Forget the Model

Article excerpt

Techniques, challenges when talking to victims

It may seem like sexual abuse scandals have dominated the headlines these days. In recent months, reporters have covered how senior administrators at Penn State University failed to stop more than a decade of molestation of boys by a former football coach. In Philadelphia, a Catholic monsignor became the first Roman Catholic Church official in this country to be convicted of covering up sex abuses by priests under his supervision. And then there were the exposés on the penchant among some ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbis and community leaders to protect child molesters over victims.

Such sex abuse scandals are long in the making, hiding in plain sight, waiting for some dogged reporter to uncover them. Yet reporters often shy away from tackling these stories. That was true back in 2001 , when I wrote my first investigative piece on the cover-up of a Boston priesfs pedophilic abuses, and despite all the headlines, I believe it remains true today.

No doubt, these stories are tough. Often, they lack any kind of a paper trail; if documentation exists, investigative reporters have to figure out how to uncover it. Beyond such logistics is the reality that sex abuse, as a topic, is deeply disturbing. Not many people want to discuss allegations, let alone go public with them. Indeed, finding victims and convincing them to talk to you can be the biggest barrier to getting started.

As a journalist for the past 17 years, I have written a fair number of articles exposing systemic failures or wrongdoing involving victims of sexual assault, rape and child molestation. These stories have typically involved what I call aftermath interviews - in other words, the traumatic event happened months, years or even decades before. I first struggled with this kind of interview in 2001, while investigating the Boston Archdiocese's cover up of six decades of child molestation by the now-deceased priest John Geoghan. Back then, I had to learn the art of this interview on the job, and ever since I have tried to refine my approach with each story involving victims - most recently, student rape victims on college campuses. What I have found out by doing these stories is that traditional reporting models - especially regarding the interview - must be thrown out the window.

A model turned upside down

Conventional reporting models are turned upside down the moment you approach a sex-abuse victim. For these are not the kind of interviews you get simply because of your persistence. Overwhelmingly, victims have been beaten down by the very institutions to which they had turned for help. They were disbelieved or silenced and as such, are deeply cynical and distrustful. Sometimes they have moved on with their lives and have no desire to relive the painful traumas in their pasts.

Rather than approach them directly, I have found the best way to get sources like this to talk is to do so through a trusted intermediary. I stumbled upon this practice when seeking clergy-abuse victims to interview. At the time, I had gleaned what I could about Ceoghan's pedophilic behavior from documents in a civil lawsuit against him and officials in the Boston Archdiocese. But I couldn't get far in identifying victims because of a skeletal court record: Almost all of the victims had filed suit under the pseudonym of John or Jane Doe, and all depositions and discovery materials were sealed. I reached out to the lawyer handling the case, a lone crusader who had quietly worked on it for six years. When I asked him to introduce me to victims, he insisted that I agree to any condition that would make them feel comfortable, including having him or others be present, and having them dictate where they would like to meet.

The approach immediately put the victims at ease and over the years, I have kept it. Take the series on campus rape, which featured 33 students who had reported rape to their school administrators. …