Posted in Behind the News

Scrambling across continents to fact-check the pope

, by Lauren Easton

During his in-flight press conference heading home from South America last month, Pope Francis said he could not remove a bishop implicated in a sexual abuse scandal in Chile because he had never heard from any victims about the bishop’s behavior. 

In a memo to staff, Vice President for Standards John Daniszewski recounted how AP reporters on three continents embarked on an extraordinary three-day, multinational, cross-format papal fact-check that prompted calls for the pope to come clean about a scandal that now threatens his legacy:

Pope Francis talks with his top abuse adviser Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, left, as they arrive for a special consistory in the Synod hall at the Vatican, Feb. 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Vatican correspondent Nicole Winfield sensed a potentially explosive development in Chile's long-running sex abuse and cover-up scandal when she noticed a cryptic tweet from a former member of Pope Francis' abuse advisory board.  Board member Marie Collins had tweeted that Francis was well aware that victims of Chile's most infamous predator priest, the Rev. Fernando Karadima, had placed Bishop Juan Barros at the scene of their abuse, since she herself had been involved in relaying their concerns to him. Collins revealed to Winfield that during an emergency summit of the pope's sex abuse advisory commission in April 2015, she handed over a letter to the pope’s top adviser, Cardinal Sean O’Malley. The letter from Karadima victim Juan Carlos Cruz concerned Barros; it was intended for the pope. Santiago correspondent Eva Vergara, who cultivated a years-long relationship with Cruz over the course of her coverage of the Karadima affair, obtained the letter from him, and it was heartbreaking: a plea for help from Francis to finally listen to him. The eight-page letter described in detail the abuse Cruz suffered at the hands of Karadima, and accused Barros of witnessing it, ignoring it and covering it up.  The letter called into question Francis' assertion that he had never heard from victims about Barros and had no evidence of wrongdoing. But did it ever get into his hands?  Winfield and Vergara knew that tracing the chain of custody of the letter would be crucial, and Collins offered up two links.
Marie Collins, a member of the pope's sex-abuse commission, hands a letter to Cardinal Sean O'Malley detailing the abuse of Juan Carlos Cruz and a cover-up by Chilean church authorities, at the Domus Santa Marta, April 12, 2015. (Catherine Bonnet via AP)
She told Winfield that O'Malley had assured her that he had given it to the pope and raised the issue with him. And she provided visual proof that it had at least gotten as far as O'Malley: A photo of her handing the letter over to O'Malley that she had asked a fellow commission member, Catherine Bonnet, to take so she could send it to Cruz. The photo was crucial to telling the story, and Winfield set about securing authorization to use it from Bonnet, who also agreed to go on camera to describe the moment of the handoff. Bonnet, though, was traveling from San Diego to Paris on a more than 24-hour odyssey.  Enter senior TV producer Jeff Schaeffer, who kept in touch with Bonnet by texts during her layovers and tracked her hours-delayed flight online, so that he could meet up with her at Charles de Gaulle Airport to conduct the interview. Paris photographer Michel Euler joined him in scouting the location that would be appropriate for such a sensitive interview.  Next, the attention shifted to getting Cruz, in Philadelphia, on camera. Called upon to help out, videographer Yvonne Lee hustled to the office to get her equipment and arrived at Cruz's apartment. As soon as she was set up, she called Winfield, who was at home in Rome waiting to conduct the interview by speaker phone. Winfield had Vergara online in a WhatsApp chat and relayed from Santiago what was happening, completing the three-continent interview. Cruz revealed that O'Malley had assured him that he had delivered the letter, completing the chain of custody with two named sources.  With all the parts in place, the story rolled out on Monday morning. Commentary followed, predicting that Francis' legacy would be forever tarnished: "Pope Francis' failure to address the abuse allegations jeopardizes his papacy," read an opinion piece in Time magazine. For teamwork that spanned the globe, in service of a story of immense global interest, Winfield, Vergara, Schaeffer and Lee share this week’s Beat of the Week prize.