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Who Do You Believe?

When scandal hit home, Richmond news media stepped carefully.



The Boston paper's series reverberated across the country and beyond. Questions turned up more questions: How does the church handle allegations of sexual abuse? What information do officials make public? How are claims investigated? What should be done with the priests who abuse? With the victims?

Who can you trust?

Reporters went digging. Had they started a witch hunt? Done God's work?

Richmond watched the story erupt from afar, through Associated Press articles in the Times-Dispatch and on television broadcasts with datelines elsewhere. Style wondered about conditions locally, and on March 5, reported on the policies at the Catholic Diocese of Richmond — how employees should conduct themselves, and how allegations should be reported to the diocese. In a brief story headlined "No Trouble Here, Diocese Says," the Rev. Pasquale J. Apuzzo, director of communications for the diocese and secretary to the bishop, said that there had been no recent, credible allegations of sexual abuse against current priests that had been brought to the church's attention. WRVA 1140-AM broadcast a similar story.

But in April, after the story ran, a caller to Style's newsroom alleged there was trouble here. The caller suggested checking into the past at the former St. John Vianney Seminary, a preparatory high school for boys in Goochland. A reporter followed up on the call, e-mailing alumni for information.

Then the local diocese received two calls, Apuzzo says. The first was from a former St. John Vianney student who alleged inappropriate behavior by Father John Leonard that could be perceived as sexual. Another caller to the diocese made similar claims, but was anonymous. He referred to an e-mail from a Style reporter

The church decided to act. On Saturday, May 4, Apuzzo prepared to contact the Times-Dispatch to report that the diocese was placing Leonard on administrative leave while the diocese investigated the allegations. Leonard also asked the diocese for permission to announce the news to his congregation at evening Mass on Saturday, May 4, and during Sunday services.

A Times-Dispatch reporter attended the service on Saturday and wrote a story for Sunday's edition. Local television and radio stations followed up on the story that evening and into the week.

"We weren't trying to drum the press up to be there and hear what he had to say," Apuzzo says of his call to the Times-Dispatch. "It was more an announcement on our part what the bishop had done."

A follow-up story in the Times-Dispatch on Wednesday, May 8, was headlined "E-mails Triggered Priest Investigation." It linked Style's e-mails to the allegations received by the diocese. (Did they? Apuzzo has since clarified that it is a "chicken-and-egg" situation in that the people who came to the diocese triggered the investigations, and not the people who came to Style nor the e-mails sent by a Style reporter.)

Some Style readers were upset by the second Times-Dispatch article. Seven people contacted Style in the days following. Some were confused about the paper's role in the diocesan investigations.

Discussions with callers centered on a newspaper's role in such situations: how reporters follow up on allegations they receive; how Style had not published any story about Leonard, and would only print what it knew to be true; how it was aware of the sensitive nature of the story, and the importance of context; and that it would be fair.

So, what is the media's role?

In the case of Boston, the reporters were investigators — turning up a story that had been hidden by the church. Taking the church's word might have led to no story at all. At the same time, finding such information — and triggering a national scandal — can lead to a hysteria of sorts in post-reporting, in which a frenzy of false accusations could get the kind of press they normally would not receive. It can shake the bushes.

But shaking the bushes is what some victims need, says Stephen Nash, a journalism professor at the University of Richmond. "I think if any reporter's inquiries encouraged victims of this kind of abuse to come forward, that it is an unqualified good thing," he says.

Apuzzo agrees. "The fact that the media is opening the door for people to come forward is a positive thing," he says. "On the flip side of that … it also invites people to come forward in ways that we have a very difficult time following up on" — referring to anonymous accusers.

Nash points out that news outlets rarely report anonymous allegations — unless the church has made some kind of formal announcement, as in the case of Leonard — until arrests are made, criminal charges are filed, or a civil suit is filed. Instead, allegations are used "as a basis for further inquiry," he says.

In addition to investigating, news reporters can serve as messengers, interpreters, watchdogs, clearinghouses and mirrors.

For Apuzzo, news outlets help magnify his message, he says. "It helps us get the word out that we're open, that we're responsive to people who have been victimized, on a personal, pastoral level."

In Richmond, reporting on Leonard's story was more straightforward after he made the announcement to his congregation.

Still, some television coverage was unclear, contends Randall Bloomquist, WRVA's program director. Simply saying "priest under investigation," he says, can leave the impression that law enforcement is involved when it wasn't. "Investigation is a buzz word in the true sense of the term buzz word," he says. His news-radio team, he says, made an effort to explain what "investigation" meant in this case.

"It was pretty much a straight story, and continued to be," says Mark Neerman, news director at WTVR TV-6. "The church was open to us in discussing where they stood. They felt like it was a past issue."

In addition, he says, News 6 sought a complete story. "People were very supportive of [Leonard]," Neerman says. "And we wanted to make sure we were representing their feelings toward him, as well. I can't stress enough … that we will not be part of a witch hunt."

The Times-Dispatch also found that the diocese's openness in discussing its policies before and after Leonard's announcement was helpful, says Louise C. Seals, the newspaper's managing editor. Instead of getting an antagonistic attitude from the diocese, reporters could feel more assured they would get a full story, she adds.

Other than that, stories like this raise questions of journalistic balance and taste.

"You realize that you're dealing with a very emotional issue," Seals says, "but you're also dealing with people's lives. You want to be accurate, you want to be sensitive to community concerns and individual concerns."

In deciding how to play a story, she says, editors at the Times-Dispatch consider who has been accused. People in positions of trust — coaches and teachers, for example — are in a special position. "The relationship of trust is the paramount thing," she says.

Apuzzo says he tried to build trust with local news media by laying a groundwork early-on for discussing how the diocese would react to allegations were the national story to hit locally. "And then when one came forward and [media] saw us applying that process, it created a trust level," he says.

Similarly, that trust level is what journalists seek to establish with readers.

So far, Apuzzo thinks, trust hasn't been breached. Local reporters have "done a wonderful job, to put it in a nutshell," he says. "In the sense that they've been fair, they've been open to really dialoguing with me about issues before they jump to conclusions or try to sensationalize anything. And that has been the key to it."

In the end, though, reporters must avoid a trust that blinds them to the truth. Ask the Boston Globe. S

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