Inside the priests story: Searching for the abusers
The story started the way some of the best ones do, with a basic sort of question, the kind of question someone tosses out casually at the dinner table: What ever happened to the Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse in our area?
Literally, where are they -- are they still in ministry? How were their cases handled? What happened to their faith? After years of the subject being on The Post’s back burner, new scandals were emerging this spring in European parts of the church and questions were being raised about Pope Benedict’s connections to old cases – the subject was in the news, which led us on The Post’s religion staff to have this dinner-table-like conversation one day this spring. Little did we know what we were ourselves getting into.
Eight months later, our attempt to answer that question ran on The Post’s Web site and in the paper this weekend. It was one of the most convoluted reporting challenges I’ve had in my nearly 20 years on this job, and in truth, reporter Willian Wan and I weren’t able to comprehensively answer our own question. This is due to several major factors: church secrecy, basic privacy rights, priests being either dead or unwilling to be interviewed, and the simple passage of time. People forget details. Records get lost.
As we launched our project to find these men who had been at the center of such a sensitive, charged part of the Catholic Church narrative, we were stopped in our tracks. There was no list of names to work off. The church gives a number of how many men were accused, but the names aren’t all public.
And different dioceses – or regional branches – have different methods of list-making. Washington says it only counts those credibly accused; Arlington counts all accused, credible or not, through 2004, and after that it counts those that meet the diocese's standard of credibility. Some dioceses count men in religious orders, others don’t.
Then there is the whole issue of who belongs on the list, and victims’ advocates keep their own lists. Until the very last hours before the story was published, we were still debating: Does the priest who was accused of psycho-sexual harassment belong on the list, even if he never touched anyone sexually? What about the man who wasn’t based in our region, but just happened to be here when the alleged abuse occurred?
We spent months wading through dozens and dozens of cases, trying to piece together interviews with victims, parishioners, lawyers, neighbors, and friends, along with information from court files and newspaper clippings, to find the men and what happened to their psyches and lives.
Church officials were polite but not eager to help with such a project. They didn’t keep track of men who had been removed from ministry – as the vast majority of accused priests have been – and they didn’t keep the data we were requesting, such as how many were defrocked (stripped of their priestly status)? How many are dead? How many wound up in jail? Church officials were willing to tell us what they knew from memory and a quick look at the files they did maintain.
We concluded pretty early on that the men accused in the greater D.C. area were almost all out of ministry now; a few were on extended leaves because of ongoing investigations and a few had somewhat gray circumstances. No smoking guns, no ex-priests running day cares.
As the project dragged on through the summer, we went down multiple roads: How many men had wound up in internal, private church trials? How many were still receiving financial support from the church, and was that a sign of proper care by the church or a slap in the victims’ faces? Many accused priests had never had a trial of any sort, never been proven guilty in any standard sense. We hit endless brick walls as so many of the cases are private church matters if criminal authorities don’t pursue alleged crimes from decades ago.
Actually finding the men we did find was not easy. Most people have a trail of public records our researchers can sniff out: mortgages, utility bills, relatives, listed phone numbers. Priests live in church housing with bills paid by the church; they are invisible in that regard. Being removed from your career with an accusation of pedophilia hanging over you also makes these guys unlikely to leave the typical tracks: They have no money. They live with relatives, lay low and tend not to appear in newspaper clippings. They keep their numbers unlisted.
One priest was tracked by his victim to a New Jersey suburb. Another was a registered sex offender with a public address. Another came up on a basic 411 search. Still another runs an independent church on Capitol Hill and has a Web site.
Church officials told us fragments that led us to other clues. We held out hope that some of these dozens of men would talk with us and share the so-called “other side.” People talk about accused priests all the time, but rarely do you hear their voices, their stories. This led to many close calls. I spent a week on long interviews with a priest – not from our area – who amazingly was able to shake the stigma of his allegations and become a professional public speaker, paid by big companies and the federal government to talk about ethics.
He was anxious to talk about the nuances of clergy sexuality and accusations he considered unfair -- until he learned I’d be contacting his victims. He cut me off. My editor decided we couldn’t use his name without his permission, even after he had cooperated with us for a time.
I hung out at a Gaithersburg motel until I saw Rev. Aaron Cote, a registered sex offender and Dominican priest now living an isolated existence in a room with a number on the door. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I told him why I had come. It was a combination of shame, indignation and something that looked like practiced anger.
Church officials were mostly patient with us over the many weeks, sharing many details and going back to check dates when they felt they could. They couldn’t share some details, they said, such as about priests who had already died when they were accused, or if court settlements barred them from releasing information.
But many details remained mysteries to us. A new case popped up late in the game that church officials hadn’t mentioned. Since publication of the story, we’ve learned of other allegations we will pursue, but my broader conclusion is that many of the wounds related to this subject are not, despite church officials’ desires, closed. Many Catholics and abuse advocates want more transparency and accountability, even in decades-old cases. When I consider hurdles we never overcame, even with months of Post resources, it makes me wonder whether people involved in this issue – on both sides – will ever find peace.
| December 6, 2010; 10:42 AM ET
Categories: How I got that story, More on the story, The inside story
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