect the 27-year-old priest of murder, including another priest's testimony that Feit had scratches on his hands after midnight Mass -- only a few hours after Garza went to confession. However, the case was complicated on several levels, including fears among local political leaders and clergy that charging a priest with murder might hurt Sen. John Kennedy's chances, as a Catholic, to win Texas in his campaign for the White House.

So what evidence cracked open this old case? This is where the Post feature includes one vague word -- precisely at the point where precision was crucial. Here is the crucial passage:

... (I)n April of 2002, the San Antonio police department received a phone call from a former priest in Oklahoma City -- Dale Tacheny. He explained that in 1963, he had lived at a Trappist monastery in Missouri and counseled a priest from San Antonio.
“He told me that he had attacked a young woman in a parish on Easter weekend and murdered her,” the caller said, according to Texas Monthly. In a letter, Tacheny identified Feit and recounted how he took the woman to the parish house to hear her confession. After hearing her confession he assaulted, bound and gagged her, Tacheny said.

So there are two questions that should be asked at this point.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

No Christian fellowship for this prisoner; Washington Post parrots one side (guess which one?)

No Christian fellowship for this prisoner; Washington Post parrots one side (guess which one?)

Prison is not always a happy place for inmates, and that's probably by design. The goal of prisons, which once were called penitentiaries because the aim was for criminals to become penitent over their crimes, is to induce serious reflection and change in the attitudes of prisoners.

When reporting on conflicts over issues of faith behind bars, it might be well for editors and reports to reflect on the basics of journalism: It's best to report all sides of the story, even if official voices may be reluctant to speak because of pending litigation.

The basics: Shari Webber-Dunn, 46, convicted in 1994 of participating in the killing of her estranged husband, the presence of Christian-themed items at the Topeka Correctional Facility in Kansas is too great a burden. The inmate is suing Kansas officials with the aid of the American Humanist Association.

Over at The Washington Post, the resulting coverage presents one side of what must be a two-or-more-sided story:

Church and state are too cozy at the Topeka Correctional Facility, according to a convicted murderer who has spent the past 23 years inside Kansas’s prison system.
Shari Webber-Dunn -- who in 1994 was handed a 40-year-minimum prison sentence for her role in the murder of her estranged husband -- claims in a federal lawsuit filed last week that inmates at Kansas’s only women’s prison are subjected to an endless profusion of Christian imagery and propaganda, from the material posted on bulletin boards to the movies played in the common room.
The net effect, Webber-Dunn claims, adds up to an institutional message “imposing Christian beliefs on inmates” in a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit argues the prison has created a “coercive atmosphere where inmates are pressured to spend their time in a high religious atmosphere and to participate in religious activities and prayers, thus violating the establishment clause.”

The Post report recounts many of the allegations raised in the lawsuit and summarizes a number of charges, including:

The prison also provides “free Christian literature including monthly church newsletters, daily devotional guides, Bible tracts, various magazine, prayer cards, pamphlets” for the inmates. Yet when Webber-Dunn wanted to buy a 3½-inch statue of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, she had to hire a lawyer to compel the prison to approve the religious purchase.
The lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court to issue a permanent injunction enjoining the state from continuing to allow Christian practices inside the facility.

Apart from the obligatory official side-step -- "Samir Arif, a Department of Corrections spokesman, declined to comment on the suit, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported" -- the Post makes zero effort to help readers understand any other side of the story.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Why did People magazine out-report the Associated Press on a cult-related killing?

Why did People magazine out-report the Associated Press on a cult-related killing?

If ever there was a crime for which the word "bizarre" was coined, the recent tragic events in Coolbaugh Township, Pennsylvania would likely be "Exhibit A."

Local police allege Barbara Rogers shot and killed her boyfriend, Steven Mineo, whose body was found on July 15 after Rogers called police to report the shooting. According to police, Rogers claims she shot Mineo at his request, over issues involving a religious cult to which both adults apparently belonged.

The Associated Press picks up the barest essence of the story from there, presenting us with a key journalistic issue:

Rogers told officers Mineo, 32, was having “online issues” with a cult and asked her to kill him, said Lt. Steven Williams, of the Pocono Mountain Regional Police. She said her boyfriend believed the cult’s leader to be a “reptilian” pretending to be a human, according to an affidavit.
Rogers, 42, told police the group centers on “aliens and raptures.” Online postings associated with the cult detail a theory that a group of alien reptiles is subverting the human race through mind control.

I should note that I found the AP story at the website of the Wilkes-Barre, Penna., Times Leader, a newspaper whose offices are a mere 45 minutes away, by car, from the crime scene. (I'll have more to say about that in a moment.) 

American author Mark Twain once declared, “There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe… the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.” In reporting this cult case, I believe the AP got a head start on that total eclipse of the sun due in mid-August.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Christian lives matter: The Guardian reports Catholic murder in Bangladesh -- NY Times shrugs

Christian lives matter: The Guardian reports Catholic murder in Bangladesh -- NY Times shrugs

Bangladesh, with its new wave of atrocities over the last half-week, has gotten fresh attention -- but not necessarily balanced attention.

"Christian murdered in latest Bangladesh attack," says The Guardian of the Catholic grocer who was hacked to death outside his store.

And the New York Times reports the throat-slashing murder of a Hindu priest in Bangladesh on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, the two stories are not equally good. The Guardian ran the better one, for its sweep and for connecting religious and political facets.  

The narrative of the death of Sunil Gomes as brutally efficiently as the crime itself:

A Christian was knifed to death after Sunday prayers near a church in northwest Bangladesh in an attack claimed by Islamic State.
Police said unidentified attackers murdered the 65-year-old in the village of Bonpara, home to one of the oldest Christian communities in Muslim-majority Bangladesh. "Sunil Gomes was hacked to death at his grocery store just near a church at Bonpara village," said Shafiqul Islam, deputy police chief of Natore district.

And the paper doesn't just stop with the police-blotter facts. It interviews Father Bikash Hubert Rebeiro of the Bonpara Catholic church. He says Gomes attended Sunday prayers, used to work as a gardener at the church and was "known for his humility."

"I can’t imagine how anyone can kill such an innocent man," the priest says.

We also learn of other recent victims in Bangladesh. One was Mahmuda Begum,  stabbed and shot in the head in front of her young son -- apparently because her husband is a police commissioner who has helped track down terrorists. The others are a Hindu trader and a Buddhist monk, both killed last week. 

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Crime Reporting 101: Into sad tale of murder, blood and drugs, enter God and forgiveness

Crime Reporting 101: Into sad tale of murder, blood and drugs, enter God and forgiveness

"Mother forgives son held in slaying," said the headline on a Metro cover story in The Dallas Morning News on Monday.

That title certainly raised my GetReligion antenna.

However, I was skeptical I'd find deep religion content in this police beat report, which appears online on the newspaper's Crime Blog:

Joyce Richardson turned the key and opened the door of Apartment 1705, as she did every day.
This time, though, her son and stepdaughter weren’t there. The night before, violence erupted. Now, one sat in jail; the other lay dead in the morgue.
Inside, Richardson closed the door. She noticed the silence. And the blood. Blood on the walls. Blood on the old brown couch and TV.
Bottles of alcohol. The bags of groceries she had brought a day earlier, still on the kitchen counter.

No religion there. But I kept reading. The very next paragraph:

She sat, prayed and cried.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

How do Christians — past and present — interpret 'You shall not murder'?

How do Christians — past and present — interpret 'You shall not murder'?

GEORGE’S QUESTION:

When are we as Christians allowed to fight back and protect our civilization?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

George wonders whether Christians should work in police departments, whose conduct is much in the news, as well as the armed forces or other security vocations that  involve use of violence and possible  injury or death.

The Religion Guy previously addressed various religions’ views of military service in this post. But it’s a perennial and important topic worth another look, this time limited to Christianity. [Thus the following leaves aside the pressing problem of Islam's growing faction that applies religiously motivated terrorism against the innocent, fellow Muslims included.]

The Christian discussion involves especially two Bible passages. In the Ten Commandments, God proclaims, “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13, repeated in Deuteronomy 5:17).  Or so say the familiar Douay, King James, and Revised Standard versions. However, most recent Christian translations instead follow the same word choice as the Jewish Publication Society editions of 1917 and 1985: “You shall not murder.”

Hebrew scholars tell us the verb here refers specifically to illegitimate taking of life, that is “murder,” as distinct from various other types of “killing.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Ghosts in Baltimore's bloody, troubled, doomed 'Murder Mall'

Ghosts in Baltimore's bloody, troubled, doomed 'Murder Mall'

Another long road trip.

Thus, another big stack of Baltimore Sun newspapers waiting in my comfy reading chair. It's tough work, but somebody's got to do it.

We will get back to crime reports and Charm City in just a moment, after I try to explain why one crime story -- out of many -- caught my eye during my blitz through the newspapers that collected during my week-long road trip into the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina.

You see, this particular article contains absolute zero references to God, religion, faith, worship or prayer -- topics that often show up in Sun reports about murders and violence.

Why is that? Why did I see a GetReligion angle here? A "ghost" even?

You see, it is very common for Godtalk to show up in the language of ordinary people in the aftermath of crimes in the most troubled neighborhoods in our city. They pray for peace in the city. They crowd into churches for funerals in which ministers talk about sin and guilt and redemption and hope. Reporters, every now and then, quote these voices.

This makes sense.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

A murdered child, a guilty teen, 'Dexter' and a very real hell

One of the big ideas of this website, oft repeated in a variety of wordings, is that if journalists want to understand real events in the real lives of real people in the real world, then — more often than not — they are going have to wrestle with very real religious issues. At some point, journalists have to take religion seriously and let people talk about the religious beliefs that help shape their actions in life.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Death penalty in Cleveland horrors? Wait, who died?

Once again, let’s turn to the dictionary and that tricky word “fetus,” which has through the decades been at the heart of so many bitter newsroom arguments about abortion, morality, religion, science and law.

Please respect our Commenting Policy