A former reporter is haunted by the story he didn't pursue four decades ago.
By Bruce DeSilva (Washington Post)
April 8, 2016
I always knew that watching "Spotlight" was going to be difficult for me, so I kept putting it off. Finally, with my wife out of town last week, I sprawled on the family-room floor with my two big dogs and steeled myself to view the Oscar-winning film about the investigation of sexual abuse in Boston's Catholic Church. I was glad Patricia was away. I didn't want her to see my tears.
As the next two hours crawled by, I was consumed by three emotions: admiration for the Boston Globe's investigative team, pride in the journalism profession I have labored in for more than four decades - and guilt.
One day in the 1970s, I fielded a phone call in the newsroom of the Providence Journal. The caller was a local woman with a story that seemed inconceivable: Her 10-year-old son had been repeatedly molested by a Roman Catholic priest.
A couple of days later, I sat across from her and her boy at their kitchen table in a rundown Providence tenement building. What they told me was chilling. The boy, his voice cracking, said that he wasn't the only victim - two of his friends also had been abused. I asked the woman if she or the other parents had reported this to the Providence police. She said they'd tried, but the police scoffed and warned them that it was a crime to file a false report.
As a journalist, I am skeptical by nature. But by the time I left them that evening, I believed that what they'd told me was true. The next day, I consulted with an editor, one of the top guys who ran the paper. He branded their account rubbish before I could even finish relating it.
I understood why he was incredulous but insisted it was worth looking into. He forbade it. No way would the paper ever slander a priest, he said. Besides, he added, even if the story were true (a notion he dismissed out of hand), none of our readers would believe it. At the time, Rhode Island was the most heavily Roman Catholic state in the union, and people trusted the church - in the 1970s, public surveys regularly showed that more than 60 percent of all Americans had high levels of confidence in organized religion.
I protested. The editor dug in. I argued. He got angry. If I didn't let this go, he warned, I'd be looking for another line of work.
I was a young reporter, less than a decade into a profession in which he'd excelled for several times that long. I had a wife, kids and a mortgage I could barely afford. I needed that job. I loved it, too. And when that editor threatened to take it away, he was so red-faced with fury that I knew he meant it. Besides, I told myself, what good would it do to chase the story if the newspaper wasn't going to print it?
So I swallowed hard and moved on to other investigative targets. (In a state rife with organized crime and political corruption, there was no shortage.)
It seems unlikely that I was the only journalist who got a lead about a pedophile priest in the decades before Marty Baron walked into the top job at the Globe and began to set things right. (Baron is now executive editor of The Washington Post.) There were so many damaged kids, so many distraught parents. Yes, most of them were loath to speak of it, even in a whisper. They were cowed by their shame, their reverence for the church and their fear that they would not be believed. But surely a few must have called their local newspapers and gotten the brush-off. Knowing that I probably wasn't the only one who failed to follow up doesn't make me feel even a teeny bit better.
In Rhode Island, the first public indication that something was amiss came in 1984, the year after I left the paper, when the Rev. Henry Leech, assistant pastor of St. Jude's Parish in Lincoln, was charged with five counts of sexual assault on teenage boys. Later, as he was sentenced to three years in prison, he told the judge that he, too, had been sexually assaulted when he was a child. Over the next few years, three more Rhode Island priests were convicted of similar crimes.
By 1997, when Louis Edward Gelineau retired after 25 years as bishop of Providence, several civil lawsuits accusing a dozen Rhode Island priests of sexual assault were winding their way through state and federal courts. Some of them accused Gelineau of either doing nothing about the assaults or trying to cover them up. Then it got uglier. In the 1950s, when he was assigned to a Vermont orphanage, the future bishop molested a child himself, according to a deposition sworn out by the alleged victim. Around the same time, Gelineau was also accused of having sex with an altar boy and soliciting sex at a nearby Massachusetts truck stop. He denied it all and was never charged.
From my Rockefeller Plaza office in New York, where I directed a team of Associated Press national writers, I followed these developments with a growing sense of revulsion. Still, I never imagined that they were a mere shadow of what was to come.
On Jan. 6, 2002, the first of the Globe's 600 news stories on the pedophile scandal and the unconscionable worldwide cover-up by the Roman Catholic hierarchy hit the streets. Suddenly, the unthinkable was in the open for all to see. Across America and then around the world, victims by the thousands came forward to tell their stories. And this time, the world listened.
In September of that year, Providence's new bishop, Robert E. Mulvee, settled 36 lawsuits accusing 10 Rhode Island priests and a nun of sexually abusing children, paying the victims $13 million . But that was not the end of it.
Two years later, the John Jay Report, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, put the number of Rhode Island priests accused of sexually abusing children since 1950 at 56 - a figure that seemed astounding for such a small state. In the years since, at least four more Rhode Island priests have been either put on "administrative leave" or criminally charged for sex offenses.
When the Globe broke the news, my instant reaction was professional jealousy: That story, and the Pulitzer I was sure would follow it, could have been mine. But then I was transported back to that Providence tenement house, felt the eyes of that woman and her son on me, and I was deeply ashamed. Their names are lost to me now, but for years, I've often thought about them - and about all the other kids who were molested during the decades when nobody, including me, was doing anything about it.
What of that priest the woman and her son told me about? Was he ever brought to justice? I don't know. My notes were discarded decades ago, and I no longer remember his name. But to this day, I study every fresh report about predatory priests in the hope that I might recognize it if I see it again. Sometimes, I find myself wondering if my old editor does the same. He's an old man now, and there's no point in burdening him with my shame.
I have no idea if my Providence colleagues and I could have followed that lone lead and unraveled the whole monstrous mess in the 1970s. But even then, I was a capable investigative reporter. Sometimes working alone, sometimes as part of a team, I exposed fraud in the state Medicaid system, corruption in the federal Section 8 low-income housing program, widespread voter fraud in a mayoral election, third-world conditions and needless deaths at the state's institution for the developmentally handicapped, physical and sexual abuse at the state's institution for delinquent children. I even helped identify a murderer. And I was far from the only one. In the 1970s, the Journal was rich with investigative talent.
So, yes, perhaps we could have done it. But we didn't even try. I didn't, to my everlasting regret. There are a lot of us out here: journalists who got a whiff of the stink and missed the big story, cops and prosecutors who looked the other way, bishops who saw the depth of the depravity and chose to cover it up. Perhaps some of us are guiltier than others, but we are members of the same tribe. That's why one line in the movie, delivered by Stanley Tucci in the role of crusading Boston lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, brought me to tears:
"If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one."
Bruce DeSilva, an Edgar Award-winning crime novelist, previously worked as a journalist for more than 40 years.