When the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, released the names of 71 clergy members accused of sexual abuse, York Daily Record investigative reporter Brandie Kessler immediately thought of Todd Frey.
Kessler has stayed in touch with Frey since 2016, when he told her that a priest named Guy Marsico had abused him as a young teenager at a church in York. Marsico’s name on the list gave Kessler the chance to ask Frey something she had asked several times before — whether he would be willing to put his story on the record. This time, he said yes.
At times, Kessler was unsure whether Frey would ever be ready to go on the record. Staying in touch, showing compassion and reassuring Frey that he had final say in whether a story was written at all, however, allowed Kessler to show readers the trauma local residents suffered because of sexual abuse committed by clergy members.
“So, it was two years of waiting, but then he decided to (go on the record),” Kessler said. “I think it’s because of the trust we developed and also because he believed he had a reason that was worth it at that time.”
Most Americans consider the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Spotlight series (and eventual Best Picture award) to be the primary intersection of journalism and the Catholic sexual abuse scandal. But Kessler is one of many journalists whose work provides local and national reporters with a blueprint for fair, empathetic and in-depth coverage of ongoing and systematic sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
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Charlie Specht, an investigative reporter with 7 Eyewitness News in Buffalo, New York, has spent months uncovering Bishop Richard J. Malone’s mismanagement of sexual abuse cases, both at the Diocese of Buffalo, and at his previous diocese in Portland, Maine. Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola, a religion reporter for The Gallup (New Mexico) Independent, has spent 16 years investigating sexual abuse at the Diocese of Gallup. She continues to cover the diocese, and recently wrote about Bishop James S. Wall’s refusal to turn over church records documenting past instances of clergy sexual abuse to New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas. These reporters demonstrate the continued need for media focus on the scandal, both in major cities and in more rural areas.
Enterprising journalists have been writing about sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy members for decades, long before The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team began publishing the results of its investigation in 2002. However, recent federal and state investigations, as well as the popularity of the 2015 film covering Spotlight’s work, have given outlets a renewed reason to examine the dioceses in their own communities. In October, the Department of Justice became the first federal agency to investigate the Catholic Church’s role in child sexual abuse, announcing its intent to open an inquiry at most of Pennsylvania’s dioceses, as well as the Diocese of Buffalo, according to The New York Times. The department also requested that none of the nation’s bishops destroy any documents associated with sexual abuse allegations.
Over her 16 years of covering the topic, Hardin-Burrola said she’s noticed a tendency for reporters to focus solely on dioceses in metropolitan areas. There’s little reason, however, to believe only dioceses in major cities were affected. In some cases, dioceses that oversee remote areas or vulnerable populations may warrant even further scrutiny. During her investigation, Hardin-Burrola said she’s noticed a number of accused priests assigned to low-income, Spanish-speaking churches or to missions on Native American reservations.
“Whether you’re from Boston or whether you’re from Gallup, there are more abusers out there than anyone ever realized, and it’s all the same. It was covered up the same,” Hardin-Burrola said. “If media hasn’t devoted the time and the energy to research it, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen there. It just hasn’t been discovered.”
Covering the subject may require newsrooms to commit numerous hours and other resources in an era when most organizations are stretched thin. Randy Parker, news director of The Daily Record in York, said that nearly every member of The Daily Record’s 25-person newsroom has helped with the paper’s investigation. However, outlets can still produce great work, even if fewer reporters are dedicated to the subject. All that’s required, usually, is a starting point that can set the investigation into motion.
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Specht’s work, for example, began after a victim asked for a press conference to talk about his assault. Since then, Specht has built a network of sources, including whistleblowers like Siobhan O’Connor, a former diocese secretary who provided documents showing how Buffalo’s bishop has handled previous sexual abuse allegations. He’s also formed relationships with acting area priests who are disgusted by the way past abuse has been handled.
“It had been covered up so well for so many decades,” Specht said. “All it took was one person standing up and speaking their truth to get so many scores of people to come out.”
In Hardin-Burrola’s case, then-Gallup Diocese Bishop Donald Pelotte provided the window of opportunity that led to The Gallup Independent’s story. After Pelotte expressed frustration that the paper was running cartoons about the Boston sexual abuse scandal from the wire, he demanded a reporter cover his efforts to improve the diocese. Hardin-Burrola spent hours preparing for the assignment by researching the allegations facing the Catholic church and the history of the Diocese of Gallup. She spent two and a half hours interviewing Pelotte, and eventually wrote four stories.
“He wanted to say he’d been very proactive since becoming bishop, and that he had cleaned house,” Hardin-Burrola said. “I started getting calls and emails and letters from people saying, ‘Woah woah woah, there’s more to it than what he’s saying.’”
At the beginning of an investigation, outlets may want to consult with experienced journalists from outside newsrooms or use proven tactics, like examining Catholic directories for patterns that indicate when and where predator priests were shuffled around. Hardin-Burrola, for example, used a guide provided by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) to help her navigate the process of finding old church documents and directories. Specht has also used official directories to look for potential leads in his investigation.
“If you really want to look into this, and you don’t know where to start, I would say go to your library and look up the Catholic directories, and look for patterns,” Specht said. “You’ll find the same thing in your town.”
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Since many of the allegations facing clergy members have been hidden for decades, newsrooms may have to employ ingenuity to verify victims’ stories. A grand jury report released by Pennsylvania’s Office of Attorney General has proven an invaluable fact-checking tool at The Daily Record, Parker said. Using that, Kessler and other reporters can look for corroborating details if victims choose to share their story, either on the record or anonymously.
“Although there are no criminal charges filed here, we’ve got a valid document, we’ve got an admission by the church that a credible complaint was established, and in some cases we even have admissions by the priests in the court cases that they did this,” Parker said.
When working with victims, both Kessler and Specht said it’s important that reporters not retraumatize their sources. They may have to spend more time building trust, and explain concepts they normally wouldn’t, like what speaking on background means. Both Specht and Kessler, for example, let victims know that their interviews may appear in future reporting, and warn them before stories run. Specht has even allowed some victims to watch their interviews before they air, to ensure they were fully comfortable with the story.
Being transparent not only retains the sources’ trust, but allows the reporter to avoid worsening the damage done by the abuse the victim has experienced, Kessler said.
“This is someone who was abused and then not believed, so it’s not just the physical abuse that happened to this person, but it’s also a huge trust issue,” she said.
Creating and maintaining relationships with sources on the inside is also important. Specht said he always makes an effort to keep whistleblowers and victims alike informed on his progress.
“You want to keep in touch with sources and especially with whistleblowers after they’ve given you the information you’re looking for,” Specht said. “You don’t ever want to make it seem like, ‘Hey, you gave me the goods and I’m done with you.’”
Just as reporters need to be sensitive to their sources’ emotional health, journalists and editors alike should be aware of how draining covering sexual abuse can be. In a July column, Specht told readers how the investigation had affected him as a lifelong Catholic from Buffalo whose family became close to one of the accused priests. Kessler said she’s been brought to tears by victims’ stories, and has often relied on the informal peer support system provided by The Daily Record to navigate her emotions.
“I was in a grocery store … and the thought occurred to me, what we know about the victims of childhood sexual abuse — not just clergy,” Kessler said. “We know the numbers, and how many people in that grocery store might have had an encounter — who have been abused, who know someone who’s been abused.”
In some cases, the emotional stress may not just come from the subject matter, but from the reactions of readers. In the past, Hardin-Burrola said readers have accused her of having an anti-Catholic bias, an accusation that stings because she attended mass for years, and even raised her children in the church. She once even considered converting, a plan she scuttled after she spent time investigating the Gallup diocese.
“I’ve run into so many journalists across the country who’ve written these stories and the majority of journalists have been Catholic,” said Hardin-Burrola. “The reason they’re writing those stories is people have come to them from within the church. They have those connections.”
Local and national reporters who choose to investigate clergy abuse in their own communities should be careful not to simply publish a litany of survivor’s ordeals. Hearing from accused priests, as well as the parishioners who still support them, is a key part of how reporters can bring nuance to stories of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Kessler said.
In a recent feature, Kessler profiled a woman who has housed an accused priest for two decades. The woman told Kessler she has confidence in the priest, a longtime family friend, saying that even if the allegations against him were true, he doesn’t resemble the man she knows.
“If we chalk this whole thing up to good and evil, and the things that were done here were done by evil people, then everybody loses out,” Kessler said. “These were things that were done by human beings, and these are people who are good and bad.”
Most importantly, reporters who are covering systematic sexual abuse, either inside the Catholic church or in another organization, should look for ways to hold higher-ups accountable. Hardin-Burrola said she continues to do this in her coverage of the Diocese of Gallup, reaching out to experts who can counter the diocese’s excuses as it continues to refuse to turn over documents that could aid the New Mexico attorney general’s investigation.
“Through the years, any time they’ve said or done anything that I feel is not true, and I have the facts to back it up, as a journalist I feel like that’s my responsibility,” she said. “I’ve got to hold their feet to the fire.”