Boston Priest Scandal Reverberates Nationwide

By: Joe Strupp

When The Morning Call asked the local Roman Catholic Church Diocese of Allentown, Pa., whether any of its priests had been accused of sexual misconduct, Managing Editor David Erdman expected at least some resistance, and more likely an outright refusal to comment. What he got was “a complete break in tradition for them,” he said.

The diocese not only responded in a matter of days but also revealed that four priests had been dismissed in recent weeks for sexually abusing children more than 20 years ago.

The Morning Call, whose story ran Wednesday, is not alone. Since The Boston Globe gained national attention for its revelations about child-molestation claims within the Archdiocese of Boston, newspapers in other parts of the country have been quietly sniffing around their own Catholic communities for potential scandal, with surprising results, E&P has learned.

Catholic leaders in Philadelphia, Scranton, Pa., and Manchester, N.H. have revealed numerous cases of priests accused of sexual misconduct after inquiries by local newspapers — made, in most cases, in the form of a simple request. Many editors credit the Boston case with pressuring other Catholic dioceses into providing information to avoid the cover-up accusations that have plagued the church in Boston.

“We could have had reporters climbing ropes outside of their building, and we would not have gotten the same information we got because of the Boston story,” said Zack Stalberg, editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. Church leaders, he said, “weren’t going to make the same [cover-up] mistake.” The Daily News on Feb. 23 joined other local news outlets in reporting that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had dismissed six priests for sexually assaulting children, and estimated that about 35 priests had molested as many as 50 children during the past 50 years.

In Scranton, an inquiry by The Scranton Times and The Tribune resulted in the Diocese of Scranton revealing that two or three priests had been accused of molestation in recent years. “I think the Boston case played a part in that,” said John Murphy, Times-Tribune assistant managing editor for news. “In the past, those things had been handled very quietly.”

Similar probing in New Hampshire by media outlets, including The Union Leader, led Diocese of Manchester officials, who at first denied knowledge of sexual misconduct by priests, to turn over the names of 14 priests who’d been accused of such activities during the past two decades.

Some papers, such as the Wausau (Wis.) Daily Herald, looked beyond their own Catholic communities to find local angles to the scandal. Herald Executive Editor Mark Baldwin asked reporters to investigate how a spate of million-dollar settlements might affect the Church Mutual Insurance Co. — a firm based in nearby Merrill that says it insures more churches than any other company in the United States.

Editors told E&P that reader reaction to their initiatives in these cases was mixed, with some people criticizing their efforts as anti-Catholic and others praising the stories for exposing a problem.

The Boston Globe‘s investigation centered on the Rev. John J. Geoghan, who was sentenced to prison last month for molesting a 10-year-old boy. During its coverage of the case, the paper sued for — and won — the right to get access to sealed documents from some of the 88 civil cases filed by alleged victims and pending against Geoghan and other church officials.

The previously sealed documents revealed, among other things, that Geoghan had been accused of sexual misconduct with dozens of minors for nearly 30 years, and that some $15 million in settlements had been paid by the church to former victims. “No one had ever before gotten insight into the inner workings of the church,” Globe Editor Martin Baron boasted to E&P. “You can really see what they knew and how they handled it.”

In January, the Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., settled lawsuits brought by 10 men against four priests accused of molesting them as far back as the 1960s. After the cases were settled for an estimated $16 million, the hometown Arizona Daily Star went digging through hundreds of court documents for stories that revealed, among other things, the diocese’s failure to punish a priest accused of holding a boy in his bedroom for six nights. But Daily Star editors are still trying to gain access to sealed documents in the cases and believe the Globe‘s success in their fight will help them. Said Daily Star attorney Phil Higdon, “The judge has a lot of discretion in this area.”

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