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AP Exclusive: NFL’s Saints allegedly do damage control for Catholic Church on abuse crisis

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New York-based federal law enforcement reporter Jim Mustian never gives up on a story.

Sticking with a case he began covering at another news organization in another state more than two years ago, he landed a jaw-dropping exclusive for the AP: That a trove of hundreds of confidential emails has surfaced allegedly showing executives of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints doing public relations damage control for the area’s Roman Catholic archdiocese amid its clergy sexual abuse crisis.

Mustian,a Louisiana native who was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting at The New Orleans Advocate, began covering the high-profile clergy abuse case of longtime deacon George Brignac for that newspaper more than two years ago and continued to break news on it after coming to the AP in late 2018.

Lawyers for men suing the church over the case revealed last year that that some of the confidential discovery evidence included emails between the church and the New Orleans Saints. That piqued Mustian’s curiosity and he continued to pester lawyers in the case to tell him what that was all about.

He ended up getting first crack at court filings that included papers from plaintiffs’ lawyers detailing for the first time the kind of work the Saints did for the church, such as shaping its message on the clergy abuse crisis and helping it with its list of credibly accused priests. They further alleged the Saints were assisting the church in its “pattern and practice of concealing its crimes.”

Mustian also got first look at court papers filed by the Saints to keep those emails private, saying they were never intended to be “fodder for the public.” Mustian eventually enlisted AP lawyers to file a motion supporting the release of the emails as a matter of public interest.

Mustian’s story on the fight over the documents had an immediate,visceral impact. For many fans of the Saints and the NFL,it was the first they heard of the team’s behind-the-scenes work for the archdiocese on its clergy abuse crisis. And many questioned whether that was appropriate.

Among the hundreds of retweets of the story were those from fellow journalists praising Mustian’s accountability reporting. A top editor for Huffington Post tweeted: “Respect to AP for uncovering this horrific plot.” A fellow reporter from ESPN tweeted: “Wow. What stunning journalistic work.” Major news websites including the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and most notably Nola.com gave Mustian and AP full credit for breaking the story.

“Stunning journalistic work.”

— Kelly Cohen, ESPN reporter

On the AP News mobile site,the story was by far the most clicked of the day,with nearly 160,000 hits in less than 24 hours,more than double the play of that day’s coverage of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.

Mustian will continue to chip away at this story and,hopefully,reveal more about the Saints and their involvement with the church and its clergy abuse crisis. But for now, Mustian’s sticktoitiveness and tough accountability reporting earns him this week’s Best of the States award.

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