For years, the Star Tribune, like other news organizations in Minnesota, had covered clergy abuse on a spot news basis, documenting each lawsuit and occasionally writing general stories about the church’s response. But last spring, when news broke that St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., had been restricting the activities of 13 priests and brothers because of abuse allegations, the newspaper had an opportunity to show readers how an emerging national crisis had manifested itself in our own state.
There were no big secrets to getting the stories. Sometimes, good, old-fashioned shoe-leather still does the job. The newspaper put a team of its best diggers and writers on the story. Two of them spent several days in the Collegeville area about 80 miles from the Twin Cities, talking with people at the abbey and in the surrounding communities, pulling court records from earlier suits and identifying victims, their attorneys and abusive priests. A reporter with good sources at the Abbey and in the Catholic Church worked his sources, and several worked attorneys in the Twin Cities who’d been bringing suits against the Catholic Church for years.
They traced the movements of priests and brothers by using church websites, the Official Catholic Directory and basic paper-trail reporting. They spent late nights in the offices of one lawyer reading thousands of pages of documents collected for cases that were never filed in court.
All of that information came together in a series of breaking stories that shed new light on sexual misconduct committed by many of the monks on restriction at St. John’s, and 11 priests who’d been affiliated with the U.S. Crosiers Catholic order based in Shoreview, Minn. And as each story surfaced, more victims came forward, leading to better information and more stories.
We learned plenty along the way. Among the lessons:
Invest in the victims. This takes mileage, time and often, many interviews. Get out of the office. Sex abuse victims have a hard enough time talking about their experiences. They certainly don’t want their first experience with a reporter to occur over the phone. Get to their house. Show them they are important enough to warrant a trip. Our best information often came in the third and fourth interviews with each victim. Some occurred when reporters took them to the places where the alleged abuse occurred.
Invest in the church officials. They are naturally on the defensive, but reporters can change that dynamic by investing in them just as they invest in the victims. Let them know that you’re not going to call them the night before publication to get their response to an allegation. Instead, you’re going to meet in person, maybe over several days or weeks before publication. Go beyond specific allegations. Talk about how the church is responding and how it plans to restore its credibility. Credibility is a good topic because it requires openness, and that means information. In our stories, abbey and church officials eventually were among our best sources. Though they rarely would volunteer names of alleged abusers, when we gave them a priest’s name, the officials often would confirm the allegation against that priest and describe what the church had done about it.
Take advantage of momentum. Victims often feel better about talking when they know others are talking, too. When victims learned that others had suffered similar experiences and felt good about talking publicly, their courage and comfort levels grew. Almost every priest abuse story we wrote brought other victims out of the woodwork.
Follow the paper trail. Many cases never get to court, and church records are private. But that doesn’t mean there’s no available paper. Many victims received settlements without ever suing, and received written correspondence from the church documenting the settlements. Some victims kept copies of checks they’d received to pay for counseling – further confirmation that an allegation was taken seriously, even if the church didn’t admit the abuse happened. Attorneys often will provide depositions, medical reports and other documents that were never filed in court but still add credibility to an allegation. Star Tribune reporters also found depositions of priests admitting they abused.
Confidential settlements aren’t always confidential. As more organizations have taken steps to restore their credibility, some have withdrawn the confidentiality requirements they had imposed when they originally settled with victims. The U.S. bishops approved a new policy this summer allowing no confidential settlements unless requested by victims. That provides an opening for this question: “Are you following the new policy? If so, tell us about past settlements.” At the least, that often can lead officials to confirm settlements that victims have described to reporters.
Find the counselors. There’s a thriving industry of therapists who counsel abuse victims and clergy who abuse. They can’t divulge their clients’ names – unless the client agrees. But they can ask their clients if they want to be interviewed. And some counselors may provide information about other abusers they’ve heard about, and about the culture of abuse within churches, abbeys and other institutions.
Track the priests. The organization’s website may list the activities of priests and monks, helping to track their travels before and after the church learned of abuse allegations against them. The Official Catholic Directory also tells where Catholic priests are serving. A word of caution, though: The websites and the directory aren’t always right or up to date.
Chris Ison is Assistant Managing Editor/Projects for the Star Tribune.
Star Tribune Works Catholic Abuse Story