A tale of Twin Cities: Pioneer Press outdoes Strib with stellar story on bishop's meeting with abuse survivors

After I wrote in this space that the Minneapolis Star-Tribune 's over-reliance on SNAP marred an otherwise good story on Archbishop John Nienstedt's meeting with abuse survivors, I received an e-mail pointing me to the Pioneer Press's take on the same story.

The e-mail was from the meeting's organizer, Bob Schwiderski, and although he himself did not say which story he preferred, for me it is no contest. Pioneer Press columnist Rubén Rosario didn't look to SNAP, or any outside advocacy group, to tell readers how they should feel about the archbishop's meeting. Instead, he did all his reporting from the ground, gathering information only from those directly involved with the event. In this way, Rosario has composed an outstanding piece of journalism, hitting all the right notes while writing on a topic that is notoriously difficult to get right. What is more, he has achieved such balance even while being personally close to the issue, "[as] a victim of childhood sex abuse[, ...] raised Catholic." 

I could and will go on about some of the things about Rosario's article that particularly struck me, but I urge you to read the entire piece.

Like the Strib story, it begins with a dramatic vignette:

The two men, the embattled archbishop and perhaps his harshest critic, briefly walked around Crocus Hill before settling on a bench near the Cathedral of St. Paul.

There were no lawyers. There were no handlers. It was just two men conversing on a bench.

Bob Schwiderski, who prefers to call himself a survivor, and not a victim, of clergy sexual abuse, did most of the talking at the Aug. 20 meeting. John Nienstedt, who heads the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, did most of the listening.

Here we see the first of many significant differences between Rosario's article and the Strib's coverage: Schwiderski "prefers to call himself a survivor and not a victim." In making that observation, Rosario shows sensitivity in an area that is important to those who have suffered abuse. I suspect that for some readers, that phrase provides a teaching moment, showing that not all who have been victimized wish to bear the "victim" label.   

The article continues:

Schwiderski is a former altar boy from Hector, Minn. He was repeatedly molested in the early 1960s by a now long-deceased priest also suspected of victimizing others. ...

Schwiderski has over the years carved a niche as the state's most outspoken crusader for survivors like himself. ...

 He would like to see Nienstedt resign in the wake of publicly revealed mishandlings of recent clergy sex abuse cases.

Yet, when asked, Schwiderski willingly offered Nienstedt some advice on how best to connect and meet with survivors like himself. He couched his response in hunting terms that day.

"When I go pheasant hunting," Schwiderski said he recalls telling the archbishop, "I put on the appropriate clothes; I oil up the old shotgun, get my hunting license and go to where the pheasants are.

You, on the other hand, get to wear the pretty clothes, are given a new shotgun with ammunition and then you sit behind your desk in Crocus Hill and think the pheasants will come to you."

I have to pause to admire how Rosario got that great quote from Schwiderski and used it to enable the reader to be a fly on the wall at the encounter between the survivor and the archbishop.

Then the reporter gets to the nitty gritty:

Nienstedt apparently took the analogy to heart. On Saturday, inside a small conference room at Wayzata's downtown public library, Nienstedt met with nearly 20 survivors and relatives of survivors. As on the park bench last month, he mostly listened.

Fathers, sons, daughters, husbands and wives at the session spoke through tears but with moving passion and emotion about their own victimization and the ripple effects it caused them and their family. The ripples ranged from substance abuse, loss of jobs and broken or strained marriages to alienation from children and loss of trust in the church.

Most expressed what in biblical terms would be described as righteous anger.

"They have never sat down and shared their stories with a higher-up, no less the head of the church," said Schwiderski, who arranged the session. "Some told me it was the most emotional and also the most empowering support group meeting they have ever attended. I give Nienstedt some credit for showing up."

Before saying more the meeting, Rosario breaks away to bring inside information about the behind-the-scenes preparations. When he returns the reader to the meeting, he reveals a personal detail that must have caused some readers to do a double-take:

 As a victim of childhood sex abuse and a raised Catholic, I was invited as long as I did not identify survivors and relatives in the room or disclose identifying details.

I am impressed that Rosario makes his courageous self-revelation so briefly and places it so far down in the story. The temptation when writing a story in which one has a personal interest is to make it more about one's own feelings. Instead, Rosario makes every effort to keep the focus on Schwiderski and his fellow clergy-abuse victim/survivors:

Wearing street clothes and a dark Knights of Columbus polo shirt, Nienstedt sat between Schwiderski and the Rev. Tim Norris, pastor of the Ham Lake church. He had a pained look on his face as men and women seated across from him and around a long rectangular table took turns giving victim-impact statements. Some had written down their thoughts. Others said what came to them.

With those words, Rosario has done something subtle but extremely important. He has effectively given what is known as a trigger warning -- telegraphing that he is about to relate stories that might trigger painful memories for readers who have suffered abuse.

The reporter applies an interesting technique of alternately inhabiting the perspective of the victim/survivors and that of the archbishop taking in their painful stories, to powerful effect:

He heard from a young man who nearly destroyed his life with alcohol to kill the pain of the abuse. The man's father, who also attended, told Nienstedt he also was a Knights of Columbus member and was active in his church until his son disclosed what the family priest had done. He was disappointed that the church did little to the abuser and pretty much turned its back on his son when he reached out to officials for help.

"I'm no longer Catholic," he said.

"I'm so angry right now at you," said another man also abused by a priest. "But I also need to thank you for being here." ...

Nienstedt shared that he long wanted to be a priest while growing up. He never imagined that priests could do such things. He thanked the survivors for helping him to better understand "such evil from a gut level."

Go read the rest. Kudos to Rosario for writing a piece that can serve not only as a model to journalists, but also -- one hopes -- to dioceses looking to learn how to better help victim/survivors heal.

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