Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Vast archive on abuse aids victims, scholars

In a drab office building on Main Street, Terry McKiernan and Anne Barrett Doyle are quietly amassing a vast archive of abuse: thousands and thousands of documents chronicling the sprawling crisis that has confronted the Catholic Church.

Atop a bookcase sits a valise sent by a victim from West Roxbury, crammed with news clippings, church bulletins, the victim's mother's handwritten notes on conversations with church officials, and a letter the victim wrote the pope, never acknowledged.

A closet-sized room is lined with file cabinets, filled with 100 boxfuls of papers donated by a Texas lawyer who painstakingly amassed a database of 3,000 Catholic priests nationwide accused of abuse.

In other corners of the office are binders filled with copies of court filings, boxes packed with papers donated by lawyers and scholars, survivors and their families, and a century's worth of the Official Catholic Directory, which annually lists the name of every active priest in the country and his parish assignment, purchased one by one on eBay.

This is the headquarters of bishopaccountability.org, a fast-growing website that is fashioning itself as a kind of cross between The Smoking Gun and an academ ic archive, aiming to be the first place to post the most sought-after new documents, as well as a repository of records for historical purposes. The site now has 93,000 files on the Internet and 647,000 paper files, and the collection is growing.

The site has become a resource for journalists, academics, and filmmakers interested in the abuse crisis and a key source of information for abuse victims and their families who are seeking more information about their abusers and church officials.

McKiernan and Doyle say they still have significant work to do to make the site more searchable and to convert more paper documents to digital form. They hope eventually to have a reading room for scholars, but most research will be done electronically.

McKiernan, 54, and Doyle, 49, met in 2002 at a gathering of concerned Catholics in Natick. For a time, they were both active in Voice of the Faithful. Doyle, a Reading homemaker who had worked part-time editing for a nonprofit and mediating at a small claims court, was also playing a leading role in organizing protests outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.

McKiernan, an academic and business editor from Natick, joined in some of those demonstrations; he also fashioned his own protest, making a homemade button calling for Cardinal Bernard F. Law to resign.

"We were both radicalized by the survivors," Doyle said.

McKiernan started attending press conferences about the crisis and collecting some of the documents distributed by plaintiffs' lawyers. Then, in the spring of 2003, when a Los Angeles radio station obtained a set of leaked e-mails to and from Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles and his aides, McKiernan organized it and posted the correspondence on the Internet, seeking to make it more readily accessible.

"I was trained as a classicist, so I was very interested in texts, and we began to see that the only way to show what had happened was to get the information," said McKiernan. "The documents are this amazing resource; you get an amazing inside view."

McKiernan built the collection himself at first, purchasing, for nearly $15,000, a full set of documents about the Archdiocese of Boston, released as part of ongoing litigation in individual cases. But he soon discovered that there are numerous private collections - belonging to victims, researchers, and lawyers - that document aspects of the abuse, and he set about trying to acquire donations of materials.

The first person to donate such a collection was Sylvia Demarest, a Dallas lawyer who represented several dozen people who said they were sexually abused by Catholic priests.

Demarest had been collecting copies of legal documents from around the country, trying to build evidence for a possible claim against the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and in 2004 she gave those documents to bishopaccountability.org.

"They're the best source of information in terms of the history of this crisis," said Demarest, who now serves on the board of the website. "The first and foremost objective would be public education, for parents and victims and reporters and lawyers, and I think they're well along in terms of that. But the second would be to serve as a research mecca for scholars."

The number of unique visitors to the site, a standard measurement of website usage, has doubled in each of the last three years, from 185,310 in 2005 to 360,397 in 2006 to 748,127 in 2007.

Traffic has grown particularly since the site started hosting and overseeing AbuseTracker, a daily listing of news stories about clergy abuse that was initially begun by the Poynter Institute, which trains journalists.

AbuseTracker was hosted for a time by the National Catholic Reporter, a weekly publication.

The Archdiocese of Boston declined to comment about the site, but a spokeswoman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, said: "The website is useful for monitoring [media] coverage, but it seems to print things indiscriminately. It gives equal weight to well-researched news stories and unsubstantiated claims. We cannot verify what is in some reports on the site."

The organization has an annual budget of about $250,000, which pays five employees, four of them part-time. McKiernan focuses on acquisitions and building the Web content; Doyle handles public and donor relations; and the other employees help update databases and research assignment records of accused priests. The money has been raised through private fund-raising, much of it from Leon J. Podles, 61, of Florida, a senior editor of a conservative theological publication called Touchstone.

Podles, a onetime seminarian who says he was sexually assaulted by a classmate, self-published a book about the abuse crisis. He is a former federal investigator - he worked for an agency that performed background checks on government employees - and said that he stumbled across bishopaccountability.org during an Internet search. He now serves on the organization's board.

"It's important for victims of sexual abuse to have historical truth established," he said.

For victims, the site has the potential to provide proof of what happened to them, important because, in many cases, victims say they were initially disbelieved.

"There are people who said to me, point-blank, 'Oh, that didn't happen,' " said Robert Costello, the West Roxbury survivor who donated a valise of documents, including a leaflet he placed under the windshields of worshipers at his childhood parish, to the website. "This is the documentation that it actually did happen."

Ann Green, 39, of Dewitt, Iowa, whose husband was sexually abused by a Catholic priest, said the website, even though it is based thousands of miles away in Boston, became a tool for Catholics in the sprawling diocese of Davenport, Iowa, to share information.

"We had been copying filings that were an inch and a half thick and passing them around physically," Green said. "Then we forwarded it to bishopaccountability, and everyone in our little group had access to our information."

And in Des Moines, Bill LaHay, who was abused by a priest when he was a child growing up in Los Angeles, was so moved by the site that he gave the organization a portion of his settlement from that archdiocese.

"Having a historical record that's accurate and somewhat comprehensive is probably the best insurance against this happening on a large scale again," he said.

Scholars are also turning to the site. Timothy D. Lytton, a professor at Albany Law School, said he used the site to research a forthcoming book on the role of litigation in the abuse crisis. Joe Cultrera, a documentary filmmaker from Salem, used the site to research for a film, "Hand of God," about his brother's abuse at the hands of a Boston priest named Joseph E. Birmingham; the film was aired on Frontline.

The Philadelphia district attorney's office also used the site for research for a grand jury looking into the scope of abuse there.

"I look at it regularly," said Charles F. Gallagher III, a deputy district attorney in Philadelphia who served as the senior prosecutor on clergy sexual abuse investigation. "And I called them from time to time during the investigation to see if they had information about people we were looking at."
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