Covering a Sensitive Story
By Pam Platt
The Courier-Journal [Louisville]
June 30, 2002
Louis Miller put his hand in front of a photographer's lens as he walked to a waiting car from the county jail on Thursday. Miller was indicted in connection with alleged sexual relations with young Catholics.
The Most recent wave of bad news concerning the Catholic Church and how it has treated the alleged sexual abuse of children by some of its priests began in Boston in the very earliest days of this year. Trouble spots quickly appeared in other parts of the country.
It took a little while for Kentucky's wave to build strength and speed.
In February, the newspaper received its first tips that similar events had occurred in Louisville. In midApril, after careful research and documentation, The Courier-Journal printed its first staff-written story about local allegations.
In the beginning, a few outraged readers called to castigate the newspaper's play of the stories on the news pages. And in the beginning, other angry readers phoned to express their displeasure with editorial cartoons printed on The Forum pages.
Were we, in Louisville, glomming on to a big story being played out in other parts of the country?
Were we, in Louisville, joining in a "feeding frenzy" - so mentioned in homilies and conversations - that unfairly targeted a church and its servants?
My answers to both of those questions were and are no.
As events have born out, this wasn't a Boston phenomenon. Our own neighbors and parishes are struggling with the long-term fallout of what have been, until now, hidden horrors.
Since that first local story appeared, more than 145 suits have been filed against the Louisville Archdiocese by adults who say area priests sexually molested them when they were children or teens. (The diocese includes 220,000 parishioners in 24 counties.)
The Courier-Journal has pored through court records, covered the filing of the suits, and has spoken to many of those who say they are victims of outright abuse and church indifference. The newspaper also has endeavored to talk with each of the accused when that is possible; four of the accused priests are deceased. We have explained that a filed suit represents just one side of the story. And all of our stories have used named sources.
As reporters have broken new ground and followed leads, the local scope of this tragic issue has broadened and focused at the same time.
For what it's worth, the calls of complaint - the ones to me, anyway - still come in but have tapered off. (A scientific poll commissioned by the newspaper, and printed in June, questioned Catholics and non-Catholics about a variety of issues related to this scandal. About half the Catholics surveyed said they thought the local media had spent the right amount of time on the issue.)
The bulk of our reporting and writing has been done by Courier-Journal religion writer Peter Smith, whose father is a retired Protestant minister. The story has become so big that four other reporters have been added to the mix of coverage along the way.
"There's no way to feel good about a story like this. It's a tragedy," Smith said.
Four senior editors, three of them active Catholics, have overseen the news reports; two of them have recused themselves from involvement with specific stories dealing with parishes or people they knew.
"There are no angry Catholics on this story," said Assistant Managing Editor John Mura, whose own parish has been touched by the scandal.
There has never been any question that The Courier-Journal would cover this story, and continue to cover the story until it plays out. Nor has there been any question that the paper would marshal its resources to present the most complete and accurate picture of these alleged misdeeds, why crimes went unreported for so long, and why this matters now. The Courier-Journal even has gone to court against the diocese to fight to keep church records from being sealed throughout the conduct of the suits.
It's what we do. As the public's proxy, we are exercising the citizen's constitutionally guaranteed right to know.
And, this is one of those rare news stories which, if done well, can also do good - in this case, expose wrongdoing, deliver some sort of vindication to people who have been badly mistreated and bring about positive change.
The very core of these stories - accusations of sexual abuse, allegations of the church's mishandling or outright obfuscation of dark deeds, the potential damage to reputation and long-lasting effects on lives - demand that they be treated with the utmost caution and care.
Let's revisit two thorny points in the coverage:
? The decision to print a story about accusations against Father R. Joseph Hemmerle, a very well-regarded Trinity High School teacher, when no lawsuit had been filed. Michael Norris told state police that Hemmerle abused him in the 1970s, but did not file suit against the diocese.
In doing the story, reporter Smith investigated the claims by Norris, painstakingly examining correspondence, interviewing friends and family members - and attempting to interview Hemmerle, who would not comment.
The story was printed after several months of work, and not without discussion and dissenting opinion.
"It was a public story. The accuser had gone to the police, had filed a complaint and the investigation was ongoing," Mura said.
We heard from many readers who disagreed and felt it was unfair to print the story.
Says Managing Editor Ben Post, "We have worked very hard to document everything we can and to allow both sides to comment ... I've been absolutely comfortable with everything we've printed."
? Writing about accused priests who are dead and cannot defend themselves.
Mura: "There was some discussion about fairness. But we're not deciding to name them. They're being named in suits, and that's public record."
Still, he says, "Openness is a double-edged sword. It's a wonderful thing, but it can be damned uncomfortable."
I called Brian Reynolds, chief administrative officer for the archdiocese, to ask him to comment on the newspaper's coverage. He said that while he thought some of the news coverage had been excellent, and that some of the analysis had been good, he wasn't sure the newspaper had been 100 percent fair.
Reynolds raised three issues: He thought it was inappropriate for the newspaper to print the Hemmerle accusation story; he thought the artwork used in a profile of Father Louis Miller (who was charged last week with 42 counts of molesting minors) sensationalized news that didn't need sensationalizing; and he thought The Courier's coverage of its suit against the diocese to keep court records open had not depicted the diocese accurately. "We're not hiding," he said.
Post has another view.
"If we don't aggressively pursue these stories, the truth may never come out," he said.
The newspaper editor's words are not much different from those issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, after the group's historic meeting in Dallas this month. Here's an excerpt from the preamble of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People:
"The sexual abuse of children and young people by some priests and bishops, and the ways in which we bishops addressed these crimes and sins, have caused enormous pain, anger and confusion. Innocent victims and their families have suffered terribly. In the past, secrecy has created an atmosphere that has inhibited the healing process and, in some cases, enabled sexually abusive behavior to be repeated... ."
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