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AP Exclusive: Documenting the US surge in identifying molester Catholic priests

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In the months after a shocking Pennsylvania grand jury report on sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests, scattered dioceses across the country started putting out their own lists of molester priests. Some state attorneys general and local district attorneys also announced they would investigate the church.

News outlets began reporting the varied efforts piecemeal. But no one was capturing the big picture – including the sudden urgency being shown by the church to open its books on past abuse.

Reporter Claudia Lauer in the Philadelphia bureau set out to fix that. Starting in November, she began systematically documenting every investigation taking place around the country, whether criminal or civil, and every instance of a diocese naming abusive priests in the wake of the Pennsylvania report. What’s more, she sought to determine how many dioceses intended to name names but hadn’t done so yet.

With the number of US dioceses totaling 187, it was a time-consuming task. But through a variety of means, she was able to write authoritatively about the far-reaching impact – in just four months – of the Pennsylvania investigation. She perused diocesan websites, checked local news reports, talked with reporters in various states, spoke with a good 10-12 attorney general offices, emailed dioceses and called dozens more, building multiple spreadsheets along the way to track her findings.

All that work paid off with her Jan. 3 exclusive.

It was a story that was impossible to match.

Even as she tallied more than 1,000 names publicized by 50 or so dioceses during the period,she established that over 50 more dioceses were committed to naming names in the months ahead – over half the nation’s dioceses. She was also the first to provide a full picture of the number – nearly 20 – of outside investigations taking place across the country,both criminal and civil.

Once she had all the data in hand,she spoke with former priests,prosecutors, victim advocates and religious experts to put it all in context. She even got a bishop outside Pennsylvania to acknowledge that the grand jury report had given them a greater sense of urgency in releasing names of abusive priests.

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It was a story that was impossible to match. The story won phenomenal play online and in print and generated huge interest on social media. Some Catholic publications used her story to provide an update on developments in the church.

Perhaps most gratifying to Lauer was a phone call she got on the Monday after the story ran – from an 83-year-old man who said he had been abused in the late 1940s and appreciated her efforts to shine a light on what had happened in the church.

For her painstaking and dogged work to document what has been happening in the church nationally in the wake of the Pennsylvania report, Lauer wins this week’s Best of the States.

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