Yesterday the New York Times published a short documentary by Emmy-winning filmmaker Ben Proudfoot about the veteran investigative reporter and author Jason Berry. Berry is one of the unsung heroes of the Church in the past half-century. Almost two decades before the Spotlight investigations of the abuse scandal in Boston, Jason Berry was uncovering the sickness and filth underneath the surface of the clerical culture in the US Catholic Church.
Berry’s coverage of a Louisiana priest and serial child molester named Gilbert Gauthe was among the first extensive reports on the indifference with which US bishops transferred known abusers from one parish to another, rather than report these crimes to civil authorities and removing them from ministry. He went on to cover numerous cases across the country for the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), and he brought many scandals hidden in darkness into the light. His work was attacked and ignored by many conservative Catholics due to NCR’s perceived liberal bias—indeed, the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus harshly criticized his reporting on Legionaries of Christ founder Marcel Maciel, saying, “Berry’s business is Catholic scandal and sensationalism. That is what he does.”
And despite all the ugliness he witnessed in his tireless, often thankless work, somehow he has managed to keep his faith. He told the Washington Post in 2011 that he’d once prepared a response in case anyone asked him why he remained Catholic: “Well, we didn’t give up on democracy because of Watergate, and I won’t give up on the church because of corrupt bishops.” Still the evil and corruption he faced certainly weighed on him and shaped his faith. He explained, “I began to redefine my identity as a Catholic as one much closer to the parish, to the Mass, to the liturgy.”
Please watch the video. I think it’s fitting to close with these paragraphs that conclude his 1992 book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, in which he looked back on his career (to that point) investigating the clerical abuse and cover-up scandals in the Catholic Church:
The hard times on which clerical life has fallen are part of a larger breakdown in society. The deterioration of our cities, cynical public attitudes bred by political corruption, the spreading imagination of violence and the poverty into which a quarter of American children are born—all reflect a loss of order, civility, and values.
I began this book by focusing on one community in French Louisiana, with no idea that what happened there was being replicated in so many other regions. In the ensuing years, as I followed the lives of abusers and survivors, my own faith sustained a struggle I have yet to fully comprehend. At this juncture I feel as if a great weight is lifting. Yet there is a sense of evil I know will haunt me to the grave. When I felt its awful chill I tried to pray, and found my thoughts returning to the Jesuit teachers of my youth. The survival of my religious belief owes much to those men and I can only hope that it endures.
Journalists routinely withhold sensitive information from what they finally publish for backup needs should some findings be questioned. In so doing I have also withheld personal reflections that were too painful to write about. There are angers that rise within a man from a volcano in the soul. Perhaps my reticence comes from a knowledge of those who shouldered greater weights in the uphill struggles of their lives. As a child I was taught that faith is a gift. I know now that faith is an odyssey, and in the darkness of this journey each of us must find a light.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.