No First Amendment or Freedom of the Press advocate expects news media to ignore Catholic scandal, but some in the news media have been predators of another sort.
I had a recent exchange of messages with Jennifer Haigh, a very accomplished author whose critically acclaimed novel, Faith (Harper, 2011), kept me sleep deprived for a couple of nights. It’s a book, of fiction, but for me, the fiction was painfully familiar. It is the story of Father Art Breen, a Boston priest accused of sexual abuse. Cast under a cloud of abuse of another sort – a vague state of priestly limbo called “administrative leave” – Father Art descends into despair as the Archdiocese “investigates” (aka “settles”) the claim.
Father Art’s skeptical younger sister, Sheila McGann, returns to Boston to launch an investigation of her own while younger brother Mike, a police officer, has “already convicted his brother in his heart.” The Archdiocese simply discards its tainted priest and moves on. The book has some surprises, which I won’t reveal, but no one among my family or friends would read it. “The anger and hurt are still too close,” they said.
Some of their anger is at me for not simply caving in. “If you just took the deal,” they say, “you would have been free twenty years ago.” More of their anger is at the accusers who they know, with a moral certainty, rode their wave of priestly scandal all the way to the bank, aided and abetted by the activists and lawyers who were recently unmasked in “David Clohessy Resigns SNAP in Alleged Lawyer Kickback Scheme.”
There is plenty of righteous anger to go around. . Just after that post was published, a priest-friend said it made him very angry. He has never been the subject of an accusation, but having seen the lives of too many priests destroyed, he has become keenly aware of how David Clohessy and others in SNAP exploited accusations under the guise of “survivor support.”
My priest-friend’s most deeply felt anger, however, was not at SNAP or new revelations of lawyer kickback schemes. He said he is most angry with the Catholic bishops of the United States who invited the agendas of David Clohessy and others from SNAP to dictate policies like the 2002 “Dallas Charter.” He is angry about the great harm it has inflicted on due process, on restorative justice, and what we described in a powerful guest post here at These Stone Walls: “On the Fatherhood of Bishops with Disposable Priests.”
Jennifer Haigh’s Faith was a Kirkus Review Book of the Year. It collects all of this multifaceted Catholic anger, and even redirects some of it using a surprising source having more to do with the book’s title than the lurid scandal it portrays. No one is spared – not the Church bureaucrats, nor the scandal-hungry media, nor the agenda-driven activists, nor even the Catholic faithful unable to cross entrenched lines to reach a good priest in a state of collapse. I read Faith in two days, and couldn’t put it down. At one point, I discovered that my teeth hurt, and realized that they had been tightly clenched during several hours of reading. My family and friends were right. The anger and hurt are still too close.
This is not a book for those who require that their priests be flawless. By now, I think, most of us are beyond that. A pedestal is a very hard place upon which to keep one’s balance. Besides, our new found humility befits a priest far better than the pompous clericalism that lent itself to scandal. Jennifer Haigh told me that among all the characters of all her books, she thinks about “Father Art” the most. It conveyed to me how very much a priest needs friends who truly know him.
While I was working on my post about the apparent collapse of SNAP, I came across something I did not know I still had. It fell out of a book I hadn’t looked at for several years. It was a business card bearing a name and title, “J.M. Hirsch, Reporter, Associated Press.” On the back of the card is this note in my own handwriting:
“Met at NHSP Feb. 26, 03. Send docs to William L. Chapman, Esquire, Orr & Reno Law Firm, P.O. Box 3550, Concord, NH 03302-3550.”
The story the card tells is a complicated one. On February 26, 2003, I met with Associated Press reporter, J. M. Hirsch in the New Hampshire State Prison visiting room. I had written a letter asking him to meet with me because I knew that in a matter of weeks in 2003, thousands of pages of one-sided documents about accused priests in the Diocese of Manchester would be released to the news media as part of a settlement. (That settlement was described by legal scholar John S. Baker in “Prosecuting Dioceses and Bishops” in the Boston College Law Review and available here at These Stone Walls).
I had already been in prison for nine years at that point, and no one bothered to seek my input on anything. I was simply, in the eyes of the news media, just one more guilty priest thrown into prison. I was also, at the time, completely without hope. For the previous two years, I had been in contact with Dorothy Rabinowitz at The Wall Street Journal who had amassed vast documentation in support of my assertion of innocence. Something was very wrong in my trial and imprisonment.
In February of 2002, I learned that all we had collected was destroyed in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York. The offices of The Wall Street Journal, then located at 200 Liberty Street in Manhattan, were just across the plaza from the collapsed towers and were demolished. As the twin towers collapsed, so did my hope for justice for years to come.
Coming into that February 26, 2003 meeting with me in prison, Associated Press reporter J.M. Hirsch at least had an apparent attitude of openness to the rest of the story. He asked me very specific questions centered on the fact that my accusers also accused another priest, even reinventing their claims against him and repeating them verbatim in accusing me. That priest was Father Stephen Scruton. Ryan MacDonald went on to write that account in the potent and well-documented “Truth in Justice: Was the Wrong Catholic Priest Sent to Prison?”
During our meeting, Mr. Hirsch seemed to acknowledge that it is at least conceivable that I was falsely accused and wrongly convicted. He ended with just one more question, and it was posed as a sort of “gothcha” question. “What about a claim that you created child pornography of the victims?”
It was thrown out there as a bombshell, but my first response was to ask him to please stop calling these men “victims.” They were victims of nothing more than their own greed. And I asked him to stop treating them as children. Accuser Thomas Grover is 50 years old. His brothers who also accused me are 53, 52, and 48 respectively.
They all “remembered” their claims at the same time as part of the same scam, and they all originally accused a priest who was not present in that parish until they were all over 18. Without ever having to answer hard questions, they amassed over $650,000 in settlements from the Diocese of Manchester. How is it that even in light of the alleged lawyer kickback scheme with SNAP, the news media never even considers that money can be a lure for false accusers. They are all “survivors” and they are all “anonymous.”
This is a point raised by journalist JoAnn Wypijewski whose CounterPunch article, “Oscar Hangover Special Why ‘Spotlight’ Is a Terrible Film” exposed the media coverage in my case, and the shameless Pulitzer Prize for Public Service bestowed on The Boston Globe. She faulted the media’s coverage of Catholic scandal for discarding the professional skepticism necessary for legitimate and balanced journalism.
The New Hampshire news media had widely reported the child pornography claim, but no one has ever investigated exactly how and why it first arose. I asked J.M. Hirsch if he was aware of any actual evidence before reporting it. He just shrugged, which I took as a “no.” Then I asked, “Shouldn’t being accused of such a thing require at least one piece of evidence?” The reporter just shrugged again.
No one in this matter has ever seen any such evidence. No one has ever even claimed to have seen any. And yet Judge Arthur Brennan, when sentencing me to more than six decades in prison, claimed that “This Court has ‘heard’ clear and convincing evidence that you created pornography of your victims.” No such evidence was ever raised or produced in my trial. (In 2005, The Wall Street Journal reported an admission from the police detective who brought these charges: “There was never any evidence of child pornography.”)
Despite that fact, in 2011 SNAP and David Clohessy raised this claim yet again. Pretending that it was demonstrably true, they wove it into a tapestry of lies in a shameless attempt to smear Pope Benedict XVI in the news media for “crimes against humanity” at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. It was a media event more than a serious legal effort, and the news media was duped into becoming a cheap pawn of SNAP.
The current lawsuit by former SNAP employee Gretchen Rachel Hammond describes how Clohessy and other SNAP officials used funds paid by lawyer kickbacks “to pay for lavish hotels and other extravagant travel expenses” for this trip to The Hague in The Netherlands. No one in the news media ever questioned any of this.
Satisfied, even reluctantly, at the close of that 2003 meeting, J.M. Hirsch gave me his business card. He asked me to send him copies of all the documentation I had in support of the matters we discussed. “Send me everything you’ve got,” he said. To protect the documents, he gave me the name and address of a local attorney, William L. Chapman from the Orr & Reno Law Firm in Concord, NH. He asked me to send them as legally privileged documents to protect them from being intercepted or tampered with. Over the next two weeks, I sent dozens of documents that directly refuted the case against me.
On March 3, 2003 when the files of accused priests were released in a massive media dump, local news media exploited them with typical one-sided sensationalism. J.M. Hirsch and the Associated Press were no exception, but Hirsch refrained from writing any explosive accounts of the claims against me. He barely even mentioned them in his reports covering the sensational Catholic scandal.
Was I grateful for being spared in the Associated Press lions’ den? Of course I was. But was it enough? Absolutely not! Mr. Hirsch also refrained from printing the truth, a truth that I had meticulously placed before him. I do not blame J.M. Hirsch personally for this. It was more likely than not that it was his editors at the Associated Press who squashed any attempt to publish the story of a falsely accused priest when the floodgates of priestly scandal were wide open.
And the negligence wasn’t just that of J.M. Hirsch and the Associated Press. In that same month in 2003, I also met with Kathryn Marchocki, a reporter for the statewide newspaper, the New Hampshire Union Leader. I sent her the same documents. In a meeting at the New Hampshire state prison, Ms. Marchocki told me that the story is astonishing, “but my editor will never let me write it.”
Ms. Marchocki added, “The New England news media, and my paper in particular, are so anti-Catholic I will never be allowed to write about a falsely accused priest.” She may today deny saying that, but it’s the truth. Ms. Marchocki canceled a second meeting with me, and I never heard from her again.
This is a point that Donald Trump made for me early on in his campaign. At a press conference while a primary candidate for the Republican nomination, Mr. Trump singled out one man in a sea of reporters. In typical Trump style from his podium he called the man “a sleaze.” It was a very uncomfortable moment.
“Why am I a sleaze?” the stunned reporter asked. I believe he was from The Washington Post. Mr. Trump said, “You’re a sleaze because you know the truth. You’re right here hearing the truth. But you won’t print it.” Mr. Trump was right. It isn’t enough for a reporter to simply stay his pen to stop spreading a scandal when it isn’t true. Withholding the truth is just as slanted and just as predatory as spreading a lie.
This is why you saw so little in the mainstream news about the hundreds of thousands of people who showed up in Washington for the March for Life. And yet the news media found Front Page space to hype a story about 200 bigots from the Aryan Brotherhood who “endorsed” Donald Trump as though that was a statement about Trump himself. This is why fake news is the scourge that it is. It’s because the news media has grossly failed the democracy that it calls home. In “How to Beat the Scourge of Fake News,” Newseum President Jeffrey Herbst wrote:
“This is hardly the first time that fake news has been controversial. The ‘yellow journalism’ of the late 19th Century featured fake news, false interviews, and an obsessive focus on crime [as] William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer engaged in an energetic race to the bottom… Concerned, at least in part, about excesses of journalism he helped spawn, Pulitzer gave the funding for what became the Columbia University Graduate School of journalism to help elevate the profession” (WSJ.com, December 12, 2016).
Dorothy Rabinowitz and The Wall Street Journal were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the professional skepticism needed to unmask a moral panic about sexual abuse in day care centers. They did it again in articles like “The Trials of Father MacRae.” For much of the rest of the news media, Pulitzer’s dream of elevating the profession of journalism has once again come crashing down in another race to the bottom.