Making the links.

In the wake of accusations of sexual impropriety involving teenage girls against Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, CBC News provided a feature story about the phenomenon in some Christian fundamentalist communities that encourages marriage between older men and teenage girls. One of the interviewees was Canadian and described as a member of the Mennonite Brethren Church. The complainant, Mary Bender, pointed out there was no Brethren church in the town where she lived. She objected to her inclusion in the article, her identification as Mennonite Brethren and the link to Roy Moore. She had a point. There was context lacking.

COMPLAINT

Around the time that Alabama Senator Roy Moore was running for office and was in the headlines for alleged inappropriate contact and sexual advances to teenage girls, CBCNews.ca published an article entitled Courting Trouble which examined the phenomenon in some Christian fundamentalist communities of encouraging marriage between adolescent girls and adult men. The reporter, Matt Kwong, interviewed some people who had left their fundamentalist roots, but had experience with this practice. One of the women he featured was Sarah Morton, whom he identified as a member of the Mennonite Brethren, who lived near New Hamburg, Ontario, which he described as “a rural area with many Mennonite families.”

You said you could not comment on the whole article, but the paragraph concerning Ms. Morton and the Mennonite Brethren “simply doesn’t ring true.” You added that the Mennonite Brethren Church in New Hamburg dissolved in 1952, therefore she could not be a member of that community. You said your own research into the community indicated that this woman and her family attended various churches, and it was wrong to identify her as a member of the Mennonite Brethren:

… her parents dragged them to many different churches in the area, not staying anywhere for long, but they did not regularly join or attend any Mennonite or Mennonite Brethren churches. Briefly attending a group or church doesn’t make you a member or part of that group. Individuals can have wildly different ideas from the group and will often leave if there is any clash of ideas.

You rejected the idea that any Mennonites or Mennonite Church should be lumped with other fundamentalist Christian denominations that might encourage child or teenage marriage. You said if her parents were encouraging her to court an older man at age 12, this was a product of a dysfunctional family, and not religious teaching. You said the media is guilty of Mennonite bashing:

To paint each religion with the same brush is simply inaccurate and unfair. To equate Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren with other fundamental religious groups or sects that encourage child brides is equally inaccurate, untrue and unfair.

You thought Ms. Morton’s story should be removed from the article. You asked what did Roy Moore, Mormons and southern U.S. churches have to do with Ontario Mennonites. The only evidence of this practice was one isolated incident.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jack Nagler, the Director for Journalistic Accountability and Engagement, replied to your concerns. He agreed that the description of Ms. Morton’s affiliation and where she lived was not as clear as it might be, in light of the fact there was no Mennonite Brethren Church in New Hamburg at the time she was living there. He explained that the reporter asked Ms. Morton for clarification after CBC received your complaint. She told him that her family did live in New Hamburg in a Mennonite community. He added:

But she said her family considered themselves to be more Mennonite Brethren-minded, particularly her father who strictly adhered to a Brethren worldview. She said she knew the Mennonite Brethren church had disbanded in the 1950s, but explained that the area has a pretty complex history with factions of the church splitting and re-forming. When she grew up, there remained some “vestiges or off-shoots” of the Brethren community that her parents were involved in, and that they considered themselves, and called themselves, Mennonite Brethren.

He told you the wording in the article would be changed to reflect these facts.

He also addressed your query about why Ontario Mennonites would be associated with Roy Moore. He said the sub-heading of the article - “The controversy over Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore sheds light on the fundamentalist Christian practice of marrying off teen girls” - explained the connection. He noted this was not common practice, but it did exist. The reporter interviewed three women who had experienced this practice, and one of them was Ms. Morton. He added that the article by no means singled out Mennonites, but rather stated “Child brides exist in many fundamentalist sects and also in some Asian cultures and Mormon communities in the U.S. and Canada.” He added that the article also included the views of those who are “troubled” by the practice and those who “endorse” it. He did not think the article “bashes” Mennonites in any way.

REVIEW

CBC journalistic policy calls for precise and accurate use of language as a core value.

CBC policy also requires that corrections or clarifications be acknowledged and completed as quickly as possible.

While Mr. Nagler indicated to you that language used to describe Ms. Morton’s religious affiliation would be changed around the time he wrote you on December 19, 2017, when I began my review, the old language was still in the article. Mr. Nagler explained there was a breakdown in the communication chain, and he had written you in good faith. The new paragraph states:

Sarah Morton recalled her own experience with courtship in her Mennonite Brethren household in New Hamburg, Ont., a rural township near Kitchener.

I do not question the good faith. However, CBC management might want to ensure that there is a clear and accountable way to ensure changes are made in a timely fashion. Had there been no request for review, the change would not have been made.

The article clearly provides a context for United States’ based fundamentalist religions and the practice of encouraging marriage between teenage women and older men. Two women, in addition to Ms. Morton, provided their own experience, and there are references to others. As Mr. Nagler pointed out, there are religious officials who provide rationale and defence of the practice, and others who condemn it. The writer, Mr. Kwong, also points to some books heavily read by young fundamentalists which glamorize the young woman-older man relationship. He noted that this seemed to boost the practice:

According to people who saw it firsthand, the courtship phenomenon in fundamentalist communities appears to have gained wider prominence in the late 1990s after the publication of Joshua Harris's 1997 book I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

The article clearly lays out the facts, cites some influences and creates a portrait of certain fundamentalist attitudes and behaviour. The question you asked is whether Sarah Morton legitimately belongs in this cohort, and more critically, her Mennonite connections. The use of Ms. Morton is somewhat problematic - she does appear as an outlier. It is true her family practiced a fundamentalist faith, and since she said it identified as Mennonite Brethren, it is legitimate to mention it. I agree with you the first iteration of the description was not as precise as it needed to be. Its present wording is better. Mr. Kwong mentioned that Ms. Morton also read the book that influenced many of these teenagers. What is less clear is whether her family’s behaviour was anomalous in the faith community she lived in. At least one other family, - that of the young man brought to see her - was involved. I do not believe that this mention condemns all Mennonites or Mennonite Brethren, or implied that the practice is widespread. Elsewhere in the article the writer stated overall this was a limited and small sub-set. However, I am uncomfortable about the lack of any of the context around Ms. Morton’s story, as there was for the American women. At the least I would expect Mr. Kwong to make some inquiries about the practice in Mennonite communities in Canada, as he did for the Americans. The other personal experiences related in the article come together to create a portrait of a segment of fundamentalist Christian communities. Inasmuch as she grew up as a fundamentalist and this is her personal experience, it violated no journalistic policy. It would have been better journalistic practice to ascertain more about her background, and provide more context as to its norms, rather than overgeneralizing to such a broad swath of denominations and sects.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman