Ghosts in Texas rape coverage

Coverage of the 11-year-old girl's repeated gang rapes in Texas continued this week as 19 boys and men have been charged. Court records suggest that the assaults happened on at least four dates between September and November.

The New York Times' initial story "Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town" reported that neighbors said the girl "dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s." The piece was criticized by many, including the paper's own public editor and Bill Keller.

Some seemed to breathe a sigh of relief at the follow-up story, which included an interview with the victim's father.

However, a reader sent us a note of confusion based on the story's introduction with a vague reference to a youth group:

A year ago, the 11-year-old girl who the police say was the victim of repeated gang rapes in this East Texas town was an outgoing honor roll student, brimming with enthusiasm, who went on hikes and planted trees with a youth group here.

"She has always been a really bubbly child," said Brenda Myers, director of the Community and Children's Impact Center, who worked with her. "She always had a smile on her face."

What kind of youth group was the girl involved in? Are her parents religious? Of course, this is not a religion story per se, but a few more details might paint a clearer picture. More religious aspects appear later in the story.

The arrests have raised fundamental questions about how a girl might have been repeatedly abused by many men and boys in a tightly knit community without any adult intervening, or even seeming to register that something was amiss, until sexually explicit videos of the victim began circulating in local schools.

"It wasn't that anyone was asleep," said the Rev. Travis Hulett Jr., the pastor of the New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, which anchors the Precinct 20 neighborhood where most of the defendants live. "You can be awake and see things and still not do anything."

Religion appears again with the accused men. Consider the comparison of the following two paragraphs:

The affidavits said the girl told investigators that she then "engaged in sexual intercourse and oral sex" with several of the men present, among them Jared G. McPherson, 18, a high school basketball player, and Jared L. Cruse, also 18, who has since been charged with robbing a grocery store in the next county.

...Bertha Cleveland, an aunt of Mr. Cruse, said her nephew went to church regularly, held down a job at McDonald's and had told her he intended to go to college. "Our younger generation is running rampant," she said. "The devil is in full control."

The quotes from the accused man's aunt are pretty interesting but also fairly vague--it's unclear what we're supposed to think about the church-going defendant. Some have criticized the Times for not including details about race, an area that the Houston Chronicle looked at in its follow-up coverage:

Meanwhile, Houston community activist Quanell X rolled into town on Thursday evening and held a rally questioning the ongoing investigation that has resulted in 18 black men and boys in Cleveland being charged with sexually assaulting the 11-year-old Hispanic girl.

Quanell spoke before a standing-room only crowd in a community building he rented after a predominantly minority church withdrew an invitation for him to speak and law enforcement officials advised him to cancel the meeting because of "racial unrest between black and Hispanic groups."

The Chronicle details some more reaction that includes a religious element.

Several churches have organized special prayer events for the town.

Carter Williams, 64, seated at a small card table playing dominoes inside a local grocery, does not think laying blame is the right response to the sex assault.

"This is a praying time for the young men and the young girl," Williams said. "Seems like everyone in this whole town needs some God in their life."

Again, while this is not a religion story, there appear to be some religious elements that could be made clearer. As NPR suggests, sexual assault is a challenging area for journalists to cover, and vague religion details only muddy the waters.

Please respect our Commenting Policy