Faith

National Catholic Reporter editor on covering Catholic Church through scandal, change

Dennis Coday, who is editor of the National Catholic Reporter, says working on stories of sex abuse by clergy has been heart-wrenching. “You want to keep a professional distance, but it really pulls on you.”
Dennis Coday, who is editor of the National Catholic Reporter, says working on stories of sex abuse by clergy has been heart-wrenching. “You want to keep a professional distance, but it really pulls on you.” along@kcstar.com

Dennis Coday is editor of National Catholic Reporter, ncronline.org, a daily online and biweekly print publication that covers the Roman Catholic Church for a national and international audience. The newspaper has an eight-person editorial staff in Kansas City, four full-time staffers in Washington, D.C., several correspondents on the West Coast and a correspondent in Rome.

Coday, originally from Nebraska, graduated from Rockhurst University and earned a master’s in journalism at Marquette. He worked for the Catholic Key newspaper in Kansas City, the Union of Catholic-Asian News in Bangkok and as a freelancer before joining NCR in 2003 as Web editor. In 2012, he took over as editor.

National Catholic Reporter was founded in 1964 in Kansas City. It is independently owned and governed by a lay board of directors.

The paper began publishing stories about sex abuse by clergy 10 years before the Boston Globe printed its investigative series that is the subject of the new film “Spotlight” (scheduled to open Nov. 20). In June, NCR published a retrospective of its coverage of the scandal over the past three decades. (The Star also had been reporting cases about priest sex abuse in the local diocese for two decades.)

NCR also is known for taking progressive stances in its editorials, including asserting that climate change is the most important pro-life issue facing the church.

This conversation took place in the paper’s newsroom on Armour Boulevard.

Q: What precipitated NCR’s reporting on clergy abuse?

A: The way stories like this develop is, you get a phone call. And there’s a hint of something going on, or it’s allegations that can’t be traced back. But gradually things build up. By 1985, Tom Fox and Arthur Jones, who were editors at that time, had accumulated enough information that they felt like they could start to write about this.

The breakout case was in Lafayette, La., which came to a head with a trial in 1985. Jason Berry, a reporter writing for a local alternative weekly, collaborated with NCR on an extensive report about what was happening in Lafayette, and Tom Fox and Arthur Jones put together a national overview of sex abuse cases. That reporting really started the ball rolling.

Q: The founder of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Barbara Blaine, credits NCR’s reporting with her coming out about the abuse she experienced and with founding her support group.

A: Yes, and the other piece of that is Father Tom Doyle, a Dominican priest who at the time was a canon lawyer working for (the pope’s ambassador in Washington, D.C.). He was tasked with finding out what was going on.

Tom tells this story in our retrospective that he and a lawyer and a clinical psychologist who was also a priest and a lawyer from Louisiana that was familiar with the cases put together a master plan that they proposed to the U.S. bishops (in 1985). Their position is that if the bishops had acted on that plan, it would have saved decades of abuse, of financial crisis, of scandal — it could have saved the reputation of the Catholic Church. But they didn’t act on it.

Q: What was the status of the sex abuse coverage when you came to the paper in 2003?

A: I was immediately plunged into the issue because the Boston Globe series had brought the issue to a new level of attention. Back then we were primarily a weekly print publication, and we would have pages and pages, week after week, of sex abuse stories.

Q: What are some of the difficulties of reporting those stories?

A: It gets to the point where you’re tired of it. You get to a point where you don’t want to report it. Because it is a heart-wrenching story. Every single time.

Editors and reporters here are lay people. We tend to be married, we tend to have children so (pause) that affects you. You sit down to dinner with your kids across the table and you think, “My God, the person I interviewed today was the age of my son when this happened to him.” You want to keep a professional distance, but it really pulls on you.

Q: How did your coverage affect circulation?

A: It caused a lot of troubles. There were readers that did not want us to follow this story. When you go back and read the letters to the editor, especially in the early days of reporting the scandals, there are people condemning the reporters and editors for airing this laundry. They often started with, “If this is true …” — “if” because it is so unbelievable, they couldn’t believe it — “let’s take care of this ourselves.”

Q: Even though, in hindsight, the church’s culture of secrecy contributed to the problem.

A: Exactly. And trying to explain that to a readership base that is very much in love with the church was a very difficult task.

There was a confrontation on our board of directors. Tom Fox was the editor at that time and there was a board member that wanted him removed and he wanted the story to stop. The board did not act and Tom continued.

Q: In your professional judgment, do you think the church has made progress?

A: Yes. Things really have changed, and we have tried to express that in our editorials in the past couple of years.

We believe that the institutional church has adopted the kind of measures that they need to adopt and in the best dioceses — Chicago and Boston, for example — they have implemented rules and guidelines and procedures that really guard against abuse. The bishops nationally have adopted rules and regulations that are a little bit better, and we don’t want to slight that. And yet, I always come back to two things.

First, the changes that have been made were only made because of the pressure brought to bear on the church by journalists and by the courts and, in the Kansas City case most recently, by local prosecutors. If those three entities had not pushed the church, we would not have the reforms that we have today.

Second, an annual review put out by the church itself warns bishops against complacency. Again, using the very local example of Bishop Finn and (former priest) Shawn Ratigan, I think that was an example of complacency. The rules were in place, and they weren’t acted on.

Every diocese is supposed to have a review board, and in some places the review board hasn’t met for two or three years — that is an example of complacency.

Q: What do you make of Pope Francis’ rock star-like status?

A: A Pew survey (in March) found some of his highest approval ratings were among people who have no religious affiliation, which is really interesting. In one sense, Francis has moved the papacy into a Dalai Lama-like status: not everyone believes what the Dalai Lama teaches and yet they recognize him as a striking moral figure and a rallying moral figure.

Q: What struck you most during his recent trip to the U.S.?

A: It’s hard for people to understand this, but I felt like the papal trip to the U.S. was an interruption in our coverage of the biggest story happening in the church right now, which is a synod of bishops (Oct. 4-25) in Rome discussing family issues. That is the story I have been focusing our team on since April, so this whole papal trip threw a wrench into what I saw as the bigger story. As it turned out, some very important things happened on the trip.

Q: Why is the synod so important?

A: Our paper was founded in the midst of the Second Vatican Council, which was the big reform council in the 1960s that stopped the church in its tracks after almost 2,000 years and set it on a different course with a different understanding of itself, of the church as a People of God.

That was the origin of the National Catholic Reporter. And those of us that view the church through that lens see the synod as a direct extension of what happened at the Second Vatican Council.

Q: What are the specific issues the bishops are dealing with?

A: They are dealing with collegiality — how is the church governed? Francis has said from the beginning of his papacy that he wants a church that is collegial; he wants the bishops as a body governing the church.

It’s a two-edged sword because once you have collegiality, then you have to listen to all the voices. And we are finding that there are a lot of different voices. Anyone who thought the church was monolithic could get away with it under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict, but Francis is exposing that that is a myth.

Q: What were the biggest stories that emerged from the pope’s U.S. visit?

A: The speech that he gave to the U.S. bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., was incredible. One taste of it: Our current crop of bishops have an idea that they have to be opposed to our culture. They argue that we have to fight secularism, which they see as creeping into our culture. They see the culture as anti-God and anti-church.

It’s a siege mentality, and Francis comes out very clearly against that and says you have to dialogue with the culture, you have to encounter the culture, you have to deal with the culture where it is.

Cindy Hoedel: 816-234-4304, @cindyhoedel

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