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.
First 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
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.
A problem in establishing a pattern, though, is that nearly every victim of childhood abuse thinks he or she was the only victim of that predator. Cases where multiple victims knew of each other’s abuse are rare. But you can ask the survivors you interview about their classmates, fellow altar boys, housemates (in a case where youths lived together).
In one case I was able to borrow a yearbook from a victim I interviewed. One of my biggest early successes in Google searches was tracking down an eighth-grade classmate from the yearbook, contacting him by telephone and persuading him to talk to me. I searched for and contacted dozens of classmates who were not abused or did not return my calls, but the one successful call helped confirm an important story. You have to be persistent to make the right connections.
When I finally connected with someone who told me of being abused by the pedophile I was investigating, the detailed memories he shared were eerily similar to the memories of the victim I had just interviewed. And neither boy remembered his classmate.
You can’t rely just on memories
Rarely does a story of sexual abuse involve recent memories. When a victim tells parents or authorities quickly about abusive acts, those cases are much easier to cover, because you have police reports, court reports and the like. Most of my work, like the work of the Globe reporters, involved instances of abuse that occurred decades earlier and were not reported to police. If they were reported at all, it was to church authorities who covered up the crimes.
I’ve documented before how unreliable memory can be, even in non-traumatic, lifetime-highlight situations. When you deal with sexual abuse memories, though, you are interviewing people who have either consciously tried to forget what happened to them, or who psychologically suppressed the memories for years, or who relived the memory again and again, so vividly that it’s hard to tell memory from nightmare. Many have been treated for mental illness or drug abuse that could be related to the sexual abuse or family or personal situations that might have made them easy targets for abuse in the first place. But that makes them troublesome sources on whom to base a story.
You need to interview abuse survivors and listen to their stories in as much detail as they can tell. Interview them about their life circumstances and things from their stories that you might be able to verify. You need to listen for (and ask about) details and records that can help you document pieces of the story. For instance, one of those survivors I interviewed who suffered mental abuse gave me copies of his medical records. They detailed repeated diagnoses that recounted his sexual abuse and treatment for related mental issues.
Third parties help your reporting
In most cases of abuse of young people by someone in authority, the alleged act occurred in private. You can’t find a witness or purported witness to the act. But you can confirm circumstances surrounding the event.
A survivor told of being molested in private. But he also told me of a fire at the group home where he lived, and of being rewarded for his cooperation and silence with lots and lots of baseball cards. The credibility of his story grew when I was able to confirm the fire by records and interviews with other students in the home. And when a brother and another youth who lived in the home recalled his extensive baseball-card collection, he gained more credibility. County property records confirmed his memory about the layout of the group home.
In another case, youths who were not abused did recall that the priest took altar boys on campouts (the situations where the abuse survivor reported being molested). One of the other altar boys did recall who shared the priest’s tent, and it was the survivor I had interviewed. (Ask an open-ended question here, not a suggestive one: “Who shared the priest’s tent?” rather than “Did Steve share Father’s tent?”) My interviews with the other altar boys also turned up another survivor of abuse by the priest on a campout.
Lawyers of abuse victims are an important type of third party who can be helpful in verifying reports and making connections. A lawyer for victims was a key source in the Globe story, too. Of course, lawyers and people who are suing churches for large sums of money are sources with a strong financial interest in harming the church’s reputation. But the lawyers have done considerable investigation, and some of them will share documentation. Some have deposed church officials under oath, and if you can get them to file those depositions in court, you have valuable court documents. Attorneys can also help you connect with multiple victims of the same priest.
I also worked with the organization represented by a key character in “Spotlight,” the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. The organization, known as SNAP, helped connect me with survivors as well as providing helpful context and documentation.
If a priest was moved frequently in his career, as happened in the cases the Globe investigated and those I did, one of two things resulted in those moves:
- A victim or parents complained directly to the archdiocesan or diocesan authorities and the priest disappeared quietly from a parish.
- A victim or parents complained to parish leaders, who brought the matter to the attention of diocesan authorities. In those cases, parish leaders (who invariably were assured the church would get treatment for the priest) are reliable and outraged sources, with strong loyalty to the church and no financial motivation to lie. One parish leader who confirmed such a situation to me had become a prominent local judge by the time I interviewed him.
Use court records
Much of the power of the Globe’s story came from court records, a helpful factor in my reporting, too. Depositions filed in a suit against the archdiocese gave sworn testimony from an archbishop and other current and former top church officials, who declined most of my interview requests.
A former archbishop I couldn’t interview denied in his deposition any knowledge of other cases beyond the one involved in the lawsuit. He had died by the time the depositions were released, but I was able to cite multiple parish leaders who had told him about other cases.
My favorite line of questioning from a deposition was when a defense lawyer asked an archbishop to confirm the accuracy of one of my stories. The archbishop had publicly and privately disparaged me and the story after it was published. But under oath, as the attorney asked about the details in my story, the archbishop confirmed my reporting, fact by fact.
If a case has been reported to police, you can find important information from police reports and from affidavits returned with search warrants. Such an affidavit told that a volunteer who cleaned the rectory came across a video tape, felt uneasy about it and watched it, then called police. The cleaning volunteer made a great interview and helped connect me with the school principal, whose account of reporting the incident, and earlier problems, to the archdiocese was also disturbing.
In another sexual abuse case that I covered in the 1980s (involving molestation by a parent, not a member of the clergy), a divorce file included a psychological evaluation of a child that provided important documentation of a story. Always look for court files when you’re working on a story that might have reached any type of court: family, probate, civil or criminal.
Respect sources’ wishes
Survivors of sexual abuse by clergy take a big risk when they decide to go public with a story. Some are willing to use their names, others are not. I do not use pseudonyms; I want every word of my story to be true, and I don’t want readers to start wondering what else I’ve made up if I say “not his real name.”
Sometimes in my interviews with survivors of sexual assaults, I have persuaded them to go on the record, using their full names and even photographs. In other cases, we would use just a first name, middle name or a childhood nickname (and explain in the story what the name was).
With female abuse survivors, sometimes they have changed their names by marriage, and I was able to use a birth name for a married woman (which seemed appropriate when writing about childhood abuse). Interestingly, I encountered at least two male survivors of sexual abuse who had legally changed their names, part of their desperation and/or therapy to put their tortured pasts behind them. I was able to persuade them to let me use their birth names in stories, and explain that they had changed their names. In one case, a survivor let me use his adult name in a follow-up story, a decision that I considered one of the highest compliments ever paid to my reporting. (This name-changing can make it more difficult to track specific survivors you are looking for.)
Sometimes you just can’t us a name. Once I interviewed a prominent athlete who had experienced creepy behavior by a priest (similar to the “grooming” abuse victims reported) but started staying away from the priest before being molested. He wouldn’t let me use his name but let me call him an athlete, so he became “the athlete,” rather than a name. Other times when a survivor would not allow use of his name, he became “the altar boy” or some other accurate but vague description.
While I traveled sometimes to other states to meet in person with abuse survivors, some I had to interview by phone. Whatever your interviewing situation, you need to respect the wishes of the survivor about dealing with the discomfort of being interviewed. I won’t suggest that you can make the person comfortable, but you will encounter odd requests as people deal with the discomfort and insecurity of revisiting the most vulnerable periods of their lives.
I prefer to interview people in their homes or office, their turf. And I had excellent results with interviews in homes (including getting that yearbook). But for some people, interviewing in the home might feel like an invasion. One source insisted on coming to my office and we had an excellent interview in a conference room.
Restaurants are not usually good places for interviews about intimate subjects (though people sometimes feel less discomfort talking over a meal). If a survivor wanted to meet for lunch, I would usually suggest we meed after the lunch hour and ask for as secluded a booth as I could see in the place. You’ll still have interruptions for service, but you want as much privacy as possible.
Loss of control is one of the most debilitating factors in the experience of sexual abuse. If you give the survivor control over the physical setting, that makes a subtle but important difference in the psychological setting.
Similarly, I start with open-ended questions that allow the survivor to take the interview where he wants to go, rather than starting with specific questions. I want to know about the person before I want to know what happened to the person. In the most successful interviews, I never have to ask about the actual sexual incidents. The survivor takes the interview there in his own time. Of course, you usually have to ask some specific questions eventually, but by then, you have established some rapport. (I offered many more tips on interviewing about intimate experiences in a 2010 blog post and about interviewing rape survivors in a post last year.)
Never say no for someone else
Your presumption going into a sexual abuse story is that the accused is not going to talk to the media. That is usually true. But don’t presume they will say no. Try to reach them. Make them say no, or at least refuse to accept or return your calls.
In one case, I was absolutely certain that a report about a priest molesting a boy was true, but I didn’t have it nailed down to my satisfaction. While the report of the molestation itself was bad, part of what I had from unnamed sources was that the story had been investigated and handled institutionally, but had not been reported to police. If that was true, it was a violation of law, whether the molestation allegation was true or not.
I proposed to my editors, and they agreed, that I drive to a neighboring state, where the alleged molester was a parish priest, and confront him in person. Calling, leaving voice mail messages and sending emails gets you nowhere in trying to get a response from people in child sex abuse cases.
I drove to the town and dropped in at the church a few times, finally catching the priest alone. I told him about the molestation allegation that I was investigating. He told me this had been investigated years ago and he had been cleared. I asked him who investigated and he told me that it was his religious order. In essence, when he thought he was clearing his name, he was confirming the more serious story: that the religious order knew of the allegation and did not report it to police. I asked him if he had been interviewed by police or if it had been reported to police and he again confirmed that only the religious order investigated. It was a short interview, but I had the alleged molester on the record on the serious issue of failure to report the incident to police.
Before the priest asked me to leave, he gave me a contact with his religious order, who also confirmed the internal investigation.
Don’t presume someone is not going to talk to you. As I’ve said repeatedly in classes and workshops and on this blog: Never say no for someone else. I expected a no-comment from that priest (and a wasted trip). Many priests and survivors of abuse don’t want to talk to the media, and that’s a choice you have to respect. But give them the choice.
Nail down every detail
The heart of your story — the allegation that a member of the clergy molested a child — rests on one person’s account to an incident that usually had no witnesses. People in power may dispute that story, and you can’t prove it.
But the story has many other details, and you have to be sure you get them all right: Was the priest really assigned to the parish at that time? What was his role? You should fact-check every story thoroughly, but double-checking isn’t enough in a story about sexual abuse by a member of the clergy. You are potentially ruining a person’s career, and you can’t leave a single detail subject to attack. Include as many details as you can. Triple-check them all. Then check them again.
Abuse survivors don’t trust the media
Like the clergy, media are regarded as part of the power structure. Abuse survivors have learned more profoundly than most journalists can understand not to trust the powerful. Nearly every survivor I interviewed expressed doubt that I would truly tell their stories. In some cases, they were right.
I couldn’t nail down the allegations well enough in every instance to finish a story. I don’t know how much those cases reflected my own failings as an investigative reporter and how much they reflected the fact that the survivors didn’t have clear enough stories to give me enough to work with. In one case, I changed jobs before I could nail down a story to my satisfaction. While I left my editors with notes, the story never got finished, to my knowledge. If I knew whether someone else tried to finish, I don’t remember.
In two cases, I wrote stories that were solid and should have been published. The details aren’t important here, and I don’t recall them all clearly in either case. In one case, I know an archbishop called a publisher to complain about a story I was working on. I nailed it down, but the story didn’t run. I think it’s probably coincidental that they were the only two stories I recall working on that involved clergy abuse of girls.
I should add that most of the editors I worked with were helpful and courageous in our work together on stories involving clergy sexual abuse. Those two disappointing incidents were exceptions.
As “Spotlight” depicted, newspapers have not always taken sexual abuse allegations seriously. And before the Globe, no news organization documented, though I, and others, I’m sure, suspected, what a widespread cover-up the church was operating.
Reporters and editors should demand strong confirmation of stories about sexual abuse naming any suspect. A story about sexual abuse can ruin the career of a member of the clergy, and you have to be absolutely certain of your facts. Not just confident. Certain. That high bar is difficult to clear in any story, but especially difficult to clear in stories that usually involve incidents in the distant past without witnesses.
Sometimes we can’t publish a story because foggy memories or other circumstances keep us from achieving that certainty. Sometimes we achieve certainty, but influence or cowardice confirm the survivors’ doubts.
You can’t be objective
Religion is one area where journalists’ claims of objectivity and efforts to achieve objectivity become laughable. As I’ve said in other contexts, we are people, not objects. And your faith, or lack of faith, is a fundamental part of who you are as a person, especially if you’re a person covering matters of religion.
I was raised the son of an Air Force chaplain who became an American Baptist pastor after retiring from the military. After Dad died in 1978, Mom went to seminary and became an American Baptist minister in middle age, so I am a son of two Baptist ministers. I married a Catholic and joined the church in the late 1980s when our sons were growing up.
When my editors assigned me to do a 1996 series “Catholics in Conflict,” which did not deal with matters of sexual abuse, I asked whether it mattered that I belonged to a parish that clashed with the archbishop on some of the very matters in dispute. The editors said they had faith in my ability to report the story fairly, and I think I did. But it’s never that simple.
Many interviews for the project, including some with a bishop and an archbishop, started with their questions about whether I was Catholic. In some cases in my later coverage of religion as a beat, that question might come up in context, perhaps if the source wondered whether he or she needed to explain the Eucharist to me. But in both of the bishop interviews, the question opened the interview, a clear effort to establish their ecclesiastical authority over a mere parishioner, even one bearing a notebook. A few weeks after a contentious interview, the archbishop presided at the confirmation of one of my sons.
“Spotlight” captures both the powerful ties some journalists feel to the church and the outrage reporters feel as caring humans when we interview survivors of abuse. You simply cannot avoid the outrage. If you don’t show your humanity when you approach a source, asking for him or her to trust you with a painful secret, you won’t get the story. You can’t turn off that humanity as you hear the survivor tell how a powerful man took advantage of vulnerability and tell you painful details of molestation.
Professional training and a personal commitment to fairness and accuracy drive you to nail down the facts and give accused pedophiles and the leaders of the institutions that enabled them a chance to respond.
Sometimes I would question institutional leaders about abuse or cover-ups under their predecessors, but the current leaders always felt a more powerful urge to protect the institution’s image and coffers than their predecessors felt to protect children. More than one powerful religious leader denounced my reporting and me personally in public settings, to my face and behind my back in private conversations.
I developed a thick skin after years of reporting and took the criticism (not to mention the under-oath testimony) as confirmation that I was doing accurate, important work.
But the interviews with survivors wore me down. I knew I was giving voice to people who had been silenced by fear, and that meant a lot to me. But I also heard again and again that my interviews and stories brought renewed pain and nightmares. I didn’t hear from anyone who told me they regretted trusting me with their stories. But I grew weary of hearing and telling those stories, of the effort required in verifying them.
When an editor spiked a story I had nailed down from multiple directions, with on-the-record sources as well as documentation, I had to get out of clergy-abuse reporting. By then I had pretty thoroughly documented the sorry regional role in the international scandal the Globe had uncovered. I insisted that my editors take me off the continuing story and they agreed.
I don’t want to say more about the personal toll. And I don’t want to detail either the other factors at play or anything more about my faith life. But I stopped attending church regularly while working on those stories. If a bishop should ever again ask me if I’m Catholic, my short and honest answer will be, “No.”
Footnote: Detail on my experience covering abuse
In my first draft of this post, I provided too much of my personal background at the top of this post, delaying too long the heart of the post, which was my advice for handling these difficult stories. I think the background is relevant, though, so I provide more detail here:
I think I was assigned my first stories about abuse by priests in 1998, when I was a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald, because I had done a project on rape, interviewing many survivors of sexual abuse and developing an ability to establish rapport with them. I also had some other investigative reporting success and had covered stories of domestic abuse. My reporting on abortion involved interviewing another rape survivor as well as interviewing more sources about intimate, controversial matters. I also had quite a few Catholic sources from my 1996 project.
Later, as religion reporter for the Des Moines Register, I investigated more allegations of sexual abuse by clergy, and gained further experience in covering difficult topics related to religion by interviewing multiple open and closeted gay clergy and former clergy for a series on organized religion’s divisions over homosexuality.
I was back in Omaha when the Globe stories broke in 2002, bringing national attention to the church’s shameful cover-ups of pedophile priests, moving them again and again, giving them authoritative access to new, unsuspecting congregations and children. The Globe stories prompted abuse survivors and parishioners who knew of old abuse cases to call local newspapers around the country, including the World-Herald. Of course, I was the go-to reporter for those stories.