Interviewing skills, values help MPR reporter uncover church's secrets

Photo by Keoni Cabral published under Creative Commons License

Madeleine Baran isn't used to being in the spotlight. The Minnesota Public Radio reporter is more comfortable asking the questions and listening to others' stories.

But when she took the lead on an investigative story about sexual abuse by local Catholic priests, she started getting noticed. Her use of documents and interviews shed light on coverups and inaction by top-level church officials and prompted legal authorities to dig deeper into allegations.

And that, Baran said, is a victory for her profession.

"It shows the value of journalism, because here's a story where the public did not know about it, and it was important and it required journalism - it required doing interviews, knowing how to fact-check things" and analyzing documents, she explained. "People want investigative reporting. It resonates with people. It's what people think that journalists should be doing."

Baran, who mostly grew up in Milwaukee, has a master's degree in journalism from New York University. She was drawn to journalism because of "curiosity about other people and the way things work," she said. "I know it's kind of cliché, but it's true that as a reporter you have this really amazing excuse for coming and asking people questions about their lives."

She landed at MPR News in 2009 - doing online and radio pieces - but she has been a part of several other hard-hitting investigative stories, including pieces about the St. Paul police crime lab, the FBI files on the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and Minnesota's mental health system.

Baran's first priest abuse story was published in late September 2013, describing how the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis handled warning signs of sexual misconduct and allegations that the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer had preyed on boys while serving as a parish pastor.

More documents, more victims and more alleged abusers came to light in the months after. By February 2014, MPR reporting had identified 70 clergy members accused since 1950. In April, the archbishop admitted he had kept secret information about abusive priests. Several criminal investigations remain open.

"I think this story is successful in that it got the information out there," Baran said. And yet, she went on, "the information is so depressing, disturbing. It's painful for the people involved."

'A perpetual quest'

Among the victims, the perpetrators and the Catholic Church, Baran felt there were no clear winners or losers.

She interviewed victims, who openly shared details about abuse, and she interviewed accused priests, some of whom also opened up to her about what they did and how they felt about it.

It's easy to see why people felt comfortable revealing personal information to her: Baran is friendly and quick to smile, speaks with a gentle voice, and is genuinely interested in the people she talks with. "People are fascinating, and their motivations are fascinating," she said.

Baran credits some of her skills to previous employment in the mental health field. And she and several others on her reporting team had experience with the Catholic Church growing up. That familiarity made some of her work easier, she said, but she also spent hours researching and learning about canon law and the internal workings of the organization.

"It's a lot to learn," she admitted. "And I think it's a good thing as a reporter if you're constantly thinking that you need to know more and more and more. Even in a story like this where you know a lot, but that you're constantly thinking that I need to read more, I need to be talking to more people. ... I think I'm in a perpetual quest for more information."

Documenting facts

That diligence and persistence in digging deeper into the clergy abuse story have earned Baran praise and gratitude, much of it from Catholic parishioners. She understands the high stakes.

"Catholics in this diocese have been told a lot of things for a long time, and when we're able to report that some of those things are not true, that is important information for those people," Baran said.

She and the other reporters and editors on her team based stories strictly on facts and posted supporting documents on MPR's website. Baran was a strong proponent of using the DocumentCloud online platform to allow readers to see source documents for themselves, adding to the credibility of stories. The files include complaints, lawsuits, letters and memos.

Baran credited her editors for listening to her ideas and making resources available for her efforts. "I think especially with the investigative stuff, now that there's less and less of it, that it's all the more important," she said. "Like with this [clergy abuse] story and other stories that we've done, it's really a public safety issue. You're able to bring people information that they absolutely need."

And in her eyes, the archdiocese story is not over.

"I don't know necessarily that things will change. I think it's too early to say that. The revelations that we reported extend to 2013," she said. " We'll see what changes or doesn't change."

FFI: Betrayed by Silence investigative series: minnesota.publicradio.org/collections/catholic-church/

(Photograph by Sarah Whiting)

The profile appears in every issue of the Minnesota Women's Press. It reflects our founding principle and guiding philosophy that every woman has a story. Readers are welcome to submit suggestions for profile subjects. Email your ideas to editor [at] womenspress [dot] com.

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