In the 2016 movie Spotlight, there’s a powerful scene in which Boston Globe reporter Michael Rezendes interviews a young man named Patrick McSorley, who was sexually abused at age 12 by a priest. McSorley shares that after his father died by suicide, Fr. John Geoghan appeared at the family’s Boston apartment, took the boy out for ice cream, and abused McSorley on the car ride home. In the film, the memory is clearly painful for McSorley to share. But at the dramatic conclusion of the scene, he gives Rezendes permission to print his story and his name. The film illustrates the critical role of victim-survivors who felt ready to go public with their difficult stories, exposing criminal actions and Church leadership failures in the process.
In January, Awake Milwaukee hosted a panel discussion marking the twentieth anniversary of those Boston Globe Spotlight stories about clergy abuse, and some survivors who attended the event submitted questions to the panel asking for advice about sharing their stories of abuse and healing with journalists.
Before we go further, it’s important to emphasize that not all victim-survivors can or should take this step of sharing their story with a media outlet. It’s up to survivors to protect their mental health and be deliberate in deciding which forms of sharing feel safe to them.
To help survivors who are interested in speaking with journalists, we consulted Mike McDonnell, communications manager for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). McDonnell (pictured above), lives outside of Philadelphia and works frequently with reporters, offering comment on behalf of SNAP in some clergy abuse cases. McDonnell is himself a victim-survivor of abuse by two priests that began when he was 11. He first went public with his abuse in his 30s and has shared his story with journalists many times. Here he offers some questions for survivors to ask themselves if they’re considering talking with a reporter.
- What happened to me?
Before you talk to a journalist, McDonnell recommends working with a therapist, peer counselor, or other advocate to start to make sense of the abuse you experienced. Talking with loved ones is important too. During the Awake event in January, Boston Globe Editor at Large Walter Robinson recalled that some victims called the newspaper after the first clergy abuse articles were printed, offering to share their abuse story with reporters. But they had not yet revealed this information to family members or friends. Robinson would urge them to talk with loved ones first so they weren’t learning this painful news for the first time in the newspaper.
McDonnell adds that sharing with trusted friends gives you practice in telling your story, which makes you less likely to skip important dates or other information. He also recommends writing the entire story out at least once. “It makes it easier to talk about, easier to verbalize,” he explains.
2. Why do I want to tell my story?
Before approaching a reporter, McDonnell urges you to reflect carefully on why you want to go public. Be clear about your goals. Is it your aim to help others who have been abused? Do you want to educate families about sexual abuse and the grooming process? Some survivors hope that sharing their story will lead to accountability for their abuser, although this hope is not always realized.
3. Am I willing to go public with my name?
In most cases, reporters will not print information shared by an anonymous source, McDonnell says. “Odds are that a journalist is not really going to be inclined to take a John or Jane Doe report,” he explains, so it’s important to be at a point in your journey when you’re willing to identify yourself as an abuse survivor.
4. Do I have documentation?
McDonnell acknowledges that this may seem harsh, but if a survivor plans to approach a journalist, they will likely need to offer some type of official document that corroborates their story. This could be a police report, archdiocesan paperwork that details the allegation, or even a brief statement from a therapist with whom you discussed the abuse. “The reporter will want to vet the allegation,” McDonnell says. “They’re not just going to run every story.”
5. Who do I want to tell?
The process of speaking with a journalist may be more successful if you choose to talk with someone who has previously reported and written about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church or other institutions. McDonnell suggests doing a Google search to determine which local reporters have covered this topic.
6. Would I prefer to share my story in another way?
For people who don’t want to talk with journalists but still want to share their experiences with others, McDonnell suggests visiting the websites for SNAP and Catholics 4 Change, which include forums where survivors can share their stories. You might also consider joining a support group for victim-survivors, such as Awake Milwaukee’s Survivor Circles. These options may provide lower-pressure ways for you to begin to share what happened to you.
7. Would I be willing to comment on future news stories?
Some survivors choose to connect with local journalists so that when news stories about the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church arise, the reporter can contact them for comment. McDonnell suggests this approach if you want to contribute to the public conversation about abuse but are less comfortable being the focus of a news story.
Not everyone wants to share their story, but McDonnell says that for him, this act has provided a sense of relief and some healing. “I feel lighter when there are other people who are helping me to carry the burden,” he says.
McDonnell has been interviewed many times about his personal experiences as an abuse survivor, especially after the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report was released in 2018. The 2018 stories led two more men harmed by one of McDonnell’s abusers to come forward and make reports. “The end result was that in July of 2020,” McDonnell says, “I was able to actually sit and watch the man that abused me in 1981 be sentenced to a state prison term.”
Sharing these stories can help other victim-survivors more than you know, McDonnell asserts. “Others will absolutely benefit from hearing it,” he says, “even if it only reaches that one person who’s been sitting in silence for a very, very long time.”
—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog
How Can Catholics Encourage News Coverage of the Abuse Crisis?
If you are a Catholic who cares about transparency around sexual abuse in the Church (even if you are not yourself a survivor), consider taking the following steps, suggested by Awake Milwaukee at the close of our recent Courageous Conversation about the role of journalists in exposing the crisis. When local media outlets run news about sexual abuse or leadership failures in the Church or share survivors’ stories, take a moment to contact the reporter to express your appreciation for the coverage. Explain why the story was meaningful to you and ask for future articles on this topic. Consider sharing links to these stories with friends.