Considering Pre-'Spotlight' Reporting on Sexual Abuse by Catholic Priests

Thirty years ago, Jason Berry and National Catholic Reporter ignited Americans’ awareness of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Yup, it’s been in the news media at least that long.

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Thirty years ago, Jason Berry and National Catholic Reporter ignited Americans’ awareness of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Yup, it’s been in the news media at least that long. 

Twenty-four years ago, Boston Globe’s Alison Bass wrote about a Massachusetts priest accused of molesting at least 100 altar boys and girls. 

Fourteen years ago, the Globe’s “Spotlight” investigative team produced the first of its stories about priestly sexual abuse and hierarchy coverup.

Now, the film Spotlight tells the Boston Globe story and is nominated for Best Picture of 2015. 

Missing from much of the adulation in the news media is credit for the Berry/NCR courage and pioneering investigative journalism and the reporting by Alison Bass and her Boston Globe colleagues. 

It’s as if no gruff old editor growled, “Did you check the clips?”

Berry’s been at our dinner table, talking shop; I’d been a longtime NCR correspondent in Minneapolis and Cincinnati and   the Enquirer religion reporter.

It was probably around the time that I was reporting a former seminarian’s allegations — eventually recanted — that Cincinnati Archbishop Joseph Bernardin used him as a sex toy.

By then, Jesuit-educated Berry had developed his initial NCR reporting into a book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children.

NCR is an independent Catholic weekly. Over the years, it has hung out church dirty laundry here and abroad and enraged the hierarchy. Last month, NCR celebrated Berry’s coup.

As with Berry’s Louisiana coverage, clergy abuse stories often began with civil suits or criminal charges. (Court documents are a God-send; fair and accurate use protect journalists from libel claims.)

In his recollection last month in NCR, Berry said, “The news of (Father Gilbert) Gauthe’s indictment for abusing altar boys in Cajun country, 150 miles away, jolted me. ... I could not get that priest out of my mind.”

He buried himself in court filings. There, he found evidence of predatory priests being transferred among unsuspecting parishes and a sordid, sexual environment. To Berry, it was clear what church leadership knew and when they knew it. 

Mid-1980s, however, was no time to take on the politically powerful American Catholic Church. Berry had the story and needed a local outlet. 

Linda Maty, editor of the Times of Acadiana, an alternative weekly in Lafayette, gave Berry a special assignment to keep digging but “it didn't pay enough for the looming time investment.”

That’s a common barrier for freelance journalists, and Berry “hit a brick wall” with pitches to The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and The Nation.

“I was aware of NCR but had never seen an issue when I called Editor Tom Fox, explaining the availability of documents from proceedings underway. He agreed to a joint assignment, which made the work financially feasible, barely.”

Eventually, Berry condensed his original three Times of Acadiana stories into one for NCR, and when he was done, it was a national story.

Berry kept digging and reporting accusations against more priests for Times of Acadiana. “As I broke stories on four more (Louisiana) priests, the appropriately named Daily Advertiser. ... attacked the weekly and me as ‘vultures of yellow journalism.’ 

“The diocesan lawyer lashed out at me in a front-page article, without contradicting what I had written. In January 1986, I reported that the diocese had recycled seven predators over many years through a map of outlying towns.”

Before that piece ran, his new editor at the weekly, Richard Baudouin, told Berry he was considering an editorial. “What did I think he should say?

"Tell (Bishop Gerard) Frey and (vicar general Msgr. A. J.) Larroque to resign.”

“He nodded. ‘Jason, I haven't read an editorial like that.’

“I replied: ‘Richard, no one has ever written an editorial like that.’

“With no disrespect to my friends at The Boston Globe, who earned a well-deserved Pulitzer for the (Spotlight) 2002 series, Richard's editorial 16 years earlier calling on the Vatican to replace Frey and Larroque if they did not resign should be taught in every journalism class in America”

You can read Berry’s recollections and other NCR commemorative pieces at ncronline.org/feature-series/30-years-later.

In her HuffingtonPost.com essay, Alison Bass reclaimed her role as “the Boston Globe reporter who first broke the story about a molesting priest in Massachusetts. ... (A)s a long-time former reporter for The Boston Globe, I knew many of the characters in the movie, which focuses on the Spotlight team's exposè of Catholic priests who molested children and the Boston archdiocese's coverup.”

Bass, now an assistant professor of journalism at West Virginia University, called Spotlight “a riveting movie that gets a lot right. ... However, there are a few things the film doesn't get quite right. The biggest disappointment is the way it glossed over the reporting that had been done by Globe writers about the priest scandal well before the Spotlight team sprang into action in 2001.”

Bass’ initial story focused on wayward Father James Porter. “We (I and other reporters) followed that first story up with many other articles about Father Porter and how he had been sent to a treatment center for errant priests and moved from parish to parish despite complaints about his misconduct.

“The movie does briefly show one clip about the Father Porter story, and it also makes mention of how the attorney representing the victims of Father Porter, Eric MacLeish, gave the Globe a long list of other priests who had been accused of similar misconduct. 

“In the movie, the character who plays Walter Robinson, the Spotlight editor, acknowledges that the story about all those priests was buried in the Metro section. Even so, the movie ... doesn't really explore why the Globe buried the story of the 30 priests and didn't follow up for almost a decade.

“It's very simple: At the time, the editor of the Globe, who happened to be Catholic, feared being accused of Catholic-bashing and so he sent out an edict that there was to be no more Father Porter stories, i.e., no more stories about molesting priests.

“I still vividly remember the editor yelling at our then-magazine editor because she had the temerity to run a long magazine piece about Father Porter (which had been in the works for months) after his edict came down.

“As the film makes clear, it wasn't until Marty Baron, a Jewish outsider, came in as editor of the Globe and encouraged the Spotlight team to look at the priest scandal, that the paper really dug into the issue and did its prize-winning work.

“One more nitpick if I may. The film makes it sound as though Mark Ruffalo's character (Globe reporter Michael Rezendes) suddenly discovered the research done by Richard Sipe, a former priest and sociologist in Baltimore. Based on confidential surveys he had done of priests, Sipe estimated that up to 6 percent of American priests had molested children, and that only half of U.S. priests were celibate.

“The film made a big deal out of this discovery, which I find rather funny, because all the Spotlight team had to do was go to their own morgue, where they would have found a page one story from 1990 about Sipe's presentation of these findings at the American Psychological Association in Boston. 

“I know this because I covered his talk and wrote that 1990 story. I remember well that the battle that raged in the Globe's newsroom about whether the piece should be buried in Metro or splashed on page one. To the credit of the Globe's page one editor at the time, it made the front page.

“I realize that people's memories are short and that the film was mostly based on the memories of the Spotlight reporters and editors involved. After all, I had completely forgotten that I wrote the story about the 30 priests that was buried in 1992. Even so, it would have been nice if the Spotlight crew had given a little more credit to their colleagues who laid the groundwork for them. But hey, that's show biz right?”

Curmudgeon notes:

• Assistant professor Melissa Click is being treated like a star quarterback since she called for violence at a Nov. 9 anti-racism protest at the University of Missouri.

"Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?" Click shouted to black student demonstrators. "I need some muscle over here."

The reporter was a fellow student. Her call to violence was caught on camera ... by the student whom she personally assaulted. 

She, however, was treated with kid gloves. 

No criminal prosecution for two months. Finally, local authorities charged her with misdemeanor third-degree assault. Columbia city prosecutor Steve Richey said Click assaulted the student “by grabbing at his camera with her hand and attempting to knock it from his grasp” and “by calling out and asking for other people in the area at the time to forcefully remove him.”

Even now, the light touch prevails. She agreed to 20 hours of community service and promised to stay out of trouble for a year in return for “deferred prosecution.” If she screws up again during the year, she faces up to 15 days in jail. 

No university discipline for two months until she was charged. Now, she’s suspended with pay. Previously, the school’s harshest response was to say her behavior would be considered if/when Click, an assistant professor of communications (not journalism), applies for tenure. 

Meanwhile, the NYTimes reported, 99 Republican state representatives and 18 senators demonstrated greater courage. They signed letters to the university administration and the board of curators for the state university system calling for Click’s dismissal.

“At every turn, Click’s actions were unacceptable and inflammatory in a situation where the students and the public needed and expected university employees to serve professionally and as a calming influence,” the representatives’  letter said.

In response, 116 craven faculty members wrote, saying, “We believe that her actions on Nov. 9 constitute at most a regrettable mistake, one that came, moreover, at the end of several weeks during which Click served alongside other faculty and staff as an ally to students who were protesting what they saw as their exclusion from and isolation at the university.” 

I guess that means her call to violence against student journalists was just a “micro-aggression.” 

• How long ago did you begin ignoring daily stories from GOP primary campaign? It’s six weeks before we can vote on anyone in Ohio and Kentucky. Meanwhile, trivia, ad hominem attacks and speculation aren’t news but grunts on the ground have to grind out daily stories to justify their expense accounts.

• Is Mara Liasson a Fox News contributor who reports for NPR or NPR’s national political correspondent who contributes to Fox News? Her long association with the GOP’s Fox News makes her NPR work suspect for me. Apparently, no one at self-consciously nonpartisan NPR sees working for Fox is a conflict of interest.  

• The World Health Organization, smarting from its botched and politically corrupt response to Ebola, wants to scare the bejesus out of everyone about Zika.

Skeptical globalpost.com dug for numbers and raised doubts about WHO’s credibility. I quote: 

“The journal Nature published extracts from an eye-opening report by the medical body responsible for monitoring birth defects in Latin America. The report concluded that the apparent spike in babies with small heads ‘is probably due to active search and over-diagnosis.’ This over-diagnosis is being spurred by intense media interest in the story, the report says, and the data so far collected is inconclusive on any connection between Zika and microcephaly.

"... According to the most recent bulletin from Brazil’s Health Ministry, only six of the country’s reported cases of microcephaly are ‘related to the Zika virus.’

“... Most of the suspected cases of microcephaly haven’t been confirmed. ... Several media outlets have reported that 4,000 babies have been born with misshapen, small heads in Brazil. That’s just wrong. There have been about that many suspected cases of microcephaly since October, but that number has fallen.

“...  Of the original thousands of suspected cases, Brazil has confirmed 270 instances of children born with microcephaly since October 2015.

“... Officials have no idea how many cases of Zika there are: When GlobalPost called Brazil’s Health Ministry, they said they had ‘no idea’ how many cases of Zika there were in the country. A spokesman offered a vague range of 500,000 to 1.5 million cases, but he stressed that this number is purely guesswork. ‘There is no good data,’ he said.”

Enquirer editorials and news stories bemoan Cincinnati’s local shootings and related black-on-black homicide, but a recent USA Today section in the Enquirer has two large color movie images of angry black men shooting someone as entertainment.

• An ignorant guest or an ignorant morning host on WLW-AM said the armed occupation of a federal refuge in Oregon was over. It wasn’t. The poor sap couldn’t tell the difference between a traffic stop and the continued standoff. Not even the GOP’s chronically misinformed Fox News claimed the occupation ended that day.

• Greg Flannery, editor of Cincinnati’s human rights newspaper, Article 25, directed me to a double faux pas in liberal online Guardian. The headline said “Airbnb lists properties on illegal settlements on disputed land in Israel.” 

As Flannery and salon.com noted, the properties are in the Occupied Territories, not Israel, and only in a few minds is the land “disputed.” As Flannery put it, international law says the occupation is disputed, but not the ultimate Palestinian ownership of the land. 

The Guardian caught the mistatements and changed its headline to “Airbnb lists properties in illegal Israeli settlements.” 

• Eric Boehlert at Media Matters for America, summed up  the Trump v Fox News presenter Megyn Kelly neatly:

“The underlying truth here is that if Fox News conducted itself as an ethical news outlet, these kinds of messy spats and hurt feelings wouldn't be an issue. Instead, Fox is often run as a Republican National Committee marketing arm, or a GOP clubhouse, raising expectations from Republicans in terms of how they'll be treated. Trump clearly senses a weakness there and is now trying to exploit it.”

And real news media treat their feud just as if it were real news. That’s the scandal. 

• Kathy Kiely quit as Washington news director for Bloomberg Politics, saying boss Michael Bloomberg won’t let his journalists do an unbiased job of covering his possible run for president. "I did not feel we could cover the Bloomberg trial balloon in the aggressive way I thought it deserved," Kiely told HuffPost. 

It’s so bad that the NYTimes scooped Bloomberg reporters on his possible run for the Oval Office as an independent. But this isn’t new. Bloomberg News restricts staff coverage of the billionaire’s wealth and personal life.

• South Carolina state legislator Mile Pitts wants to register journalists and impose fines and criminal penalties when new legal standards are violated. 

Yes, he’s a Republican who fought efforts to haul down the Confederate battle flag from the State Capitol. News media went after him, assuring Pitts of brief national fame. 

If adopted, his Responsible Journalism Registry Law would “establish requirements for persons before working as a journalist for a media outlet and for media outlets before hiring a journalist; to require the establishment and operation of a responsible journalism registry by the South Carolina Secretary of State’s Office; to authorize registry fees; to establish fines and criminal penalties for violation of the chapter; and for other purposes.”

Dailybeast.com said Pitts told a South Carolina paper that he wants to call out the news media for its unsympathetic coverage of Second Amendment rights. 

Speaking of constitutional rights, his bill should die as a clear violation of the First Amendment. Whether he’s even sincere about legislating is unclear: he called his bill “performance art,” according to the newspaper interview.


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]


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