Sister Jane, chapter 2: Observer still favors the protestors

Remember the fracas over a speech by a nun at a Catholic school? Well, they haven't forgotten at Charlotte Catholic School in North Carolina, where nearly 1,000 people gathered Wednesday night to complain about Sister Jane Dominic Laurel's March 21 speech focusing on Catholic teachings on marriage and sexuality. And again, the Charlotte Observer gleaned enough for a story on the matter, although the reporter couldn't get in. (Wasn’t his fault, though; the school locked out all media except the diocesan newspaper.) Just not enough information for a clear picture.

As you may remember from my April 2 piece, Sister Jane is a Dominican nun from Nashville who spoke on sexuality at the Charlotte school. Parents said their kids told them the sister voiced "inflammatory comments": homosexual behavior is unnatural, children develop best in two-parent families, etc. More than 3,000 of them signed a petition and the school arranged a meeting on the matter.

Reporting second hand is a handicap. It means relying on texts and tweets from inside the school gym -- inevitably getting more feedback from the angrier parents. But the Observer did have six days, after its March 27 story, to study the matter and make contacts on both sides. There was plenty of time to find the many Catholics who are supporting Sister Jane.

Unfortunately, the new story repeats some of the same mistakes.

Once again, it cites the protesters more than the school's supporters, although it notes the latter were present as well. The story paraphrases them, but they're outweighed by the opposition:

Some defended Laurel, saying she was presenting traditional Catholic teachings. But Hains and others said the majority of parents who spoke did not agree with the nun or many of her comments.

And some expressed anger at the school for inviting her, for not stopping her when she veered off script, and for not telling parents ahead of time what she would talk about.

At times, the article blurs the line between fact and personal impressions. It quotes a parent quoting her son:

“He said, ‘We had the worst assembly today,’ ” Traynor recalled. “He said he tried to leave with some others, but they were made to sit down. There are students in this school who are openly gay and some who are not out yet. Obviously, they felt bullied.”

And again, the newspaper didn’t quote the alleged offender, Sister Jane herself. The one whose words were being trashed and perhaps mischaracterized. And it's not like she couldn't be found.

With about 15 minutes of Googling, I found her CV and phone number at Aquinas College in Nashville, where she is an assistant professor of theology.

You get a very different take from the Catholic News Herald, which got an inside view. The News Herald extensively quotes Father Matthew Kauth, the school chaplain.

Kauth explains that he wanted to offer kids an alternative viewpoint of sexuality. He also says Sister Jane has spoken at the school in past years. A big service: the News Herald links to the course material from which the nun's speech was drawn, although Kauth says other data came from an outside study.

The story also quotes four parents who criticized the school for allowing Sister Jane's speech. But it also cites a few defenders -- and how they were treated:

Some parents tried coming to Father Kauth’s defense but were shouted down by other people. Several parents thanked Father Kauth profusely for the positive impacts his ministry has had on their children, who are students at the school.

"I trust the administration here and it has brought very good and energetic talk into our household," one parent said, but they were booed.

Both articles, the Observer and the News Herald, had school administrators apologizing to the parents for not alerting them to the topic of Sister Jane's speech and promising to communicate more effectively.

It bears repeating that the school should have opened the meeting to secular media. When you're locked out, you pick up what you can; and outside the building, as inside, the angriest voices are usually the loudest.

But the Observer's tilt seems clear, as shown in yet another story about Sister Jane. Notice that now, it's no longer the topic that's controversial -- it's Sister Jane herself.

That story, from this past Tuesday, sets up the two sides thusly:

Some parents defended Laurel, saying she was merely presenting traditional Catholic teachings that need to be upheld. Other parents said she had gone way beyond that, and was using suspect anecdotes, antiquated data and broad generalizations to demonize gays and lesbians as well as divorced and single parents.

The Observer still did better than some media, as the New Advent website found. New Advent links a story from the ABC affiliate in Nashville, rather unsubtly titled "Nashville Dominican nun makes anti-gay comments, causes outrage." And much of that content was borrowed from the March 27 Observer article.

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