Houston Chronicle city hall reporter Robert Downen was on the night shift one evening in 2018, just a few months into the job, when something caught his attention.
Downen’s ever-growing spreadsheet of cases soon inspired a larger reporting effort to quantify the scope of sex abuse within the massive Protestant denomination. Journalists at the Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News teamed up to create a database of cases involving nearly 300 church leaders and more than 700 victims for their landmark 2019 “Abuse of Faith” series.
A wave of outrage in response to the series rocked the Southern Baptist Convention, prompting its Executive Committee to hire an outside firm to investigate. The result was Sunday’s release of an explosive, nearly 300-page report that found church leaders had covered up numerous sex abuse cases and belittled survivors.
Among other key findings: SBC leaders kept a secret list of ministers accused of abuse — all the while insisting to the Texas reporters who first inquired about the scope of the problem back in 2019 that such records would be impossible to compile, according to Chronicle investigative reporter John Tedesco. (On Tuesday, the leadership said it was planning to release names of the accused on Thursday.)
“It is beyond frustrating as a journalist and as someone who knows many of these survivors,” said Downen. “How many years of survivors pleading for this and the tears they cried, and how much work and how many hours of journalism we could have put elsewhere, in this story or any other, was wasted because they just didn’t want to say they were doing this.”
Downen worked with Tedesco — who moved from the Express-News to the Chronicle during the investigation — and Lise Olsen, then an investigative editor and reporter for the Chronicle. They spent several months hunting down and combing through court records, traversing the state, interviewing local district attorneys and sending letters seeking comment to every alleged abuser person they had learned about. Data journalists Matt Dempsey and Jordan Rubio helped create the database and verify the case details, as did a team of lawyers for Hearst, the parent company for both newspapers.
They discovered 380 people in the church, including deacons, youth pastors and Sunday school teachers, who had been credibly accused of abuse; at least 218 of them had been convicted or pleaded guilty to sex crimes over two decades. Some of them, the papers found, remained in their positions at the church or returned after serving prison time.
After the newspaper series published in 2019, the Chronicle set up a confidential tip line that was contacted by more than 400 people with accounts of being abused. The newspapers followed up with another three-part series with more victim accounts. “Their courage made all the difference,” said former Chronicle executive editor Steve Riley, who also oversaw the investigative team at the time.
One victim, who was abused as a child by a former pastor, wrote to the Chronicle that “over the years I’ve learned to cope with this and I’ve also realized that I am not alone. Your article reaffirms this and I feel more empowered knowing that more people will now better understand what is really going on.”
The newspapers reprinted “Abuse of Faith” and distributed it free at the 2019 annual SBC meeting in Birmingham, Ala., where the sex abuse crisis dominated discussion. In 2021, thousands of delegates at the annual meeting overwhelmingly voted in favor of having a task force oversee a third-party investigation, rather than the Executive Committee.
“There had been survivor advocates who had been pushing and trying to raise awareness for a long time before we came along,” Tedesco said. “We were part of that puzzle. I think our story opened a lot of eyes, but there were eyes already opened and trying to alert people to the problem before us.”
The Chronicle broke online readership records with the series, and other media organizations around the country relied on their database to investigate abuse cases in their own coverage areas.
But compiling the database — which involved a detailed and extensive corroboration of every case, some relying on court files that could be retrieved only in person — required the efforts of more than a dozen journalists. “In a newsroom of 200, that’s a pretty big commitment,” said Riley. He fears that many local and regional newspapers, struggling with shrinking circulation and ad revenue, will be increasingly unable to tackle similar stories in their own backyards.
“If it is only the New York Times or The Washington Post and ProPublica who are able to do this kind of work, then they’re going to miss a lot and they’re not going to be around to follow up once it’s done,” he said.
And yet local news reports from smaller media organizations that the Houston and San Antonio reporters dug out of archives played a vital role in helping them uncover the big story.
“Sometimes things happen in plain sight: A pastor gets arrested and reassigned from a church and it’s a daily story that maybe gets forgotten,” said Tedesco. “Sometimes you have to put those pieces together, and there’s real value in taking the time to do that.”
It’s all the more reason the public should be alarmed by the state of local news, said Downen, “because we are absolutely losing the source material for so many other investigations.” Since 2005, about 2,200 local newspapers have closed across the country, and over 200 counties across the country have no newspaper at all, according to a University of North Carolina study.
“That’s why it’s crucial for people to support the press financially and in other ways,” Downen said. “You don’t think that the small-town paper with a readership of 5,000 could be the genesis of a massive and historic report 25 years later, because it is some local journalist writing about a local abuse case. But we can’t know what we can’t see.”