A prolific, pioneering writer and documentary filmmaker, Jason Berry’s work to reveal the Catholic Church’s cover-up of widespread sexual abuse has encompassed a good portion of his professional life. As he says, “I have worked at trying to understand the two major stories of my life: New Orleans, the city of my birth, and the crisis of the Catholic Church, the faith in which I was raised.”
Berry achieved prominence with his reporting on the crisis in his book Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, published in 1992. Written well before the scandals broke in the Boston Globe, the book is still a newsroom reference staple. Seven years of old-fashioned digging, writing, and reporting for The Times of Acadiana, National Catholic Reporter, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Cleveland Plain Dealer – in a world before the internet and databases – preceded publication.
“It was in 1984 that we began to read about allegations of sexual abuse of altar boys, and that a bishop in the Diocese of Lafayette in Louisiana had reassigned a pedophile priest to multiple parishes,” Berry recalls. Through solid sources, Berry gained access to documents that opened a window for him. “Like most Catholics, I could understand how a priest, or any man, could be pathologically drawn to children; but I could not wrap my mind around the fact that church officials had reassigned Gauthe. He admitted under oath to 37 victims, a number I eventually reported was closer to 100.”
Slowly, he pieced together leads from around the country, including a private detective in Michigan, that led him to more survivors of clerical abuse. “I realized it was a pattern, and knew it was a nationwide issue,” Berry says. “A gradual awareness crept over me that this was larger and deeper than I had ever imagined.”
It was also something from which he could not walk away, despite his interest and desire to explore the rich traditions of New Orleans. In 1997, writing for the Hartford Courant with the late Gerald Renner, they exposed Marcial Maciel Degollado, a predatory Mexican priest, and the early signs of a systemic Vatican cover-up. Berry and Renner collaboratively wrote Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, published in 2004.
“People kept sending me leads,” he recalls. “In 2008 or 2009, I started following the sale of parishes and church properties, realizing it was to finance settlements with survivors. They were being dishonest and deceptive about the predators and doing the same with the assets of the church.” In 2011, he published Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, which won the Investigative Reporters and Editors Best Book Award.
“The church has taken so many hits,” he says. “Who knows when the hierarchy will embrace the structural changes I believe must come? To me, the issue from the very outset of my odyssey has been structural mendacity, institutional lying, I think this generation of bishops is struggling to take back some moral high ground.”
Berry has a great appreciation for founder Marci Hamilton, whom he met at a SNAP conference through Jeff Anderson, and the work of CHILD USA to make changes that promote justice for survivors of child sexual abuse. “There’s a calling to speak for those who’ve struggled so hard to get their stories told and find justice,” he says. “I’m humbled, enlightened and grateful for their courage.”
Although he recently finished a documentary film on jazz funerals, “City of Million Dreams,’ Berry still goes to the Bishop Accountability abuse tracker to see what’s happened across the world.
“To receive an award named for a survivor is a great honor,” he says. “I hope the many survivors I’ve known can find equilibrium and peace.”