The Priest Scandal  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   May 2002

The Priest Scandal   

How old news at last became a dominant national story ...And why it took so long

By Carl M. Cannon
Carl M. Cannon covers the White House for National Journal.     


These days, I am president-elect of the White House Correspondents' Association, an organization known primarily for our spring dinner honoring the president of the United States. But 13 years ago I attended the annual black-tie event for the first time as a guest to receive one of the organization's journalism awards.

Then-President Bush handed out the plaques, and as he worked his way down the line, the names of the award winners--along with their stories--were read aloud to the president. Bill Dedman of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a project on redlining in Atlanta's minority community; Mark Thompson of Knight Ridder for detailing flaws in the UH-60 helicopter; Carl Cannon of the San Jose Mercury News for detailing efforts by Catholic Church officials to cover up sexual molestation by priests.

"Aaagh!" Bush muttered at hearing this. He actually recoiled physically, taking a half-step backwards. I was used to this reaction, but Bush swiftly recovered his good manners, perhaps thinking he had hurt my feelings.

"Do you have kids of your own?" he inquired gently.

"Yes, Mr. President, I do," I replied. "My son is the same age of some of these boys who were molested."

"Did you interview victims?" he inquired.

"Yes, sir," I replied. "Some of them are older now--and they wanted to talk."

"That must have been very difficult to hear," Bush said. "But what you do is important. Keep up the good work." And with that he shook my hand firmly and patted me on the shoulder.

The last few months have been bittersweet for the handful of journalists, led by the incomparable Louisiana writer Jason Berry, who reported extensively in the mid-1980s on the widespread problem of sexual abuse by priests--and the cover-up by the church hierarchy. At the time, our stories attracted some measure of attention: Berry was interviewed by radio and television outlets around the country, wrote op-ed pieces for numerous big-city dailies and won a Catholic Press Association award. Karen Henderson of Cleveland's Plain Dealer, who wrote about problems in her diocese and beyond, won a public service award from the Associated Press. All three of us were nominated for a Pulitzer: Berry for his 1985 reporting; Henderson and I two years later. The zenith of media attention probably came on St. Patrick's Day, 1988, when Berry and I were featured guests on a dramatic hour-long look at this issue on "The Phil Donahue Show." Berry also wrote a powerful and superbly documented book, "Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children," published to critical acclaim in 1992.

Yet, as any of the journalists who covered this issue concedes, this scandal did not explode full-blown into the public consciousness as we thought it might. The attention it received then is nothing like what has happened this year. The reasons perplex, even haunt, us: Did we give up on this issue too early, thereby letting the victims down? Did we naïvely conclude that the institutional problems within the church had been addressed? Did we skip off to other endeavors--in my case the 1988 presidential campaign--when our real obligation was to keep turning over rocks on the better, albeit more unpleasant, story? Or is the problem that the news business was not up to the task 15 years ago of dealing with a story this sordid? Finally, what transforms a scandal into a major national news story, and are there lessons to be learned for investigative reporters and journalism as a whole?

To journalists, the story behind the story has become well known in the past few months: A Catholic priest in Boston named John J. Geoghan serially molested young boys for years while his superiors responded by periodically shipping him off for therapy, then recycling him into new parishes without warning parents there. A crusading alternative paper, the Boston Phoenix, documented this pattern; a powerful establishment daily, the Boston Globe, fought successfully for open access of court records, and in the process, revealed that the primary concern of church authorities in the Boston diocese was not the welfare of the child victims, but how to keep a lid on the scandal (see "Taking Command," April).

That's the plot line, and it's essentially true (although the Boston Herald has aggressively covered this story as well). But for a few of us, it has an all-too-familiar ring. It's not too much to say that this story sounds like a remake of a horror movie. In 1984, the Geoghan role was played by a Cajun priest named Gilbert Gauthe. The diocese was not Boston, but Lafayette, Louisiana; the beleaguered bishop not Bernard F. Law, but Gerard Frey. The crusading alternative weekly was the Times of Acadiana; the establishment news outlet that broadened the story was the National Catholic Reporter.

But in New England, it seems, events move slowly. Geoghan was not even the first priest in the Boston circulation area to be convicted of serially molesting boys. In 1993, a priest named John R. Porter admitted to molesting 28 boys in Fall River, Massachusetts, 50 miles to the south. Also, Geoghan was not defrocked until 1998, even though his crimes were first reported to church authorities as early as 1972--and the archdiocese was reeling from his lawsuits by 1993. Geoghan was first charged with molestation in Waltham, Massachusetts, on December 19, 1995, but the Globe's first story didn't run until July 1996 when a parishioner sued, saying that Geoghan had molested her three sons.

In the ensuing five years, a close reading of the Boston media reveals little evidence that the furor generated by this episode would be any different than that surrounding the hundreds of other Catholic priests arrested or sued in the previous two decades. By the year 2000, the story seemed out of gas. The Globe, for one, mentioned Geoghan only five times that year.

In March 2001, however, Kristen Lombardi of the Boston Phoenix published a 7,000-word blockbuster that put together the scope of Geoghan's abuse and the extent to which the local church hierarchy, including Cardinal Bernard F. Law, was complicit in allowing it to continue. She followed that with a hard-hitting piece in August called "Cutthroat Tactics" detailing how the church--instead of ministering to the victims of sexual abuse by priests--confronts, intimidates and bullies families when they come forward to report it. By then, the Globe was hard at work on the story, as was the Herald. The Globe struck gold when it fought successfully for access to the previously sealed court records in the civil suits against Geoghan. The paper published an initial story in July 2001 documenting how Cardinal Law had conceded under oath that he knew about Geoghan's activities as long ago as September 1984. It followed that up with a lengthy two-day special report in January that put the entire Geoghan saga on the record. That piece broke the bank.

Since then, the Boston media have reported on the scandal every day. Who hasn't? Feeding frenzy is too mild a phrase to describe this year's coverage of the issue. The story cannot be escaped. It's on local television news, network news and cable news. Fox News did a March special on it; so did CNN. PBS did two. The headline on the cover of the April 1 issue of Time magazine asks: "Can the Catholic Church save itself?" By April the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post were running stories every day. The April 12 Los Angeles Times featured five separate stories on the scandal, including one on an accused priest attacking a news photographer in the halls of the Santa Rosa, California, courthouse. These aren't incremental stories, either. Their tenor can be summed up by the March headline of an L.A. Times piece: "Scandal Shaking Catholicism to Core."

The scandal is on the front page of the USA Today delivered to your hotel room, and in unlikely places: The conservative, pro-Catholic National Review did a cover on THE SCANDAL; Sports Illustrated ran an item on a former major league ballplayer, Tom Paciorek, who came forward (originally in the Detroit Free Press) to say he and his brothers were molested by their parish priest as teenagers. The tabloids informed us that three books are in the offing, including one by Jimmy Breslin.

The apex may have come at Easter, Christianity's holiest time. This very fact might be a hint of how the times have changed. When I wrote about this subject 15 years ago, my editors were so sensitive to the exigencies of the Christian calendar that they waited until after Christmas to launch our series. No one has any such compunctions today. Here is a sampling from the eight days on either side of Holy Week:

• March 29: It's Good Friday, but the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe find room for stories on the resignation of a Polish archbishop accused of abuse.

• March 30: The Boston Herald reports that several hundred protesters against Cardinal Law's handling of abuse cases demonstrated during Good Friday services. Cleveland's Plain Dealer, unimpressed that Bishop Anthony Padilla celebrated Holy Thursday by washing the feet of an abuse victim, publishes three pieces on abuse, including one headlined, "Priests' victims can have the power now."

• March 31: An Associated Press Easter Sunday piece from Los Angeles is anything but traditional: "Church confronts abuse scandal as Catholics celebrate Easter," it reads. In Chicago, the Tribune runs four pieces on the scandal, including one in Sports.

• April 1: The AP budgets seven stories on sexual abuse by priests. These include news that the diocese in Orange County, California, settled a lawsuit for $1.2 million because priest John Lenihan got a teenage girl pregnant two decades ago; that a New York priest was arrested on child rape charges; and that in Dublin, an Irish bishop resigned over allegations he covered up molestations by a priest.

• April 2: The Buffalo News publishes an exposé on how the local diocese treated six credible cases of child-molesting priests. (None was prosecuted.)

• April 3: ABC News airs an hour-long special on the issue, narrated by Peter Jennings, called: "Bless Me Father for I Have Sinned: The Catholic Church in Crisis," detailing how the church recycles priests who have molested kids.

• April 4: The Washington Post runs a front-page piece, "Catholics: Church in Midst of a 'Crisis,' " with a Post poll showing that seven in 10 Catholics believe sexual abuse by priests is a problem that demands "immediate attention" by the hierarchy.

• April 5: The lead story in the Philadelphia Inquirer--eclipsing President Bush's dramatic Rose Garden speech on the Middle East--is headlined: "Cardinal, prosecutors speak out on scandal." The New York Times publishes a comprehensive piece about prosecutors' efforts against priests around the country. CBS relates the story of an Ohio priest who committed suicide after being accused of abuse.

Down in New Orleans, Jason Berry watched all of this unfold with more than an academic interest. So did I, along with others who'd covered this issue before. Although the details were familiar, such stuff never loses its power to shock. I couldn't help but wonder what Gilbert Gauthe's many victims, now grown men, thought of all this.

At the same time John Geoghan was engaging in oral sex with boys while instructing them to close their eyes and repetitively recite "Hail Marys," Gauthe was forcing altar boys in Louisiana to repeatedly submit to and perform anal or oral intercourse with him – often molesting several boys in one family. Estimates of the number of his victims, some of whom were as young as 7, ranged upwards of 100. Geoghan swore boys to secrecy by telling them what they did was "confessional"; Gauthe, who often carried firearms, warned at least one boy that if he said anything Gauthe would harm his parents.

Inevitably, though, some of these boys did tell their parents. Diocesan authorities simply transferred him to another parish--and another, and another. The string ran out in a bayou village called Henry, Louisiana, in 1983. Church officials responded by refusing to tell parishioners--even the parents of boys suspected of being molested--why Gauthe was sent away. They advised parents who did come forward to keep silent. No priest or vicar from the Lafayette diocese ever called the cops. After Gauthe was arrested, the parents sued the diocese. In the course of litigation Frey admitted there was a second pedophile priest in his diocese.

"When I read the civil deposition of Bishop Gerard Frey admitting there was a second pedophile priest I thought, 'This is Watergate!--the bishop covering up' " Berry recalls. He wrote about it for Lafayette's Times of Acadiana only after being rebuffed by Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, The Nation and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Berry also contacted Thomas C. Fox, then the editor of the National Catholic Reporter, who agreed to run his stories. Berry's last piece for the Lafayette paper in January 1986 revealed that Frey had recycled seven sexual offender priests over the years. In that issue, Times of Acadiana Editor Richard Baudouin ran an editorial calling for the removal of the bishop and the local vicar-general, prompting the diocese to organize an advertising boycott.

In those years, I was a Washington correspondent for the San Jose Mercury News. One day in the spring of 1987, I was on home leave when National Editor Bob Ryan asked if I had any ideas for in-depth stories or investigative projects. I said that I was convinced that the situation in the Lafayette diocese was not isolated--that it was part of a national pattern, and that a day of reckoning was coming for the Catholic Church.

Ryan was an honest, hard-nosed newsman who backed up his reporters, but he was skeptical of what I was telling him. And why not? It was shocking then; it's shocking now. Ryan repeated the word "pattern" slowly, then asked how many examples I believed made a pattern--and how many I could document. I wasn't sure, but I did know about Berry's work. I also knew that a former colleague, Jon Standefer, had been investigating financial chicanery in the San Diego diocese for the San Diego Union and had come across cases in which sexual abuse had been hushed up there; I knew that a friend wanted me to look into allegations about a priest in Woodside, California--and how no one in the local hierarchy would take the claims seriously.

So I told Ryan I thought I could find half a dozen dioceses where cover-ups of sexual molestation had gone on. He said evenly that if I found six instances where diocesan authorities had covered up sexual abuse of children, it was definitely a pattern--and a national story.

Before I did my first interview, I did a Lexis-Nexis search. The tool was somewhat new, and reporters didn't use it much. I found a dozen instances in the clips, usually small wire service stories, in which priests had been accused of molesting children or adolescent boys. I made phone calls to those places, usually locating a cop or a helpful plaintiffs' attorney (lawyers are the unsung heroes of this scandal) and discovered that, typically, parents had called the police or hired a lawyer only after being stonewalled by church authorities. I had found my pattern before leaving my office. In time I would identify some 35 priests in more than two dozen dioceses, not six, who'd been recycled after abuse allegations. I spent three months on the story, traveling to dioceses all over the country to nail it down. The Mercury News published my stories on December 30 and December 31, 1987, and sent them out on the Knight Ridder national wire. What I found was that church officials:

• Sent offending priests away for therapy, but allowed them to return to parish work or duty in a church school or hospital without notifying parents or enacting safeguards to keep them away from children;

• Ignored complaints of abuse, often attempting to discredit the parents, even in cases in which they knew of previous allegations against the priest;

• Failed to inform civil authorities of allegations of child abuse, although existing state law required them to do so in most states;

• Refused to seek out likely victims when a case surfaced and fought to make sure settlements remained sealed.

My story described an internal report for U.S. bishops that estimated the cost of paying damages to the victims would exceed $1 billion in the coming decade. The report's authors--priests Thomas Doyle and Michael Peterson and a lawyer, F. Ray Mouton Jr.--were seen as alarmists inside the church, but their warnings were right, as was my hunch about the church's day of reckoning. What I didn't imagine is that it would take 15 years to occur.

The reasons the story took so long to gain traction are varied and complex, and it takes awhile to sort them out. There isn't one explanation, there are many, and they interact with each other in a way that might serve as a cautionary tale to investigative reporters and editors.

First, the original problem with this story was simple skepticism that anything so horrible could be condoned by the hierarchy of a church that has done so much good in the world. The frontispiece of Jason Berry's "Lead Us Not Into Temptation" is a quote from the New Testament gospel of Mark: "Whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged around his neck and he were cast into the sea." The passage is meant to remind readers of the grotesque nature of the violations--and it does--but it also underscores the cognitive dissonance inherent in a book about men of the cloth being allowed to prey on children with impunity. It seemed, back then, almost impossible to believe--not just to faithful Catholics, but to secular journalists as well. When I explained the dimensions of this problem to fellow Washington reporters--reporters who would believe anything about a politician--I would often get dubious looks.

Feeding into this skepticism was the fiasco of the 1993 accusations against Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in Chicago. The abuse allegation against Bernardin was the product of therapy-induced hypnosis delving into the controversial area of "recovered memory." The accuser's own lawyer must have initially been skeptical--he polygraphed his own client--but he filed suit anyway while making an exclusive arrangement for CNN to get the story first and timing it to coincide with the national bishops' conference in Washington, D.C. Bernardin denied the charges immediately and forcefully: "All my life, I have lived a chaste and celibate life," he said. "Everything that is in that suit about me, the allegations, are totally untrue, they're totally false." His vehement denials threw up red flags to journalists with experience reporting on the issue. Four months later, the lawyer withdrew the suit.

It must be said that, by 1993, any editor who'd looked at the sexual abuse issue squarely should have had no doubts about the scope of the scandal. But for those who shied away from taking on a powerful institution, for those who were looking for a reason not to have to write about it, and for those in the church and in the press who just couldn't believe such a thing could be widespread, the Bernardin case gave them an out.

"Denial is a very strong coping mechanism that was well in place years ago when victims first started to speak out and break the silence surrounding abuse by clergy," recalls Mary Grant, founder of the Southern California chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "It was as if speaking the truth was falling on deaf ears. Few rank-and-file Catholics wanted to address the reality--and victims were in the beginning stages of finding each other [and] piecing together the horrific puzzle."

A second, related reason the story did not have resonance 15 years ago is that even those in the media who understood the dimensions of the scandal were constrained by the very nature of the subject matter. You were not just taking on a powerful and popular institution, you were writing about a crime that seasoned police reporters often tiptoed around.

My original Mercury News series ran in the middle of the week, not on a Sunday, and below the fold in what is the deadest news week in the year. My editors gave me time to report it, and they published it. But it wasn't like we were proud of it. Bush's appalled gut-level reaction was my paper's--and, in a way, my own as well. When my editors urged me to wrap up the follow stories by early spring so I could cover the 1988 presidential campaign, I protested only mildly. I wrote about the issue intermittently until 1990--additional victims kept calling me, but we acted as though we had "done" the story. For his part, Jason Berry got a cool reception at many of the magazines he approached. Karen Henderson's editors moved her off the story and sent her to a suburban bureau. Even after our appearance on the Donahue show, Berry's book proposal was rejected 30 times before he won a contract.

What's different now?

One factor, says National Journal media critic Bill Powers, is the increased willingness in journalism to write about sexual issues, even distasteful ones. "I think one reason this story is finally taking off can be summed up in two words: Monica Lewinsky," Powers says. "Before that scandal, the news media were still very chary about any stories with explicit sexual conduct.... It's hard to remember this now, but 10 years ago it was strange and really pretty shocking to see detailed discussions of sex acts in the newspaper. In the post-Monica world, that sort of thing is business as usual, and shocks nobody. This is a very significant cultural shift, one that I think made it possible for pedophilia in the church to finally go front page, above the fold, and become the enormous story it always should have been."

It's instructive to recall the initial reaction of then-New York Times Washington Bureau Chief R.W. Apple Jr. to Paula Corbin Jones' sexual harassment suit against President Clinton. "I am not interested in Bill Clinton's sex life as governor of Arkansas," Apple said. "I'm certain there are a lot of readers who are interested in that, and there are lots of publications they can turn to to slake that thirst."

But this point leads to a third reason the priest story finally caught fire: In 2002, this story broke in news outlets with real power. Put simply, on issues pertaining to the Catholic Church, the Boston Globe is a publication with the clout to set the agenda for elite Eastern media outlets. Kristen Lombardi herself, although she writes for the Boston Phoenix, is quick to give credit to the competition.

"The Globe did a real service. It went to court and challenged the confidentiality order sealing thousands of pages of discovery material in the Geoghan case," she says. "After the Globe won its legal action and the records were unsealed, no one could possibly deny Cardinal Law's or his underlings' complicity in Geoghan's dastardly acts.... And that meant that the reflexive Church defenders who typically scream about 'anti-Catholic bias' and 'Catholic bashing' in the press had no ground on which to stand."

Lombardi also believes that the fact that this happened in Boston, the fourth largest archdiocese in the nation, made the story impossible to ignore. No one understands this better than Tom Fox, now publisher of the National Catholic Reporter, who has probably dealt with this issue longer than any media executive in America. In a piece done by religion writer Kelly McBride for the Poynter Institute's Web site on this very point--why this story is big now--Fox observed: "The light and the heat that comes from that kind of exposure that the East Coast media gives to a subject is substantial and feeds on itself." Fox adds that getting the secret deliberations of a cardinal out in the open was a revelation. "It's like the Nixon tapes," Fox says. "Anyone can see from the documents the course [of the Church] was not pastoral, it was defensive and legalistic."

To be sure, one can go too far with this argument. A search of the database shows that the New York Times covered the issue continually, if sporadically, starting as early as May 4, 1986. In my attic, I found a dog-eared Times clip dated February 10, 1988, that cites my original series--and even quotes from it: "The church's reluctance to address the problem is a time bomb waiting to detonate with American Catholicism."

This caveat, in turn, leads to another explanation of why this story is so big now: the dearth of institutional memory. Fox surely knows, but Kelly McBride may not, that reading the depositions of church officials in molestation lawsuits was a staple of the 1980s reporting. McBride asserts that the Boston case was "the first time there is unequivocal evidence of cover-up and a failure within the Roman Catholic Church." But my reporting was based on reading depositions of priests and church officials taken by plaintiffs' attorneys, and the Globe reporting, while impressive, is similar to Jason Berry's 1985 stories documenting the Lafayette bishop's prior knowledge of the Gauthe problem.

Journalists usually don't sweat this lack of institutional memory. How many stories are truly new anyway? Or, as editor Dale Cockerill, an old-timer at the Mercury News when I was there 20 years ago, used to quip, "That story is so old it's new." This dynamic applies to this story. And though that means that some of the coverage can be jarring because it lacks context, the inverse is true as well: This scandal is all the greater precisely because the story has been around so long. In other words, there is simply no excuse for a bishop to not have figured that when he gets one of these cases, the only possible ethical response is to a) remove the priest immediately; b) call the cops; c) make an honest effort to find all the victims; d) deal with the problem publicly, even if that means opening your diocese to further lawsuits; e) treat the kids and the parents--and all the other parishioners--humanely. That this wasn't being done 10 and 15 years after the 1985 Doyle/Mouton/Peterson report and half a dozen years after the bishops in the early 1990s adopted guidelines for dealing with this problem made the story more horrific, not less.

Lombardi put it this way: "As I was digging into this issue last year, I often found myself pondering this one nagging question: Why is this still happening in the Catholic Church? Why do we still see victims come forward, only to experience a hostile reaction from Church officials, only to then seek out a lawyer and then suffer from the Church's aggressive legal tactics? Why are there still cases of pedophile priests in the Catholic Church after all these years? Isn't it time that the Church has wised up about clergy sexual abuse? After all the knowledge that the Church has had and accumulated, this problem should have been addressed--if not eliminated--by now."

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, says evidence that the bishops hadn't cleaned up their act enraged survivors all over again--and emboldened them. "First, some survivors feel hopeful. When survivors are heard and validated in the courts and the media as we have been in Boston, we gain the strength and courage to come forward to heal ourselves and protect others," he says. "Second, some survivors feel desperate. For a decade, bishops have reassured us that they take abuse allegations seriously, investigate them thoroughly, remove suspected priests, and no longer reassign molesters. The revelations of the past few weeks prove that these reassurances were largely untrue. So, despite the risks of further pain, some survivors are now going public because they feel compelled to do whatever they can to make sure no other child suffers as they did."

This point leads to another: I certainly assumed the church had dealt with this issue. I'm told today that some dioceses did and that others (such as Boston) may have grudgingly improved their approach to dealing with new allegations but never quite came clean with their old cases--and are now paying the price. To journalists who've come to this issue recently, it may seem inconceivable that church officials would put a premium on keeping this issue quiet instead of dealing with it. But there is a context for that, too.

In the mid-1980s, theologically conservative church officials were trying to avoid The Conversation: that is, a candid discussion of the subculture of homosexuality in the priesthood and the related issues of whether celibacy--and an all-male priesthood, for that matter--are sustainable. For their part, liberals in the media had a Conversation that they were avoiding as well: Why do the vast majority of these priest molestation cases involve boys or male teenagers? To admit this was, in some quarters of the press, tantamount to giving ammunition to homophobes.

Well, the sheer magnitude of the scandal has overwhelmed both of those taboos. One survivor, Terrie Light, coordinator of the Northern California survivors network chapter, wonders if the traumatic events of September 11 are what showed the media the importance of speaking the truth. Whether they did or not, the bishops are now having The Conversation--like it or not. It is being led by none other than Jason Berry, who confronted both sacred cows--the bishops' and the gays'--in an April 3, New York Times op-ed headlined, "Secrets, Celibacy and the Church."

If that means that this story has come full circle, it's all right with me. It's also all right if the explanations for why this story caught on now are not only intertwined, but cumulative. In his best-selling book "The Tipping Point," Malcolm Gladwell explains how "social epidemics" catch on. His book is full of passages about the differences between "connectors" and "mavens" and "salesmen" as well as the importance of context and the alchemy of what he calls the "stickiness factor." Ultimately, it seems, a handful of people can push an epidemic, or an idea, past the tipping point--if the groundwork has been laid.

It's comforting to think that the work some of us did in the 1980s laid a foundation. I'm not sure it's true, but I want it to be: It was fun covering the 1988 campaign, and I guess my political stories were all right.

But they didn't save any kids.

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