I had been at the Washington Times for more than seven years editing the pop-culture page, when I was tapped to become the paper’s religion editor in 2003. I’d been doing a fair amount of religion reporting before that, but I hadn’t covered the beat full-time since my stint at the Houston Chronicle in the late 1980s.
One thing that had changed in the intervening years was how the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church was all over the news, and had been since early 2002. That was the year that religion reporters around the country had to grind out piece after piece on all the revelations first pouring out of Boston and then in dioceses around the country.
That was the part of the beat I didn’t want to take on, as it entailed a return to my days as a police reporter -- although this time the criminals were erring clergy. Many of the other facets of the police beat: interviews with traumatized victims, poring over court records, showing up at hearings, were there, all with the added monstrosity that those responsible were acting in the name of God while the faith of many were destroyed. I quailed from volunteering to do stories no one else in the newsroom wanted to touch. So did other reporters, as GetReligion has reported in the past.
However, I did take on the beat and ended up doing many clergy abuse stories, as it turned out, which is why I have so much respect for reporters who continue to plug away at all the ripples the scandal continues to have.
It was 14 years ago this month that Boston Globe’s first stories ran. One newspaper I want to give a shout out to is the Minneapolis Star Tribune, whose religion-beat reporter Jean Hopfensperger continues to report on an issue that refuses to go away.
Here’s a Jan. 19 story on a revered local abbey -- and one of the country’s largest Benedictine houses -- forced to open up its files on the abusers in its midst:
St. John’s Abbey, long the subject of sex abuse allegations, opened up its clergy files to public scrutiny for the first time. ... The files were immediately labeled incomplete by victims’ advocates.
The abbey in Collegeville, Minn., released its personnel files on 18 monks credibly accused of sexually abusing minors as part of a legal settlement reached by a St. Cloud man who said he was abused by a monk as a St. John’s Preparatory School student in 1977.
Although the files went online at mntransparencyinitiative.com Tuesday, the abbey’s website made no mention of the historic revelations by the day’s end.
Hopfensperger, who has been on the beat since 2011, had previously written about this abbey and the high numbers of molesting monks it hid. One boasted of some 200 sexual encounters; another was paid $30,000 to leave the monastery quietly.
Here is her Jan. 13 story about Archbishop John Nienstedt, who resigned his post last June after the local county attorney’s office went after him for failing to protect Catholics from known abusers. The Star-Tribune informed readers that Nienstedt was moving to a Battle Creek, Mich., parish to serve as an assistant priest.
The reaction to that story was so strong, that the following happened, as Hopfensperger reports:
Former St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt quit a temporary post at a Michigan church Thursday, following a wave of protests from Catholic parents and abuse victim advocates.
Michigan residents opposing Nienstedt's Jan. 6 assignment at St. Philip Catholic Church had bombarded their diocese and the media, and even pulled tuition support for a Catholic school associated with the church.
"I was surprised it took an outcry for them [church leaders] to make the right decisions," said Samantha Pearl, a parent at St. Philip who was an outspoken critic of Nienstedt's move to her parish. "I'm relieved."
The piece did include a defense from Nienstedt near the end to the effect that he himself had never been implicated in any clergy abuse. The archbishop had barely arrived in Michigan when he was forced to leave. The links I’ve provided up above lead to more links and work from other Star-Tribune staff on this issue. It appears that Hopfensperger has broken quite a few stories on this issue and is continuing to follow it long after many religion reporters have moved on to other things.
For those of you who don’t cover religion, know that doing these stories is excruciating for most reporters and I know of some who lost their faith after covering this issue. They may have been struggling before this but having to cover this horrible topic day after day was the tipping point that drove them out. So, if you see good coverage, be aware of the price some people pay to bring it to you.
IMAGE: Graphic from bishopaccountability.org