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Archive for November 24th, 2015

Headline from a 2002 story for the Omaha World-Herald

Headline from a 2002 story for the Omaha World-Herald

I can’t imagine how uncomfortable it would be for survivors of sexual abuse by priests to watch “Spotlight.” It was plenty uncomfortable for me as a reporter who merely had the unpleasant job of interviewing survivors and telling their stories.

I saw “Spotlight” last weekend and comment on the movie in a separate post. My point here will be to share lessons I learned in my own experience covering sexual abuse by priests and other religious leaders both before and after the 2002 Boston Globe stories that inspired “Spotlight.”

I don’t mean by any of this to compare my work to the heroic work of the Globe’s Spotlight team. While I was writing about sexual abuse by an abusive priest, and an archdiocese moving a pedophile from church to church, more than three years before the Globe’s story, I didn’t nail the story of institutional cover-up that they did. Much of my later reporting was prompted by the national public response to the Globe’s reporting.

I hope that “Spotlight” doesn’t generate a similar outpouring of stories of abuse. I hope that they’ve all been told and that the Catholic church has rid itself of the sin and crime that it was hiding.

Lasting trauma inflicted by priestFirst an overview of my experience in covering religious sexual abuse: Starting in the 1990s, I investigated sexual abuse by at least nine Catholic priests that I can recall, plus at least one Protestant minister, a leader of a Christian cult and a group-home counselor at a Catholic youth services organization. In most cases, I interviewed multiple survivors of abuse by the powerful men I investigated. I’m sure I talked to at least 20 survivors of sexual abuse by clergy and the counselor, usually in person but a few times by phone. Other survivors that I learned about would not talk to me. I interviewed two accused molesters.

I almost certainly am forgetting other clergy that I investigated. The stories run together in my memory, and I don’t have time or interest to dig through my old stories to refresh and clarify some of the most disgusting memories of my career. Watching the movie and writing this blog post were disturbing enough.

I am not going to name priests, victims or specific organizations here. To do so would require research to update their status, and I don’t want to do that, both because of the time it would take and because all the stories are more than a decade old. I don’t want to track down and bother the courageous survivors who were my sources then. My interviews disturbed many of them at the time, and I have no interest in inflicting new pain by publishing their names again or updating their current situations.

This blog post is illustrated with headlines from the stories I wrote about these cases more than a decade ago. In a couple of instances, I have cut off the last word or two of a headline to leave out the priest’s name.

Here are my lessons about covering abuse by clergy and others with power over children and adolescents (shared in the hope this topic never again needs to be as big a story as it was back then):

Find other victims of the same predator

Priest Sexual abuse was reported years ago

A key to proving patterns of abuse is finding multiple victims of one abuser. A pedophile invariably has a pattern of abuse: techniques for “grooming” a potential victim before the abuse starts; introducing sex to the relationship by use of pornography or sex talk or nudity in a seemingly non-sexual way, such as showering on campouts or in locker rooms; similar ways of starting and accelerating the molestation; favorite sexual activities; silencing the victim with rewards, conspiratorial secrecy, shaming and/or intimidation. (more…)

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Spotlight” may become this generation’s “All the President’s Men,” a riveting movie based on real-life journalism that uncovered abuse of power.

The similarities, both in the journalistic stories and in the movies, are plentiful and probably not coincidental. The Washington Post’s investigation of the Watergate break-in and its cover-up has inspired investigative reporting ever since. The Globe editors and reporters who investigated the Catholic sexual abuse scandal walked in the footsteps of Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Ben Bradlee and other Washington Post journalists of the Watergate era.

Parallels between the journalism stories and the movies abound (and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few):

  • Both films depicted interviews with people scared to talk about what they knew.
  • Both movies depicted successful working of powerful sources with inside information.
  • Both depicted the value of teamwork, including conflict and different personalities, in successful reporting, both at the reporter and editor levels.
  • Court records provided key information in both stories.
  • Each film includes a riveting scene of a fearful reporter running in the dark.
  • The two movies used similar cinematic techniques and scenes to depict the tedious use of directories and old newspaper stories to track down important details and make connections.
  • Both films effectively portrayed the difficulty of persuading reluctant sources to talk and the painstaking task of tracking down sources and getting turned down by those who won’t talk.
  • The movies both deal with the complicated personal connections that play into journalism, however much we strive for objectivity.
  • Both stories included a Ben Bradlee as a key character: Senior as the executive editor of the Washington Post, portrayed by Jason Robards in an Oscar-winning performance and Junior as deputy managing editor of the Globe, portrayed by John Slattery.
  • Both movies accurately portrayed the rumpled look of many journalists, the newsroom banter, the look of newsrooms of their times. (As much as we hate clichés in copy, we become easy clichés on the wide screen.)
  • Both films accurately portrayed the tension between editors and reporters, each pushing from different perspectives to perfect the story.

The most important parallel between “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight” is that each portrays one of its generation’s best journalism investigations, each shining a light on shameful cover-ups of criminal activity, each succeeding in bringing down powerful figures.

Companion post: In a separate post, I share advice from my own experience covering sexual abuse by priests.

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