The Priest Scandal: How Old News at Last Became a Dominant National Story ... and Why It Took So Long

By Cannon, Carol M. | American Journalism Review, May 2002 | Go to article overview

The Priest Scandal: How Old News at Last Became a Dominant National Story ... and Why It Took So Long


Cannon, Carol M., American Journalism Review


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 oped 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 naively 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). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Priest Scandal: How Old News at Last Became a Dominant National Story ... and Why It Took So Long
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.