Cover Story

Sister Jeanne

With nothing to gain and much to lose, this Miami university president won't say uncle

Issue: "Back to no future," April 22, 2000

in Miami - Jeanne O'Laughlin is an unlikely disputant in the Elián Gonzalez controversy. A 70-year-old Dominican nun with a curriculum vitae that is 13 pages long, she has been president for 19 years of Barry University, a private school of 8,000 students situated on a lush north Miami campus. Sister Jeanne, as she is popularly known in south Florida, has championed drug-addiction programs, public television, help for homeless individuals, and other causes. The cause of Elián Gonzalez and his Miami relatives, however, has tested even a plucky Irish-American once described as "part P.T. Barnum, part Mother Teresa." Sister O'Laughlin put her reputation on the line after hosting a January meeting in her Miami Beach home between Elián and his two Cuban grandmothers. U.S. officials chose the house, owned by the university, as a "neutral" setting. During the meeting, Sister O'Laughlin said in a sworn affidavit submitted to federal district court, she became convinced that the grandmothers "were not free to respond or act as they would towards their family, and that the situation was controlled by the Cuban officials." Until then, Sister O'Laughlin has said, she believed the boy should be with his father. Now she sees it differently: "Our administration is seeking normal relations with Cuba and this little boy interfered with that." Her public change of heart was more dramatic because she is a friend of Janet Reno, the attorney general (and former state attorney for Miami-Dade County), whose rulings have been decisive in the case. "I was so naïve," Sister O'Laughlin said about that meeting. "I fixed guestrooms thinking the grandmothers might want to stay overnight, see the boy the next day. I had a beautiful table set, Cuban food, thinking the family could sit down and eat together, and they might come to some conclusions. That's how stupid I was." She told WORLD she sees the same kind of "artificial" organization around Elián's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. If she is wiser to the manipulation of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, she is no less grieved by its results. "It breaks my heart," Sister O'Laughlin told WORLD on April 11, as the custody battle looked to be entering its final hours. "I am more bothered about the case now than ever." That morning Sister O'Laughlin spoke with family members in Miami and agreed to their request to use her home for another momentous meeting. Lazaro Gonzalez, Elián's great-uncle in Miami and temporary guardian, initially sought a meeting with Elián's father. Instead, Ms. Reno came to Sister O'Laughlin's house on April 12 and spent three hours with Elián and his Miami relatives. That meeting changed little about Ms. Reno's plans for resolving the dispute. None of the recent developments, including a March federal court ruling upholding the attorney general's decision in the case, nor Juan Miguel's arrival in the United States two weeks ago, has changed Sister O'Laughlin's mind about what is best for Elián. "Given the complications of this case, given the mother's death, he should have a full hearing and the right to asylum. I think his mother earned that for him," she told WORLD. "I have always felt that skilled people needed to look at the environment he [Elián] was going to live in, whether it was here or in Cuba. That was what I was really fighting for. That doesn't appear to be going to happen." The Justice Department called in a team of child mental health professionals, but instructed them not to interview the boy, and only to meet with his relatives to discuss the transfer of custody. The doctors met with Lazaro Gonzalez on April 10 in Miami. Sister O'Laughlin continues to disagree with Ms. Reno's handling of the case, and had not had "direct" contact with her, she said, until the April 12 meeting. Now Sister O'Laughlin has turned her attention to the Cuban-American exile community and Elián's relatives there. On the afternoon of April 11, she visited Maryslesis Gonzalez, Elián's cousin and chief caregiver, who was hospitalized for stress and continuous vomiting. Maryslesis, 21, has been the subject of "mean" reports in The Miami Herald about her repeated hospital visits, according to Sister O'Laughlin. "She needs loving support, someone to pray and listen, and be with her. We are forgetting so much of the human factors to this case," she said. She said many Americans have also forgotten the experiences of Miami's Cubans. "My ancestors who came over during the Potato Famine walked ashore with one shoe on and one shoe off and had to work in the quarries and live through 'No Irish need apply,'" she said. Outsiders look at the "privileged status" of the Cuban-American community and forget that it too carried a price tag. "So I get e-mail that reads, 'Send him back and 100,000 Cubans with him.'" Those perspectives may change. "If a mother 15 years ago came over the Berlin Wall with a child and she was shot en route, they would not send the child back." Fifteen years from now, Sister O'Laughlin believes, "there will be a lot of breast-beating and mea culpas for allowing this to happen." While keeping to a full schedule at the university, Sister O'Laughlin said she weeps more during recent days of the Elián saga and thinks about Solomon ("You know, you have to split the child and the one who really loves him will give him up"). And she thinks about her brief visit with Elián in January. "He has very old eyes," she said with tears. "I see in his eyes every Cuban who did not make it on the seas." What will she do now? "I will be praying daily, that no matter what the environment is that the child is in, that he will grow to be the man both his mother and his father desire him to be. And I will be praying that the family that is hurt through this loss, that somehow God will find a way to build them up. And as time changes the history of Cuba, that this little boy someday will know that he has many relatives who love him."

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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