By pulling on a thread, reporters at the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News were able to unravel 20 years of sexual abuse and misconduct that took place within the Southern Baptist church.
Their findings appeared in Abuse of Faith, a series that launched in February. It featured a database, three investigative articles that included interviews with perpetrators and survivors, several explanatory sidebar articles, and a platform for people to share their own stories.
It all started in late 2017 when Chronicle reporter Robert Downen was working on a local story about a former Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) official who had been sued for sexually-based conduct. Through a simple LexisNexis search, Downen discovered that there were possibly hundreds of other cases across the country and presented his findings to Stephen Riley, the paper’s investigations editor.
In March 2018, Downen began rigorously researching the matter, and by June, two other reporters were assigned to the project: Chronicle deputy investigations editor and senior investigative reporter Lise Olsen and Express-News investigative reporter John Tedesco who recently joined the Chronicle. For nearly a year, the reporters worked with photographer Jon Shapley, along with others who helped gather information for the database.
“The power in the story was the numbers and how many there were,” Riley said. “The extra cloud of the victim’s stories and the interviews with the perpetrators came later, but we were really trying to get a frame around how big this problem was, how many people (were) involved and how much of it we could document.”
The reporters searched news archives, websites and databases nationwide going back as far as 1997 to compile a database of allegations of sexual abuse, sexual assault and other sexual misconduct involving Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers.
They examined federal and state court databases, prison records and official documents from more than 20 states and searched sex offender registries nationwide to verify details in hundreds of accounts. They also interviewed district attorneys and police in more than 40 Texas counties.
When the series was published, the impact of their work spread far and wide.
“We’re getting a lot of people writing us about their story and wanting us to add people to the database,” Riley said.
The newsroom was also blown away by the attention the project received online. “This has been by far the most read story in the history of HoustonChronicle.com…the interest from other media has been really intense,” Riley said.
He added, “What’s been really interesting to me is a lot of local papers have used our database to pull the perpetrators in order to go in and report in their own communities. I can’t say that was the driving reason that we published the database, but I’m glad it’s there for them to use.”