Nun: Cuban grandmother wanted to defect

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MIAMI -- A nun who offered her Miami Beach home for a reunion between Elian Gonzalez and his Cuban grandmothers began advocating for the boy to stay in the United States after learning that one of the grandmothers wanted to defect, a newspaper reported Sunday.

After meeting with the Cuban grandmothers last month, host Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, the president of Barry University, said she was giving up her previously announced neutrality. Until now, she has never stated why.

O'Laughlin told The Miami Herald that she had not talked publicly about why she abandoned her neutral stance because she did not want "to endanger the family in Cuba."

"But this is more about that little boy than anyone else, and I have to do whatever I can to help him," she said.

She said Roger Bernstein, one of the lawyers retained by Elian's Miami relatives, had visited her and persuaded her to tell what she knew to help his case.

Her change of heart came after speaking alone to both women for about five minutes and then spending a few minutes alone with the mother of Elian's mother.

When one of the grandmothers spoke to her about defecting, she questioned whether Cuba was the best place for Elian.

"This talk of defecting got me to thinking; if one of the adults wanted out, perhaps it was not a good place for the child," she said.

During the brief meeting, after Elian's Miami relatives had left, O'Laughlin said she also learned that Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his family knew about the mother's plan to bring the Elian to Miami.

O'Laughlin also told The Herald that she learned that Elian's father had been physically abusive to the boy's mother.

O'Laughlin said although she was devastated after the brief encounter with the grandmothers, her comments were neutral when she walked out to the gate of her house and spoke about the meeting to the press and hundreds of people gathered outside.

"I believe in hope," she said then. "It has been an informative day. I am so thankful for this opportunity to host this meeting and to touch lives."

O'Laughlin said when she went back into her house, she wept and prayed for most of the night.

The day after the meeting, O'Laughlin told reporters that the meeting had changed her mind about where Elian should live but her public comments remained vague.

She told reporters she believed Elian had bonded with his 21-year-old cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez, and she sensed fear emanating from the grandmothers, which she believed was caused by the Cuban government.

But the version of events O'Laughlin now recounts reveals that one of the grandmothers was present when her husband called Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian's great-uncle in Miami to tell him that Elian and his mother would be making the journey to Miami. The conversation occurred 10 days before Elian and his mother left Cuba.

After hearing that, "I thought that the boy must have come with his father's blessing," she said.

The credibility of O'Laughlin's account of the events may hinge on the level of her understanding of Spanish. O'Laughlin said she studied Spanish in college for four years and passed her language competency exam for her doctoral degree and has read novels in Spanish. But she is not known for speaking Spanish in public.

"I am not fluent in Spanish," she said. "But I understand most of what is said to me in Spanish. And I clearly understood what was said to me that night."

O'Laughlin said ever since she met Elian, she has lain awake at night thinking about him. She said she identifies with the child because he lost his mother at the same age at which she lost her mother.

"It may be too late for him," she said. "If he had gone back immediately before so many people on both sides wanted control of him, he would have been better off. But as it is now, I pray every day that whether he stays or goes back, he can survive this."

She said she also prays that she can survive this too.

O'Laughlin, who has traveled to Washington to make a personal appeal to Attorney General Janet Reno for the boy to remain with his Florida relatives, has been maligned by Cuba's media.

Elian has been the center of controversy since he was found clinging to an inner tube on Thanksgiving Day off the Florida coast. His mother and 10 others traveling with him in an effort to flee Cuba drowned.

Elian is currently staying with his Miami relatives. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has ruled in favor of his return to Cuba, but Elian's U.S. relatives are challenging that decision in federal court.

A Miami judge will hear arguments Tuesday to decide whether the court has jurisdiction in the case. INS argues it does not.

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