Minnesota Public Radio news team digs into the 'why' of scandal

The call reporter Madeleine Baran took from a former employee of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese in June last year was the first step she and her colleagues at Minnesota Public Radio would take down a long and complex trail into another ugly chapter of the clergy sex abuse scandal.

"That was an unusual call to get because people within the chancery do not normally come forward to divulge secrets publicly," Baran said in a recent interview. "Right away, I knew that this was a unique situation, and right away my editors agreed with that."

The caller was Jennifer Haselberger, a canon lawyer who, in her work as chancellor of canonical affairs for the archdiocese, had found among its records and archives unreported allegations of clergy sex abuse and lapses in internal investigations. Unable to convince Archbishop John Nienstedt to take the lapses seriously, she had resigned her position in April 2013.

Three months later, she called Baran at Minnesota Public Radio and began telling what she knew. MPR News assembled a team that started an investigation of the details and broadcast its first story in September. The archdiocesan façade began to crumble quickly. As the MPR website states in an introduction to its latest online venture: "The vicar general resigned within days. Police launched criminal investigations. Catholics held protests, and Nienstedt canceled his public appearances."

Nienstedt, who has since been accused of inappropriate sexual advances to other men, is under an investigation that he himself initiated.

Since the flurry of activity after the first reports, MPR has continued to follow the strands of the story. Results of more than a year of reporting, including extensive interviews and detailed inspection of thousands of documents, appeared July 21 on the MPR website. The massive undertaking -- more than 20,000 words divided into four chapters -- is as much a story of journalism as it is of hierarchical malfeasance. The digital/print project builds on an hourlong radio documentary, "Betrayed by Silence: How three archbishops hid the truth," which aired June 21.

The longer narrative, interspersed with audio and video clips of interviews, appeared a week later. While much of the story makes its way over already heavily trod territory -- tracing the problems in Minneapolis today back to the case in Louisiana in the mid-1980s that first brought the scandal to national attention -- it adds new twists to some familiar pieces of the narrative. One of the main points is to deconstruct the "myth" of retired St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop Harry Flynn as a self-described healer who, when bishop of Lafayette, La., had diligently attended to the needs of the victims of Fr. Gilbert Gauthe.

The 34-year-old Baran, who has done other long-form investigative work for MPR, narrated the documentary and was the lead byline on the print version. But the final stories were the product of a team consisting of five reporters, Web editors and copy editors under the direction of Chris Worthington, managing director, and Mike Edgerly, news director at Minnesota Public Radio.

The dedication of so many resources to a single story was an attempt to try to understand not just the "how" of the scandal but also the "why," Baran said.

"I think the 'why' has been somewhat overlooked in the reporting on this," she said. "People have a hard time understanding why this would happen, what it is about the culture that would allow or encourage this to happen. I think you have to try to answer that question to get to any understanding of this, and obviously the answer is complicated."

The time and effort were necessary to understand the culture, she said. For about six months, one reporter's sole responsibility was gathering what she estimates were more than 100,000 pages of documentation. As in places like Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles, where reporters and law enforcement finally obtained access to documents, the church's own internal communications provided the dots that, once connected, allowed the team to pull together the deeper, broader picture of why this happened.

What emerged was the picture of a protective culture, Baran said, and the perception that victims who came forward were "a threat to the institutions" and the equivalent of "an assault on the church."

[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is troberts@ncronline.org.]

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