When the Story Gets Personal

Some of the victims were eager to tell their stories. Others didn’t want to talk on the record, or at all. In one instance, Robinson says, “the victim wasn’t willing to speak to us, but the father told us about this one priest who had not only molested kids, but had managed to kill a kid when he was driving drunk in an auto accident.” That priest was Father Ronald Paquin.

Paquin “belonged” to Pfeiffer: The Spotlight reporters had divided up the priests. Pfeiffer, it turned out, was responsible for talking to victims of the three priests (other than Geoghan) most frequently accused of abuse—Fathers Paul Shanley and Joseph Birmingham, plus Paquin. A former court reporter with years of experience talking to victims of crime, Pfeiffer had a reputation as a skilled and patient listener. Both on the phone and in person, she made victims—virtually all men—feel comfortable enough to tell their stories. The crimes had happened years before, but some victims were just beginning to deal with their shame and confusion. “It was heartbreaking to think that adult men were still wrestling with what happened,” Pfeiffer says. Some had never told their stories before talking to Pfeiffer. “That kind of story is embarrassing to tell anyone,” Pfeiffer says, “but might have been slightly less embarrassing to tell a woman.”

Early in the investigation, Pfeiffer met with one of Shanley’s victims, 53-year-old Arthur Austin, in a restaurant. Shanley was a longhaired, charismatic “street priest,” who in the 1960s and 1970s ministered to alienated young people: runaways, addicts, those struggling with their sexual identity. He molested many of them. Austin first went to see him in 1968. For the next six years, Austin was Shanley’s “sex slave.” Speaking to Pfeiffer about the years of abuse and his resulting depression, Austin broke down. “The waitress was trying to figure out how to approach the table because he was in tears the whole time,” Pfeiffer says. [1]

Many victims had suffered severe emotional and psychological damage. Carroll says he had to learn not to dismiss people who were often off-putting and incoherent:

I think a lot of the times the wackiness came from the fact that they'd been telling people their story for years and no one believed them… Or to be honest, that the abuse had kind of driven them around the bend a little bit.

Rezendes, who was interviewing Geoghan’s victims, had had experiences that helped him relate to the victims. Having driven a cab and run a community newspaper in Boston, Rezendes knew the neighborhoods that had produced many of the victims. He explains:

Most of these kids were from hardscrabble blue-collar neighborhoods. And so a kid would tell me he was living in such and such a neighborhood and I would try to break the ice by saying yeah, you used to live over by the High Top liquor, or you used to live by Sacred Heart parish, or something like that, and try to just make them understand that I knew where they were coming from.

One day Rezendes spent three hours talking to a couple and their three children; two of the children, a girl and a boy, had been abused by Rev. Peter S. Kanchong, a Thai priest who had come to work in the Boston Archdiocese. The son had tried to kill himself. The parents were ravaged by guilt. It was one thing to suspect, as Rezendes did, that sexual abuse in the church was “an epidemic,” quite another to hear the stories. Says Rezendes:

We were all, I think, really devastated by what we were discovering, which were people who were poor and vulnerable and trusting of the church as an institution that was supposed to care for them and help them and shepherd them, and we were devastated by the stories that showed their lives had been just destroyed. So emotionally devastated, and I think also fair to say, you know, shocked and kind of outraged by what we were discovering. It's a human reaction. I don’t know how you could not be.

Listen to Rezendes discuss his personal reaction to the story.



[1] Roy J. Harris Jr., Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism (University of Missouri Press, 2007), p.52.