By Terrence McCoy
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I should admit at the outset that I, like most estranged Catholics, have nun issues. Still visible on my knuckles, though only faintly, are the scars left by Sister Rene, who used to whack me with a wooden ruler whenever I acted up during my days at St. Patrick's Elementary School in Brooklyn. Normally my parents would not tolerate anyone hitting their children (they never raised a hand against me or my sister), but to them Sister Rene and the other nuns at the school were different. If coming home with bloody knuckles provoked any outrage, it was always directed at me. The nuns carried the authority of the church; anything they did was accepted as the will of God. You simply did not question a nun's actions or motives.
Yet more than 25 years later I sit here doing just that: pondering the actions and motives of a nun. In this case it's Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, the 70-year-old president of Barry University and the newest center of controversy in the Elian Gonzalez case.
In an interview last week with the Miami Herald, Sister Jeanne told reporter Meg Laughlin she had come to the conclusion that Elian should remain in the United States after speaking briefly with the grandmothers privately and discovering, among other things, that one of them wanted to defect. Sister Jeanne also told Laughlin she'd learned from the grandmothers that Elian's father knew in advance his ex-wife was going to take Elian to the United States, and that during their marriage he was physically abusive to her.
At least that is what the Herald claims Sister Jeanne said.
On Sunday, February 20, the same day the story was published, Sister Jeanne issued a statement declaring, "I never met with the grandmothers alone. While some of the specifics noted in the Herald contributed to my decision, it is untrue that I heard any of that from the grandmothers. Any information attributed to them came from other sources."
The Herald countered by issuing its own statement defending the story and reiterating that Sister Jeanne did indeed say she learned these things directly from the grandmothers.
On Monday a spokeswoman for Barry University ratcheted the imbroglio up a notch by claiming the Herald tricked Sister Jeanne into agreeing to an interview by telling her the resulting story would be a straightforward profile and would not dwell on Elian. "That's what we were told ahead of time," says Michele Morris, an assistant vice president at the school, "and that's why we agreed to do it." Morris further contends that the portion of the interview regarding Elian and the grandmothers was supposed to be an "off-the-record conversation" and that Sister Jeanne never imagined she would see it in print.
Meg Laughlin, a respected Herald staffer who for many years wrote for Tropic magazine, acknowledges that when she initially approached Sister Jeanne for an interview, she said she was working on a general profile of the nun. The two women first met on February 15 for an interview that lasted approximately three hours and covered myriad aspects of Sister Jeanne's life, past and present. Then several days later, on Friday, February 18, Sister Jeanne called Laughlin and told her why she believed Elian should stay in the United States, citing the desire of one of the grandmothers to defect, the allegations of abuse against Elian's father, and her belief the father knew all along that the boy was being taken to America.
She told Laughlin she was going to provide an affidavit to one of the attorneys for Elian's Miami relatives, Roger Bernstein, detailing what she'd heard. Laughlin says Sister Jeanne even confided to her that she hadn't told Bernstein the grandmothers themselves were the source of her information.
Laughlin also acknowledges that Sister Jeanne at first said their conversation regarding the grandmothers and Elian was off the record, but she soon persuaded the nun to go on the record with those comments. Because Sister Jeanne's revelations were so timely, Laughlin explains, her editors made the decision to highlight them as a straight news story rather than incorporate them into a broader profile. Laughlin says she called Sister Jeanne on Saturday, one day before the story was published, to warn her it wasn't going to be a profile but rather a news story about Elian and the grandmothers.
After the story ran, Laughlin recalls, she received on her answering machine a friendly message from Sister Jeanne, who expressed confusion over who was responsible for getting things wrong in the story: she or Laughlin. "Several times she said, 'I have to say that I was never alone with the grandmothers,'" Laughlin recounts. "She didn't just say, 'I was never alone with the grandmothers.' She always said, 'I have to say that I was never alone with the grandmothers.'" The inference, of course, is that Sister Jeanne did hear these things from at least one of the grandmothers but now was denying it for some reason, perhaps in an effort to protect them.
Despite the perverse pleasure I take in seeing the Herald's reportorial accuracy questioned in the national press, I find it nearly impossible to believe that a writer as good as Meg Laughlin could have gotten this wrong. Instead I find it far more likely that Sister Jeanne is -- to put it charitably -- a flake. (Let us not forget that this is the nun who professed she had the psychic power to discern fear in the eyes of complete strangers.)