AP: Predator priests sent globetrotting?

In a story involving 30-plus reporters around the world, The Associated Press produced what it billed as a major scoop. The headline on the Yahoo! version declared:

AP IMPACT: Predator priests shuffled around globe

With thousands of professional journalists stationed all over the globe, the AP boasts the enviable ability to unleash an army of reporters on almost any subject. As you might have heard, the Roman Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal has exploded once again, and all the major media are fighting to lead the pack. Thus, AP’s decision to assign nearly three dozen correspondents to this piece.

As a bit of personal background, I have been accused on more than one occasion in my 20-year newspaper career of a sinister agenda for reporting on church hierarchies covering up abuse cases (such instances that come immediately to my mind involved Lutherans, Churches of Christ and, yes, Catholics). Therefore, please forgive my tendency to side with the journalists, not the theocrats who cry foul over such coverage.

So, I read the AP report with an open mind and wanted to be impressed. The top of the story was powerful:

RIO DE JANEIRO — There he was, five decades later, the priest who had raped Joe Callander in Massachusetts. The photo in the Roman Catholic newsletter showed him with a smile across his wrinkled face, near-naked Amazon Indian children in his arms and at his feet.

The Rev. Mario Pezzotti was working with children and supervising other priests in Brazil.

It’s not an isolated example.

In an investigation spanning 21 countries across six continents, The Associated Press found 30 cases of priests accused of abuse who were transferred or moved abroad. Some escaped police investigations. Many had access to children in another country, and some abused again.

Unfortunately, the 2,300-word report (which is “War and Peace” length by AP standards) failed to live up to its bluster. It’s basically a terrific lede and ending involving the case mentioned above, with whipped cream — in the form of a handful of anecdotes — squirted inside as filling. There’s not much substance at all to make the case that there’s a systematic effort to shuffle abusive priests around the world and allow them to keep molesting children. I’m not saying that case couldn’t be made; I’m saying this story doesn’t provide the context or hard data to prove it.

The reference to an “investigation” seems like overkill, unless there’s more to this story than indicated in the text. If the AP truly conducted an investigation, shouldn’t the story provide some details on the mode of the investigation, the way it was carried out and what was discovered? Thirty cases are referenced in which accused priests were moved or transferred. How rare is that? In how many cases were such situations handled the right way? In 1,000 cases? In 50,000 cases? Some kind of context would be helpful to understand the number cited.

This paragraph in the story perplexed me:

A priest who admitted to abuse in Los Angeles went to the Philippines, where U.S. church officials mailed him checks and advised him not to reveal their source. A priest in Canada was convicted of sexual abuse and then moved to France, where he was convicted of abuse again in 2005. Another priest was moved back and forth between Ireland and England, despite being diagnosed as a pederast, a man who commits sodomy with boys.

As I best I tell — and someone please correct if I am wrong — that is the only reference to those cases. If I am right, that is strange. Where is the attribution? Where is the evidence to back up the claims — particularly on the U.S. church officials mailing the abusive priest checks and advising him not to reveal their source? If that’s true, I’d like to know which church officials did it and what happened to them. Are they still in power?

Besides the anecdotal evidence uncovered by the AP reporters, the piece includes this quote to back up its storyline:

“The pattern is if a priest gets into trouble and it’s close to becoming a scandal or if the law might get involved, they send them to the missions abroad,” said Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and critic of what he says is a practice of international transfers of accused and admitted priest child abusers. “Anything to avoid a scandal.”

For folks who have followed the abuse scandal since 1992, Sipe’s name is probably familiar. But shouldn’t the AP story provide some kind of background or evidence to establish him as an expert? On what does he base his criticism? Again, does he have any hard data to back up his claim?

The Sipe quote is followed with this summary of the church response:

Church officials say that in some cases, the priests themselves moved to another country and the new parish might not have been aware of past allegations. In other cases, church officials said they did not believe the allegations, or that the priest had served his time and reformed.

Maybe top Catholic officials didn’t cooperate with the story. I don’t know. But I would have loved a quote — about the same length as Sipe’s — by a Catholic leader addressing, in his own words, his response to the idea that church is shuffling these priests around the world and exposing more children to abuse. Instead, we get that summary, and the story moves back to the abuse victim quoted in the lede.

At the end, the story returns to that victim:

Back in Windsor, Vermont, Callander lives a quiet life with Sandi, his wife of 35 years. It was only last week that he told his siblings about the abuse.

Callander says he is coming forward now because the Xaverians failed to keep their promise that Pezzotti would not be around children. He wants the church to change by defrocking or isolating priests who admit abuse so they cannot work in the same positions again — anywhere in the world.

“All I want is for the church to do what is right for once,” Callander said. “To end the facade that a man like that should have the right to call himself a Catholic priest.”

That’s heartwrenching. Kudos to the AP for telling that victim’s story. But the rest of the piece could use a bit of work. A whole lot of work, actually.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • MikeL

    It’s starting to feel like the AP is trying to keep the theme going, but is running out of steam.

    On the other hand, the AP seems a little more even-keeled than Bob Ellis of the the Australian Broadcasting Company, who suggests:

    Why not bomb the Vatican, and riddle the Pope with bullets as he staggers out of the flames?

    in this article (h/t to Fr Z)

  • http://twitter.com/bdunlap Ben Dunlap

    No AP story in this series is complete, it seems, without a bit like this:

    The girl’s mother brought the case to the attention of Pope Benedict XVI.

    [quote from the email she sent to the pope]

    The pope never answered.

    Someone at AP has really got to excise this trope from the playbook. Does anyone there actually think that AP’s readers are that dumb?

  • http://twitter.com/bdunlap Ben Dunlap

    Gosh, there’s so much potential for an informative story there.

    They could have talked about the administrative differences between diocesan and religious priests — the priest mentioned in the lede is a religious and thus not exactly subject to any bishop. The same is true of at least one of the priests mentioned in the body of the article.

    They could have avoided mixing-and-matching cases of convicted criminals with case of priests who may have been falsely accused, and then least examined the question of whether it’s legitimate for a priest who contends that he was falsely accused to resume ministry in another country, where his reputation has not been destroyed.

    They could have really pushed hard on the retired Filipino bishop’s claim that these issues are viewed differently in the Philippines from the way they’re viewed in America and Europe. That’s a key concept to flesh out when you’re trying to claim that a global, federated organization has a systemic problem.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I am totally surprised that the AP story used the words pederast and sodomy–I thought those words had become banned in the media as being prejudicial toward homosexuals.

  • Passing By

    One of the limitations of the scandals in 2002 was the focus on the diocesan priests and a lot of us were waiting for the other shoe – the religious order priests – to drop. This article goes for it, but I agree it doesn’t deliver.

    A better effort examined practices of the Salesians in the Dallas Morning News in 2004.

    http://www.dallasnews.com/s/dws/spe/2004/runawaypriests/

    The website is, unfortunately far too theatrical, but it tells a story. I find the audio really annoying, by the way, but you turn it off.

    It seems to me there’s a large story to be told, but the reporter will have to remember that data is not the plural of anecdote.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. I hadn’t heard the “data is not the plural of anecdote” reference before, but it’s true. I’m not opposed to anecdotes, and in a case like this where there likely isn’t much hard data, anecdotes may be all the reporters have. But the burden is on the journalists to put the anecdotes into proper context. I don’t think that happened here.

  • Julia

    A priest friend told me that the Superiors of male religious orders did not sign off on the USCCB Charter on child abuse. The bishops and the Superiors of religious orders of women did sign and agree to it. I certainly didn’t know that. It would make a great story to tell.

    For example: not being bound by that charter has got to be part of the problem in the sex abuse case in Memphis which involved a foreign Dominican priest sent to the US from the Caribbean.

    http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/church-secrets/