cold case

The Daily Beast digs into case of a generic 'youth pastor' who preyed on young boys

The Daily Beast digs into case of a generic 'youth pastor' who preyed on young boys

It's a truth your GetReligionistas have discussed many times. When you are covering a story about people linked to a faith with a clearly defined hierarchy it's pretty clear who you are supposed to call.

I'm not just talking about Roman Catholics. If a United Methodist pastor gets in trouble, there is a clear regional and national structure linked to the work of the clergy. Southern Baptist congregations are part of regional associations, state conventions and then they have ties of various kinds to the national Southern Baptist Convention. You have some place to start digging.

But when a minister goes REALLY off the tracks, it's hard -- especially in the world of nondenominational, independent evangelicalism or Pentecostalism -- to find a paper trail anywhere, along with people who were responsible for supervising the work of this or that clergyperson. And what about people who were only "sort of" clergy?

I thought of all of that while reading this recent piece at The Daily Beast that had this genuinely hellish tabloid headline: "UNHOLY: Pastor Arrested for Chopping Up Teen Kept Counseling Kids for 23 Years."

Now, in terms of facts linked to church life, the key word in that headline is "pastor."

When you hear "pastor," you kind of assume that we are talking about an individual who has gone to seminary, been ordained and has a pulpit somewhere in a church. Pastors fill a specific leadership role in a specific faith community, one with a tradition of some kind (even if its an independent local congregation). You hear "associate pastor" and you think someone who carries out a specific ministry, working in a larger church that has a senior pastor in the pulpit.

Now in this case, things are much murkier and the Daily Beast team never offers readers a clear look at the facts, in terms of the man at the heart of this nightmare. Once we make it past the mysteries linked to the sniffing dog and the headless torso, what we get is this:

Fred Laster, 16, was last seen with local youth pastor Ron Hyde several days earlier. Laster hitched a ride with Hyde after a family argument, according to his sister. Laster and his five siblings were living with their elderly grandparents at the time, after their mom died from cancer four years earlier.

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Complicated cold case: Was beauty queen raped, killed by her priest (now an ex-priest)?

Complicated cold case: Was beauty queen raped, killed by her priest (now an ex-priest)?

I have been thinking about the rather picky journalism issues raised in this post for quite some time now, so consider this a trip into my GetReligion "file of guilt."

What we have here is another argument about headlines. I find fights over headlines quite compelling, in part because (a) I spent several years on a copy desk writing headlines and (b) I know (the research has been around for decades) how many readers merely scan headlines and, at most, the top paragraph or two of most stories. Many readers see a headline and then react. That's the sad truth.

So what about that long, very detailed Washington Post headline the other day that proclaimed, "Break in ‘unholy’ cold case: Police arrest former beauty queen’s priest in her 1960 killing." And here is the top of the story:

Fifty-six years ago, a young schoolteacher went to church during Holy Week and never came home.
The next day, a few of her possessions were found scattered along the road outside the local Sacred Heart Church, as Texas Monthly recounted. One high-heeled shoe, a patent-leather handbag, a piece of crumpled white lace.
The following week, her body was found, fully dressed and badly bruised, retrieved from a canal in which someone had left her to decompose, her corpse washed clean of evidence. An autopsy found that she had been raped while comatose.
This was Irene Garza, a 25-year-old, dark-haired belle of McAllen, Tex., who was once named Miss All South Texas Sweetheart. She was her high school’s homecoming queen, the first person in her family to graduate from college and a teacher for disadvantaged children.
Above all, Garza was a devout Catholic. The last place she was seen was at Confession.

The priest hearing confessions that night long ago was the Rev. John Feit, who was 27 at the time.

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