Only Part of the Story

Is the media providing balanced coverage of the Philadelphia clergy abuse cases?

In 1983, astonishing accusations of satanic child sexual abuse were made against operators and employees of the Virginia McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California.

As the story swelled, news reports endlessly blared shocking tales of “children being raped and sodomized, of dead rabbits, mutilated corpses, and a horse killing, and of blood drinking, satanic rituals, and the sacrifice of a live baby in a church.”

A trial began in 1984, and prosecutors charged seven McMartin employees with 321 counts of child abuse. At one point, the case employed “three DAs full-time, 14 investigators from the DA’s office, 22 task force officers, two full-time social workers, 20 part-time social workers, a full-time detective and four part-time detectives. They had searched 21 residences, seven businesses, three churches, two airports, 37 cars, and a farm.”

A voracious media could not get enough of the story. It all but convicted the accused individuals. A 1984 television report shocked viewers with the claim that 60 children “have now each told authorities that he or she had been keeping a grotesque secret of being sexually abused and made to appear in pornographic films while in the preschool’s care—and of having been forced to witness the mutilation and killing of animals to scare the kids into staying silent.”

A deputy district attorney added that law enforcement had uncovered “millions of child pornography photographs and films” from the preschool, as the main purpose of the abuse was for the production of child pornography.

When the narrative ended in 1990, it was California’s most expensive and longest-running trial.

But, it turned out, the actual number of children that the preschool had abused was zero. Not a single frame or image of child pornography was ever presented. The entire case was bogus.

The false accusations, the media circus, and the years-long trial destroyed the lives of scores of innocent families.

A seedy alliance of aggressive prosecutors and uncritical media completely duped the public.

In a Pulitzer Prize-winning article following the case, the late David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times cited “pack journalism,” “laziness,” “superficiality,” and “cozy relationships with prosecutors” as causes of the journalistic malpractice. He also cited a “tradition that often discourages reporters from raising key questions if they aren’t first brought up by the principals in a story.”

Could a similar narrative be playing out in Philadelphia in the current clergy abuse cases? It is not an unreasonable question.

Indeed, the delicate topic of child sexual abuse has no room for paranoid conspiracy theories and unwarranted speculation. The abuse of innocent minors by Catholic priests has been entirely too real, and the damage to these victims has been immeasurable. We must always demand justice and compassion for victims.

When accuser Mark Bukowski sat for the most recent Philadelphia grand jury, he relayed the distressing and angering tale of Father James Brennan raping him as a 14-year-old in 1996. Indeed, Bukowski’s claims are alarming, to say the least. (By the way, Mr. Bukowski has allowed his name to be made public, although media outlets usually do not go along with this.)

The trial begins March 26.

However, there is a side of Mark Bukowski that the grand jury never presented, and almost all of the public has not heard. Mr. Bukowski has a lengthy criminal history wrought with fraud and deceit. In 2004, he was arrested for deserting the military, and since then his rap sheet includes numerous other crimes.

Police have arrested Bukowski on numerous occasions, and his disturbing crimes include multiple forgeries, multiple thefts, multiple instances of “driving under the influence,” identity theft, and use of another’s credit card without authorization.

But the most notable item in Bukowski’s long criminal record may be the charge of “filing a fictitious report” in 2005, about the very same time that he accused Father Brennan of raping him.

In a March 2011 interview that the media has not widely reported, Father Brennan and his then-attorney, Richard L. DeSipio, appeared on the Chris Stigall Show on Talk Radio 1210, WPHT, in Philadelphia. Near the end of the interview, Mr. DeSipio described the “fictitious report” that Bukowski concocted in 2005.

With the police report in his hand, Mr. DeSipio relayed the troubling episode to the radio audience:

What this accuser did [in 2005], the same year that he accuses Father Brennan, he calls the police, has a detective come over to his house—I have the police report that I brought here with me—where he reports an event that never occurred. He doesn’t just say, in general, a crime occurred. He says it was a home invasion, a violent assault, and a theft—that while watching television he was confronted by two men who broke into his home; that one of the subjects assaulted him with an unknown sharp object; that there was a violent struggle that lasted about a minute; that $675 that he received from an employer was stolen, a DVD, prescription medicines, and a wristwatch. He showed the police several small cuts that he inflicted on himself, that he put there. He showed them a t-shirt that had no cuts or blood.

Well, the police investigated. He had no employer, no one they could find. He lied about this entire event. His mother was home at the time that he alleged that this crime happened. Nothing happened. He pled guilty [to filing the false report] …

It’s not just a false report. It’s a manipulative, deliberate, self-serving lie. What is going on in 2005 that this accuser makes up detailed stories about other people? What is he trying to get? Well, in 2005, this accuser’s family filed bankruptcy. This accuser’s father lost his job over in Jersey for political reasons. This accuser went to Father Brennan and another family looking for money and looking for a job. There’s your motivation … The grand jury left this out of their report. They took this from the press. It’s a public document. They had it … Why didn’t the [grand jury] present this?”

If it were not for an alert and suspicious police detective, Bukowski may have gotten away with his scam.

Meanwhile, Father Brennan has steadfastly maintained that he wants a trial to clear his name. “I’m not looking for a plea deal, not in any way, shape, or form,” the priest told the radio audience that day.

What has been especially frustrating is the fact that many in the media have been very well aware of the criminal history of Father Brennan’s accuser, yet they have deliberately chosen not to report about it since the day of the radio interview almost a year ago. The accuser’s alarming criminal history has been completely invisible in literally thousands of articles about the Philadelphia clergy cases.

Many journalists and observers like to point to last year’s scathing grand jury report as sure-fire evidence that the accused clergy are certainly guilty of the crimes of which they are accused. Indeed, the report inflamed Catholics and non-Catholics alike with harrowing stories of mind-numbing abuse and callous indifference on the part of Philadelphia Church officials.

But what exactly are a “grand jury” and a “grand jury report”?

Unlike members of a regular jury for a trial, grand jury members are not screened for their biases, histories, or qualifications. In the grand jury process, there are no defense witnesses, and accusers are not cross-examined. The prosecution completely controls what information it wants to share with the jury.

In the end, the result of a grand jury is often just an approval of the case that the prosecution wants to take to trial.

A grand jury then approves a “grand jury report.” But what a lot of people do not know is that this report is very often just a one-sided press release written by a prosecutor’s office.

In fact, last year’s incendiary report was authored by Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Mariana Sorensen, who is the lead prosecutor in the upcoming cases. So Sorensen essentially wrote a report outlining the case that she herself wanted the public to see.

The ensuing one-sided media frenzy could not have been a better public relations advantage for Sorensen and the Philadelphia DA’s office.

Grand juries, which have existed since the country’s inception, were originally conceived to provide a check on prosecutorial and government power. But many have observed that the current grand jury system has had the opposite effect, in that it has only increased the power and influence of prosecutors.

Tom Wolfe’s popular novel Bonfire of the Vanities immortalized the aphorism that a decent prosecutor could “indict a ham sandwich” if he wanted.

In other words, grand jury reports should be viewed critically and with a healthy amount of skepticism. Readers should be aware that they are often getting only one biased side of a story.

A strong argument can be made that the media has not honestly informed the public about the one-sided nature of grand jury reports. As a result, the public has been given the misleading impression that the Philadelphia clergy must surely be guilty of the crimes for which they have been charged.

If one were to blindly believe the media coverage of the Philadelphia cases in the past year, one would conclude that the upcoming trial is merely a formality in finalizing the clergy’s already-determined guilt.

Indeed, the claims made by the accusers in Philadelphia may be determined to be true, and accused clergy may serve lengthy prison sentences.

However, it is very fair to conclude that the media has not given an honest and balanced account of the cases to be debated at the upcoming trials.

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About David F. Pierre, Jr. 14 Articles
David F. Pierre, Jr. is creator and author of and has written two books: Catholic Priests Falsely Accused: The Facts, The Fraud, The Stories and Double Standard: Abuse Scandals and the Attack on the Catholic Church. He is a graduate of Boston College and lives with his wife and family in Massachusetts.