August 23, 2018


The latest developments in the clergy sexual abuse scandal tee up unusual opportunities for journalists — especially local journalists — to advance the story in significant ways.

That’s especially true in two reporting categories: untold stories and watchdog journalism.

Both approaches can help you and your newsroom — whether broadcast, print, digital or all three — to move beyond the too-easy temptation to limit your coverage to showing up at weekend Masses for people-in-the-pew reaction stories.

Some of the ideas listed below have gone untold because, previously, they might have been considered too narrowly focused for a general, secular audience. But the evolution of the story has expanded its readership well beyond Catholics alone.

And Catholic bishops — answerable under Church law only to the Pope — are an ideal target for the sort of watchdog journalism that holds the powerful accountable.

The National Catholic Reporter did that in the 1980s and the Boston Globe did so famously in 2002 with its Spotlight investigation. NCR created a timeline on developments in clergy abuse back to 1962 that puts the issue in perspective.

Two recent developments suggest 2018 may become another milestone in the timeline: Last month, Pope Francis removed former Washington, D.C., Archbishop Theodore McCarrick from the College of Cardinals following multiple allegations that he abused seminarians and a teenager decades ago. Last week, a Pennsylvania grand jury documented systemic cover-up by bishops of the abuse of more than 1,000 victims by at least 300 priests.

The top Catholic prelate in the United States, Cardinal Daniel Dinardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, provided a strong peg for focusing coverage on local bishops with comments last week:

Whatever the details may turn out to be regarding Archbishop McCarrick or the many abuses in Pennsylvania (or anywhere else), we already know that one root cause is the failure of episcopal leadership. The result was that scores of beloved children of God were abandoned to face an abuse of power alone. This is a moral catastrophe.

The #metoo and @timesup movement serves as a wider umbrella over the clergy abuse scandal, of course, and the Catholic Church is surely not the only religious organization that bears ongoing coverage and investigation. By way of example, search #churchtoo on Twitter for a range of discussion and links to reports of sexual abuse in Evangelical congregations.

I’ve listed some relevant links and resources beneath the list of stories. Please add your own story ideas — and resources — in the comments below.


Grand Jury: The scandal includes priests, bishops and victims in all 50 states. But only Pennsylvania has convened a grand jury to investigate the possible criminal wrongdoing involved. What does the attorney general in your state have to say about such an approach? Local groups of victims and survivors?

Profile of the Bishop: Much of the coverage of local church officials is hagiographic (especially in diocesan publications, which the bishops control), demonizing or clichéd along the lines of he’s-such-a-regular-guy. It’s never easy to get at the real story of someone insulated by bureaucracy and tradition, but it can be done. Few reporters these days will have the time available that Susan Ager did in producing this remarkable profile of Cardinal Edmund Szoka of Detroit in 1987. But it’s packed with the sort of detail and analysis that reporters should shoot for in such stories.

Bishop as Boss: The role of bishop requires significant leadership skills of men who previously were likely responsible for just a single parish. What training do they receive, first, to lead those parishes and then, perhaps in the form of continuing education programs, to lead the priests and Catholic church-goers in their diocese? What does your local bishop have to say about how and what he’s learned about leadership? And what do his priests say about the quality of his leadership?

Bishop Resignations: More than 4,400 Catholics (including me) have signed a statement calling for all 456 active and retired U.S. bishops to offer their resignations to the pope as a collective acknowledgement of their responsibility for the crisis. A simple text search of the signers will yield names and possible interviews from your region, state, town or local university or church.

Diocesan-level Look at the Crisis: This could yield several stories either as part of a series or as stand-alones. Read the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which the U.S. Conference of Bishops approved in 2002 and has amended several times since. How is your local diocese implementing its requirements? Possible stories:

  • An interview the local victim assistance coordinator exploring what happens when someone reports abuse.   

  • An interview with the local district attorney — along with a search of recent cases — exploring the legal responsibilities of church officials when informed of abuse by someone in their charge.

  • Interviews with local victims and survivors about the impact the resurgence of the story is having on them. Stories like this one require special attention to such issues as respecting anonymity when requested, respecting the rights of the accused as well as accusers, and awareness of “triggers” that you may be able to avoid in your coverage. Poynter’s Kelly McBride has been a thought leader on this topic, and you can read her counsel here on ways to tell as much of the story as possible at the same time you minimize harm.

Clericalism: This is an obscure-sounding phenomenon that, in brief, elevates priests and bishops to an elite status breeding attitudes of entitlement and privilege.  Pope Francis has identified clericalism as key to understanding the abuse crisis. It’s also a topic that can be explored and explained by local journalists: To what extent is it alive and well in your local diocese and what can be done to address it?


In addition to the links above, you may find the following useful in your coverage:

Religion News Association: This organization is primarily made up of reporters working the religion beat, but its resources are useful for anyone pursuing a religion-related story. This primer includes a wide range of tips and guidelines. Among many other things, The Religion Stylebook created by former RNA Executive Director Debra Mason, lets you know not only when to capitalize words like archbishop, but also whether archbishops have any power over regular bishops (they don’t).

The Abuse Tracker: This service aggregates links to coverage of the abuse scandal on a daily basis. Started originally at Poynter in 2002, it’s now maintained by, a non-profit organization focused on what its name describes. As with the letter calling for bishop resignations, you can do text searches on Tracker pages for particular names, topics or locations. The index in the left rail enables searches by time frame.

SNAP: The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests provides a range of resources and can connect you with local affiliates.

Poynter Resources: Pegged to the 2018 Pulitzer Public Service medal won by The New York Times, Poynter aggregated resources from Poynter Vice President Kelly McBride and others here.

On Religion: A blog hosted by veteran religion writer and teacher Terry Mattingly that includes posts by several other contributors.

What ideas and resources can you add to the comments below?




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Bill Mitchell is CEO and publisher of the National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of Poynter Online from 1999 to 2009. Before joining Poynter, he…
Bill Mitchell

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