The Reckoning: Hundreds of Accused Priests Living Under the Radar with No Oversight

Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: United States

Organisation: The Associated Press

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 10 Apr 2019

Credit: Claudia Lauer and Meghan Hoyer

Project description:

The AP provided the first definitive picture of where priests credibly accused of sexual abuse are living since leaving the church, and revealed that many have access to children. Dozens have committed crimes, including sexual assault.

The hurdles to this project were high: Many of the credibly accused lists released by dioceses and religious orders lacked even basic information. 

But after months of systematic, dogged work, the AP found almost 1,700 priests and other clergy members living with little to no oversight, with some teaching middle-school math, counseling troubled adults, working as priests overseas, volunteering at nonprofits and fostering children. 


Impact reached:

The impact of the project has been far-reaching and is still being felt. So far, more than 20 states have stepped in to double-check licensing lists or to fully change the way they do licensing background checks on educators, counselors and foster parents. A number of former priests have had their licenses revoked — in Pennsylvania, 3 former priests had their teaching licenses pulled, and a dozen more are under investigation. A half-dozen child and family services departments responsible for licensing and screening foster parents — including those in New Hampshire, Oklahoma and New Mexico – told the AP that they have checked the local diocesan lists to see if any former priests were approved foster care providers.

A number of dioceses added priests to their list after the AP found than more than 900 accused priests’ names had been omitted from the credibly accused listings. And in New Orleans, the Saints NFL team has been accused of helping the city’s archdiocese craft its list. Several states Attorneys General have said they have started to consider the role they could play in eliminating the gray area for people who have been credibly accused but not prosecuted.

Oregon’s attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, has said her office is looking at appropriate next steps, particularly since one priest highlighted by the AP — Roger Sinclair, convicted of abusing a vulnerable adult after he left the church — lived in Oregon.

“This AP story … sheds light on an important aspect of clergy sexual abuse horrors—how easy it has been to continue the abuse in other states from where the initial offending conduct occurred,” Rosenblum said. “That is absolutely unacceptable, and the fact that the Sinclair case occurred right here in Oregon drives home the importance of addressing this issue.”

Techniques/technologies used:

This project relied on GoogleSheets for data collection, Google Forms to manage data entry from roughly a dozen reporters, researchers and freelancers, and then R and R studio to perform the data analysis. For the initial creation of the credibly accused lists, the AP scraped diocesan sites using Ruby and Python, or manually entered data collected from more than 170 diocese and religious order sites. To background the living people on the lists, the AP used Lexis/Nexis and a plethora of websites: from bishopaccountability.org to city assessor databases, PACER, state and city court databases, state licensing board databases, public pension databases, state and federal sex offender registry pages, social media platforms, church websites, individual employer websites, comment boards and blogs.

The AP hand-checked its master list of people named by dioceses and religious orders against lists in lawsuits, grand jury reports and on bishopaccountability.com to find that 900 priests who had worked in dioceses that had released lists of credibly accused clergy were omitted from those public statements, despite having accusations against them.

The AP made FOIA requests to dozens of law enforcement agencies seeking additional documents, and in one case got one priest’s court documents unsealed. 

What was the hardest part of this project?

Compiling the original list of credibly accused priests involved going to roughly 170 different dioceses and religious orders and hand-compiling vastly different data points that we then had to reconcile into one coherent document. This alone took months. Some dioceses listed only priests; others listed lay employees. Some provided details of allegations in big blocks of text; others, lists of parish assignments; others no information besides a name. Since many priests moved around the country, multiple dioceses listed the same priest — the AP carefully de-duplicated this data and made sure to only have each clergy member (many have similar or the same names) once.

The AP then filtered out the 2,000 living priests for the backbone of a second database, aimed at answering questions about where each priest had lived and worked since leaving active ministry, and searching for any contact they may have had with children. We sent reporters to priests’ houses and used public databases to track down employers, homes and social media accounts. This allowed the AP to report on trends with these largely unmonitored former priests: how many were charged for conduct while they were priests, how many committed crimes after, how many were still priests in the Catholic faith or others, how many had been licensed as teachers or counselors, how many had moved overseas and how close do they live on average to schools, playgrounds or places where children congregate.

A third database, which was also hand-built, compared the initial priests list with lists on bishopaccountability.org, in several grand jury reports and from several internal church documents to compare completeness and whether dioceses and orders had adequately reported all cases of abuse. The AP found roughly 900 priests that had been credibly accused but hadn’t been listed by dioceses.

What can others learn from this project?

Our takeaway: A big idea is doable if you are organized, persistent and maintain a laser-focus on the big-picture question you’re trying to answer and why that question matters to the communities you cover.

We knew we wanted to find out what had happened to all these credibly accused priests — many of whom remained in the priesthood, but others who had left to be private citizens without a criminal conviction or notice to the communities they lived in. We also knew a sampling or an anecdotal look at a few named priests wouldn’t do justice to the possible scope of the story, and the impact this issue was making in communities across the U.S.

But that meant backgrounding roughly 2,000 people — many of whom didn’t want to be found. It took months, a system of Google sheets and Forms, and a team of roughly a dozen reporters, researchers and freelancers to help dig into what accused priests had done in the time since leaving active ministry. We asked the same questions about each priest: things like their address, whether it was close to a school, if they held professional licenses, if they were on a sex offender registry or had a criminal record.

To do this justice, we were extremely organized, and everyone involved played a specific and important role. We held training sessions for backgrounding and kept lists of lists — which dioceses had reported, which priests needed to still be backgrounded, which freelancers and researchers would be taking which people. We divided priests into types of cases — those who had been laicized, for instance, and those we knew had left voluntarily — to help organize our work. We relied heavily on public documents: bankruptcy cases, sex offender registries, professional licensing databases and assessors’ property records. 

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