Big hole in the Big Easy?

Back in March, we did a couple of posts -- here and here -- on news coverage of a Catholic high school in New Orleans embroiled in controversy over corporal punishment and deeper issues. The drama at the African-American high school has kept raging in recent weeks, and Times-Picayune religion writer Bruce Nolan has been all over it.

A GetReligion reader sharing a link to the latest news tells us:

Overall, Mr. Nolan's stories have been great, and he has done a good job at covering the religious and racial tensions at play in this controversy. But this latest story has a huge hole.

Oh, really? Let's check out the complaint.

Here's the top of the story in question:

The Rev. John Raphael told a crowd of hundreds of cheering supporters Wednesday he will remain on the job as president of St. Augustine High School in spite of a weekend order from his religious community that abruptly recalled him to Baltimore.

Raphael's unexpected appearance at a late afternoon rally on the school grounds electrified hundreds of parents, alumni and friends who had come to show support for Raphael and St. Augustine in its conflict with both the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Josephite order that founded the school.

The conflict is nominally about whether, after a year's suspension, to resume the use of corporal punishment at the school -- a practice that violates St. Augustine's Catholic identity, in the view of Archbishop Gregory Aymond and the leadership of the Josephite order.

The reader's concern:

Fr. Raphael has chosen to defy (very publicly) a direct order from his religious order's superior general. Most religious orders require vows of obedience, and canon law might even require it. Did Fr. Raphael take a vow of obedience? What are the possible canonical consequences to publicly disobeying one's religious superior? The story doesn't say, and leaves readers wondering. For a story about such a public act of disobedience, it's a large and gaping hole.

The story reports that the school's local board of directors believes it has sole power to hire or fire its school president. The board chairman told the crowd that Raphael has a valid contract and had agreed to honor it.

More from Nolan's report:

Henry also told the crowd that Raphael has sought advice from church law experts, indicating that Raphael might use internal church procedures to challenge his removal within the Josephite community. Later Raphael authorized the release of his email to the board in which he said a canon lawyer had advised him that Chiffriller's order "is unquestionably invalid."

Raphael advised the board that he was prepared to pursue the case in the church's legal system.

But significantly, the Josephites are also about to have regularly scheduled elections in a week or so that will bring new leadership to bear on the St. Augustine matter.

Henry said the board hopes to have more success dealing with new Josephite leadership.

At the microphone, Raphael framed his decision to remain as president as squarely within St. Augustine's 60-year tradition of encouraging resistance to injustice, when necessary to the point of defiance.

Does any of that negate the alleged "large and gaping" hole? Perhaps. At the least, this story acknowledges that canon law is an issue.

The major weakness, as I see it, is that the piece fails to include any input from those who have told Raphael to leave. Whether that's because the reporter didn't call them -- or they didn't want to comment -- I don't know. That would be good information to include, even in the form of a "declined to comment" or a "could not be reached for comment" or "do not as a general practice talk to the media."

At the same time, if you read the whole story, there's a lot of nuance -- and obvious understanding of religion and the issues at play -- in this report. Thank the Godbeat for that.

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