by Pastor Doug Kings
It will be twenty years this coming January since the Boston Globe broke open the story of rampant pedophilia among Catholic priests and the protection of those priests by the church’s bishops. That 2002 newspaper series (which won a Pulitzer and is retold in the Best Picture Oscar-winning movie Spotlight) is also about the reluctance—often vehement—of church members to hear or believe the story.
This week The New York Times published a short documentary about an earlier and unsung hero of the decades-long struggle to bring the scandal out into the open. His name is Jason Berry. (I highly recommend this moving and powerful film.) He was, in his own words, a “reluctant muckraker.” He hoped to become a novelist but until he got published, and with a wife and baby to support, he worked as an independent investigative journalist in his native Louisiana.
By coincidence, he learned of a local priest, Gilbert Gauthe, who had been charged with criminal sexual abuse against a child. Sources he spoke with convinced him this was not an isolated incident and that such acts had been going on for years. What was worse, he discovered that the behavior of this priest and others was known but covered up by church authorities.
Despite being an important story with solid sources, Berry struggled to find a publication willing to print his story. Finally, in 1985 a local weekly paper and the progressive National Catholic Reporter jointly published it, but the major media outlets largely ignored it. This did allow him to eventually (1992) publish a book about the scandal, Lead Us Not Into Temptation. The book got him a few appearances on TV talk shows like Oprah and Phil Donahue, but other national and world events shut him out from the mainstream media’s attention.
The NYT documentary is more than a story of a journalist’s perseverance, however. It is also, and most importantly, a story of faith and conscience, for Jason Berry is also a Roman Catholic. He says both his mother and grandmother were devoted to the church, and his own church experience as a child was largely positive.
So like an Old Testament prophet, his exposure of the scandal was airing the dirty laundry of an institution of which he was a part, and which had been the foundation of his family and his own upbringing. Despite the opposition he received from church members, his own family was supportive, however. When his mother and grandmother learned what he had learned, they both agreed the story needed to be told, whatever the consequences.
Berry worked on the story for over ten years but with little compensation. Eventually his finances were a wreck and he had to turn elsewhere to survive. In addition, during this time a daughter was born who had Downs Syndrome and a heart defect. Since her death, Berry says he continues to go to church because it reminds him of her since she loved being at church. “And she may have been the most loving human being I’ve ever known,” he adds.
In conclusion Berry quotes Paul from II Corinthians 1.12: For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we have behaved in the world to be decent. The NIV’s translation of the full verse says this:
Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace.
I wrote last week about how each of us is called to do what is ours to do. And while the specifics of that calling will be different for each of us (my main point there), it will always be in conformity with what Paul tells the Corinthians: to act with integrity, sincerity, and in reliance on God’s grace rather that the wisdom and ways of the world, i.e. the culture around us.
This last point, I believe, is crucial for life today. To act as Paul describes will often seem naïve, even stupid. “That’s not how the world works,” the smart people will tell us. Berry was told again and again to drop the story, no one was interested, he was hurting the church. He actually only hurt himself and his family. Doing what was his to do brought him few rewards; the publicity, prizes, and promotions went to others.
Yet Berry knows that his work laid the foundation for those who were finally able to expose the church’s indecency and corruption, and to bring some measure of justice to the victims. He knows that he fulfilled his calling to do the decent thing and in his own way allow God’s grace to work in the world.
Blessings in your life and ministry.