Church Sex Scandal Not an Easy Story to Tell

Republican [Springfield MA]
February 22, 2004

Our report this week detailing sexual assault allegations against the bishop of the Springfield Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church tested our ability to remain the dispassionate messenger.

The two men alleged that Bishop Thomas L. Dupre sexually assaulted them when he was a parish priest and they were 12- and 13-year-old boys. The men, now 39 and 40, said Dupre introduced them to homosexual sex and pornography after taking them under his wing.

The latest local developments increased the scope of a scandal that has enveloped the church and sent shock waves throughout the region among Catholics and non-Catholics.

We live in a world that already is disillusioned and frightened, but to have forces of goodness, justice and equity turn out to be no better than Enron is highly destructive of our hope.

More than the shock, there is a deep sense of sadness and pain on many levels.

The alleged victims come to our minds and hearts first, but also we think of the church - an institution with many faithful - and the community as a whole. Devout Catholics surely will renew their faith and work hard for church reform, but what about those people of other faiths? This touches just about everyone on some level, including those of us who work at the newspaper.

We're not on a secret mission or following any agenda other than being a good newspaper and shining a light where there is darkness.

Some have said that these revelations will ultimately result in positive change within the church, that doors will be opened for the laity to become more involved and that priests will no longer be placed on pedestals. If so, that must be good, but the immense sadness felt throughout the community is palpable as we wrestle with questions that include:

If the allegations are true, who knew but failed to speak out?

How will the church restore confidence and trust?

When can the faithful expect a return to normalcy?

We have noticed a huge change in the attitudes of our readers toward coverage of the sex abuse scandals in the church since we broke the local news to them more than a decade ago.

"When we first reported alleged abuses by then-Father Richard Lavigne, who subsequently pleaded guilty to several counts, the newspaper was attacked as being anti-Catholic," recalls Executive Editor Wayne E. Phaneuf.

"We have received only a handful of calls concerning our latest coverage and most have been from thoughtful readers who would like the story to go away, but know we have to cover it."

Phaneuf said the church also has become more responsive over time, including in its effort to report abuse cases.

Managing Editor Marie P. Grady, who guided reporter Bill Zajac and City Editor Jim Gillen as Zajac developed the story over the past year, noted that this was extraordinarily difficult to execute. As often is the case, our work on this story began with an anonymous tip to the reporter. Zajac over time was able to track down the mother of one of the alleged victims, who was shocked by the allegations.

The mother confronted her son, who ultimately acknowledged the alleged abuse. However, neither the son nor the other alleged victim had decided to go public. Zajac continued to investigate the credibility of the charges while keeping in touch with the family.

Meanwhile, because of the highly sensitive nature of the project, only a handful of people at The Republican were aware of our investigation.

Ultimately, Grady gave the go-ahead for Zajac to confront the bishop with detailed allegations. Dupre abruptly retired and disappeared from public view.

Talking with a friend who's a retired bishop, I immediately sensed his anguish and sadness. "This simply adds fuel to the fire," he said. "It leads people to think that leaders of religion are hypocrites, that they are liars, that they are untruthful about their real lives, and that religion is hypocritical. That they stand on principles that they don't follow."

For us, the story also has a personal dimension. The editors directly involved as well as the reporter were all reared in the Catholic faith. Grady, whose large Irish family tree includes both priests and nuns abroad, is proud of the "outstanding journalism" involved even though the results are painful.

"So many involved with the Catholic church have done tremendous good in the world, and I am sure they are ashamed and saddened by these developments," she said. "But no institution of faith can last for long if it is not based on truth."

Nor can a good newspaper.


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