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

Article excerpt

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). …