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Anniversaries not needed for those who lived abuse crisis

Duluth News Tribune, Jan. 26, 2007

Earlier this month, advocates for victims of sexual abuse by priests held protests across the country, including in Duluth, to mark the fifth anniversary of the explosion of the church scandal in Boston.

It's a date I personally have trouble extending recognition to; Jan. 6, 2001, was when the Boston Globe first reported that the Archdiocese of Boston had shuffled a priest, John Geoghan, from parish to parish after having settled abuse claims against him. Then, I worked for the rival Boston Herald, and the Globe's "revelation" about Geoghan belied the fact that six months earlier the Herald had proclaimed in a front-page story that Boston Archbishop Bernard Cardinal Law admitted in court papers receiving warnings about Geoghan nearly 20 years earlier.

The scandal didn't start in the pages of the Herald, either. A decade before, Massachusetts and Minnesota were rocked by reports that James Porter, another defrocked priest, had abused perhaps hundreds of children in both states and elsewhere. And 10 years before that, freelance journalist Jason Berry exposed the church's cover-up of crimes by the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe in Louisiana, with Berry later writing the seminal volume on priest abuse, "Lead Us Not Into Temptation."

And it didn't start then, with abuse whispered about for decades. In retrospect, it's difficult to comprehend how it could have been both universally known and kept conspiratorially secret.

But it was, and what made the Globe's initial stories different was the newspaper's lawyers had gone to court to petition records showing, irrefutably in writing, what Law and his deputies knew. The newspaper deserves credit, and the Pulitzer Prize it later received, for getting the files opened.

Very quickly, however, the story was no longer theirs alone, and we at the tabloid across town weren't about to get beat any further. Though it seems hard to believe now, at the time we had virtually no idea who any of the other abusers were. Then I received an anonymous phone call.

"Mr. Washington," I remember the caller beginning hesitantly before launching into an hour-long tale of sexual abuse a relative of hers received at the hands of a priest in a northern Boston suburb. She refused to give her name, the priest's name, what relation the victim was to her or her phone number. The information was useless.

"I need some way to contact you," I responded, my stock answer for anonymous tips, and suggested she create an anonymous e-mail account. She agreed, and over the next few days the e-mails came, each with a little more detail, including the name of the Rev. Ronald Paquin. It still wasn't enough to go on until late in the afternoon on Jan. 25, when I got a tip from a different source that the Globe was about to report on Paquin.

In newspaper parlance, we had already gotten our butts kicked by the Globe. Not this time. My editors and I agreed to go with the story - which meant tracking down Paquin for his side of it. I found a phone number and called. He said little except to evasively confirm an address I had for him. I decided to pay a visit.

We had no idea what his reaction would be. Faced with being outed, would he harm himself? Me? My editor and I came up with a distress signal for me to send from my Nextel phone.

I arrived at the house, but he didn't live there; it was his mother's. What did I want with him, she wanted to know. I hesitated but told her. She called him and handed the phone to me. He refused to discuss the allegations, pleading that I not tell his mother.

"For God's sake, please tell her anything. Make up something, tell her it's all right," he said. I told him I couldn't lie. He promised to call me back and hung up.

"Is it true?" his mother asked.

I held her arm. "He wants you to know that it's all right."

"Then it's true," she said.

I left and pulled into a gas station to call in with what I had. It was already past deadline for the newspaper's first edition and Paquin hadn't called back. The editor took the notes and released me for the night.

But I couldn't go. The thought of how the media onslaught likely to ensue would affect the priest's elderly mother haunted me, and I wanted her to be prepared. I drove back to her home.

"Didn't he call you?" she asked, and at once got him on the phone again, telling him I would be coming over. She gave me his address.

He was less combative in person. At first, he asked me to use the notes a Globe reporter who had been to his house a few hours earlier had taken. I explained it didn't work that way.

Then he confessed.

"I'm sorry for what I did," he said, attributing his behavior to having himself been abused by a priest as a youth. "I wish I could personally apologize to all these kids."

Of his mother, he said, "What do you tell an 86-year-old woman who is so proud of her son, the priest?"

The interview lasted about 45 minutes. Anyone who has seen the movie "The Paper" can envision the next scene: I drove back to the Herald, dictating on the Nextel and writing at the same time. We held the 1 a.m. final edition and got the story in. "Confession," the next day's front-page headline read. The Globe had it as well, but at least we tied instead of getting beat. The tit-for-tat muckraking would define the next year.

Newspaper wars aren't terribly important to the people in the stories. Paquin's victim came forward and, between sobs, told me his story. Later, so did many others. I checked on Paquin's mother from time to time, phoning to see how she was and asking a senior services agency if someone could look after her. They arranged it. Records show she died July 3, 2004, my first week in Duluth. Paquin was convicted and is serving a 12- to 15-year prison sentence.

Anniversaries of tragic news events mean little, except as excuses for those who chronicle the world to tell their war stories again. The people who lived them don't need any reminders; they can never forget.

Robin Washington is editorial page editor of the News Tribune and a commentator on National Public Radio's "News & Notes."


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