Sunday, 23 September

Interview with three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Kurkjian



First, let me congratulate The Boston Globe investigative team on being awarded the Pulitzer Prize. How did you take the news?

I was thrilled, of course. I knew we were one of three finalists for about three weeks and while I believed our work was deserving to win, I knew that there were two other good entries that could also win.

I forget my actual words, but I wanted to first congratulate the other reporters with whom I worked on this project and the editors and publisher that allowed us to cover this very sensitive issue. At that moment, I also thought of the dozens of victims of sexual abuse whom I had spoken with during the prior year and thought to myself that this award would not have been won had you not been willing to speak up.

Your team succeeded in exposing cases of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. What did your readers gain from your findings? How did readers respond? I am sure there were criticisms and negative responses, as well.

Our readers and the public at large have been overwhelmingly supportive of what we have written. I believe the reason is that our stories were based entirely on documentary evidence - the church's own documents which acknowledged that this abuse had taken place - yet the Cardinal and his bishops had allowed the problem to continue by not reporting the abuse and the priests to the police. Ultimately that is what our readers gained from our coverage - that horrible instances of abuse - hundreds of cases of molestation by more than 100 priests in theBoston area alone – had gone on over the years yet the top officials of the church had not reported these crimes to authorities.

How did you come up with the story? What was the lead? How did you start to untie the knot? What kind of obstacles did you face during the investigation? Which meetings were most memorable for you in relation to this investigation, and who was the central figure in the story?

There had been in the past several well-known cases of priests abusing youngsters that had been covered in the press but never had the question been asked what had the priests' superiors known of the abuse and how had they reacted when they first suspected something was wrong. That was the focus of our reporting - how did the bishops of the church respond when they learned one of their priests had molested a child. What we found was universally the bishops had made secret legal settlements with the victims and shuffled the offending priests to other churches where other youths were vulnerable to being abused. While we began our focus on the abuse of dozens of children by one priest, Rev. John J. Geoghan, the central person in our reporting was Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the archbishop of the Boston Archdiocese since 1984. Cardinal Law was aware that there were abuse complaints against many priests serving under him but he maintained a policy that allowed the church to avoid reporting these complaints to authorities and allow the priests to remain in active service.

Our lead came by looking at the legal case that developed against Fr. Geoghan --- his victims were represented by Mitchell Garabedian, a well-regarded lawyer inBostonwho happens to be Armenian --- and the documents that were released in that case. Exposing this scandal in the past had been prevented because lawyers had dropped their cases in exchange for large financial settlements or sealed court records. The Globe's editor, Martin Baron, directed the paper's lawyers to sue to get the documents in the Geoghan case made public. Our publication of the secrets hidden in those documents broke the scandal open.

Were you able to provide the reader with the whole picture, or were there any black holes left out?

There are two major questions that remain - why would the Vatican institute a policy as it did that would direct its dioceses not to report these cases of abuse to authorities so as to avoid "scandal" against the church; and secondly, how great a role, if any, does celibacy play in furthering this crime.

I know that the investigation was interrupted for a while, and then resumed again. How did that happen? What was the drive for your team to continue the investigation?

The story did have peaks and valleys in our reporting but it was never halted. One time it did slow down last fall was because Cardinal Law was making an attempt to meet with victims and find root problems of the abuse. However, when more documents were released showing he had not cracked down on even worse cases of abuse, it became clear that he had lost the faith of Catholics and non-Catholics alike and it was best he resign. The Pope announced the Cardinal's resignation in December.

Has the church started to amend things since your article was published? Or - What has changed in the church since your story? - to formulate it better.

There have been some important changes, particularly on how the church deals with instances of abuse. None will be tolerated. If a priest is found to have molested a child, he is forced to resign immediately. However, calls for more indirect reforms, like providing lay Catholics more of a voice in running of the church have yet to be made.

In the morning paper we see your article's heading in big letters. How do you feel about that?

I feel very proud personally to have participated in such an important story which had such complete but fair coverage. I also feel good that the awards that we have been given spur my paper and others like it to be willing to write critically - but fairly - about the major institutions in their communities.

Once you told me during an interview that you get a stomachache when there are mistakes in an article. What do you experience when you get a Pulitzer Prize? You have been awarded it three times. You must have developed some kind of familiar reaction by now.

It makes me enormously happy, of course. In fact, I said to someone I wish I knew how to do cartwheels, as it would show my true feelings. There is mostly a feeling of enormous pride that we lived up to the standards expected of the free press that we have in the United States.

In one of your interviews you said that your Aunt Isabelle's opinion was very important for you. Did she read your stories about the Catholic Church? I don’t know why, but I have a feeling, she didn’t like those stories. How did Isabelle and your parents take the news about the Pulitzer Prize?

Both my Aunt Isabelle and my parents have read my stories long enough that they know that when I write something it will be accurate and fair. They were puzzled, like so many readers were, that the church would tolerate such abuse over the years. But when The Globe reported that the reason was that its leaders did not want to bring scandal on the church by reporting the individual cases then they were very bothered by the position and said that those in power should be punished and the policies changed.

And the last question - When are you coming to Armenia?

I wish I could visit our country every year but think that I may have to wait until next year to return to my friends and fellow countrymen and women. Stay strong.


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