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2014 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Small/Medium Newsroom winner

Betrayed by Silence

About the Project

The impulse will be to say it’s been done before, that it’s an old story far beyond the public’s capacity to care, a story that was told a decade ago and is always the same. The impulse will be to look away and think: “Abuse in the Catholic church: Old news. Who cares?”

It’s true that in 2002, the Boston Globe blew the doors off the scandal of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and dioceses across the country responded. Some went public with the names of abusive priests bishops had been protecting for decades. Some cleaned house, deeming it painful but necessary, and revamped their policies for preventing and addressing abuse of all kinds within their churches, schools and programs. The story continued for a few years, then largely went away. It had been told. It was over.

But here in the Twin Cities, nothing could have been further from the truth. Here in the Twin Cities, there was no coming clean in 2002. There was no public mea culpa, there was no ousting of church leaders, there was no acknowledgement of scandal.

Quite the opposite, actually: While the rest of the country’s Catholic dioceses groaned through the agonizing trial of public scrutiny, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis repeatedly assured its parishioners that no offending priests were working within its borders, that church officials were committed to swiftly and definitively dealing with predators, that their children were safe.

Last summer, Minnesota Public Radio began to learn how shockingly false that sense of security had been. And it all began with a phone call.

In July, a former church official, who had resigned in protest over the church’s handling of sexual abuse, called the newsroom. Her story was unbelievable: Leaders within the archdiocese had continued to cover up the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, far beyond their public assurances of 2002. They had hidden the names of abusive priests for decades, had brokered secret deals and payments with some of those abusers and had failed to report suspected abuse and child pornography to civil authorities.

It was the first time such a highly placed insider had come forward to reveal the church’s secrets.

That midsummer phone call triggered for us a relentless hunt for thousands of documents, stories and other sources that propelled the story far beyond a whistleblower’s initial revelations. One story begot another, and another, and another as the avalanche of survivors, details and documents continued to surface — and soon a small reporting team had formed around what would become an ongoing investigation stretching across the better part of a year.

This story — of shattered trust and betrayals shrouded in silence — had never been told in the Twin Cities. Most Catholic Minnesotans had been living under the impression that their dioceses were free of predatory priests, that church officials had responsibly handled allegations.

But then we learned:
  • A priest who had secretly confessed to sexually abusing children decades ago is living half a block from a school. He is still a priest, and is still being paid by the archdiocese.
  • A priest with a known sexual addiction was allowed to continue in ministry and promoted to pastor — without a word to parishioners or parish employees. He’s now in prison for sexually abusing the children of a parish employee. Police suspect he has other victims.
  • Another priest, long ago known by church leaders to have ‘credible accusations’ of abuse against him, was teaching sex education to troubled teenagers.

And that was only the beginning. Our early reporting triggered a domino effect of revelations, lawsuits and response from the local church as it peeled back the layers of false promises by the very same leaders who had guided the Catholic church’s national response to clergy abuse — and showed that children remained at risk.

In early 2014, after months of investigation, we published a list of 70 clergy members against whom allegations of child sexual abuse and other sexual improprieties had been levied. We built a series of data sets from scratch — assignment histories built from decades of annual Catholic Directories; archival photographs of priests and their parishes; deeply reported accounts of their histories, the accusations against them and church officials’ responses — and located each of the accused to determine their current status and talk to them about what we’d learned.

We contacted every person on the list who is still alive. Some had not previously been named by the archdiocese — which, by that point in the investigation, had published the names of some priests with ‘credible allegations’ against them — but had been identified by other Catholic institutions across Minnesota. Before our story, no such list existed.

On mprnews.org, we created an application to present the data we had collected. Users can to search the names of priests or parishes to find out if they had crossed paths with a known abuser.

This story continues to grow, twist and evolve with each passing day. Local police departments and tribal authorities have opened a broad criminal investigation into the archdiocese and individual priests. The archbishop’s top deputy and several other archdiocesan officials have resigned. The abusive priest who taught sex education was fired. Past and present church officials — including the sitting archbishop — have testified under oath. A judge has forced two local dioceses to release the names and personnel files of 47 accused priests. The archdiocese has launched an internal task force. The current archbishop temporarily stepped aside while under investigation himself. The archdiocese has cancelled a planned $160 million capital campaign. Victims have come forward. There’s talk of bankruptcy preparation.

Change, we think, is a good indicator of powerful reporting — and we intend to continue pursuing this story, digitally and on the air, as long as it continues to unravel.