Recognition For A Job Well Done
It is always great to be recognized for doing an exceptional job because exceptional jobs require exceptional effort, commitment and time. When those exceptional acts benefit many people, that recognition is shared with all those who are affected. It is truly a cause for a celebration!
I’d like to congratulate my hometown newspaper, The Fayetteville Observer who recently won the 2020 Sunshine Award for Journalism presented by the North Carolina Open Government Coalition. This was for its two-year, exceptional coverage of a hard fought battle to gain access to a sealed court case of a prominent local business owner who was arrested on Labor Day Weekend, September, 2016 at the Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in Darlington County, SC for alleged sexual abuse of a minor at the time of the incident and arrest. Because of the prominent status of the car dealership owner, gag orders were ordered, court records were sealed, and the case was settled by the end of 2016 with payments due by 5 p.m. on December 28, 2016, according to the settlement documents.
However, with all of that legal wrangling done in such a short time, no one knew the details that were meant to be sealed away from the scrutiny of public awareness. As a result, the case was never tried in court. It was settled out-of-court, and out of the view of public awareness. Nice and tidy for the predator. Not so nice for his victims and their families.
As Observer Executive Editor, Lorry Williams, commented about this case, “Our court system must be open and transparent.” When it became obvious that openness and transparency were compromised because of the high-profile status of the wealthy businessman and civic leader, the media stepped up to challenge the secrecy surrounding this case and stepped in to report the events in their own newspaper. Charlotte, NC attorney, Jon Buchan stated, “Judge Pittman properly determined that the public interest in the transparent operation of our courts outweighs this defendant’s desire to keep the guts of this file—the allegations in the complaints and the settlement agreement—hidden from public view. The court is properly protecting the privacy rights of the three minor plaintiffs while maintaining public confidence in our courts by ordering transparency.”
Remarkably, the Fayetteville Observer was not alone in this effort. There were at least eight media companies and two organizations that advocated for First Amendment rights while supporting the Observer’s appeal: The Associated Press, the Charlotte Observer, the News & Observer of Raleigh, WRAL-TV, WTVD, WBTV of Charlotte, National Public Radio affiliate WUNC, The Pilot Newspaper of Southern Pines, the North Carolina Open Government Coalition and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Why so much attention over a case that was already settled? Because when cases are settled out-of-court, the court system and the media, and ultimately the general public, are kept from the truth of the of the facts of the case.
In the unsealed documents, it turns out that the private settlement was for $1.925 million for alleged sexual abuse of a minor and other persons for various reasons. When someone is willing to pay that kind of settlement money, it is for an even bigger reason: Damage control, which is exactly the same reason that churches, any denomination, typically make such payments in out-of-court settlements to the victims of their own clergy who sexually violate those who are under their care. Churches and institutions will fight tooth and nail once they are in a court case to avoid having to pay money to the same victims they claim to want to help heal by quietly paying settlement money in out-of-court settlements. Huh? If these entities can avoid the spotlight of the media and the revelations of the crimes committed by their one of their own, they will make a deal with the devil himself.
As in the “Doe v Doe” case, the Fayetteville Observer took exceptional investigative reporting to a higher level than anyone expected. And they were publicly rewarded for their efforts, rightly so. However, where has that kind of reporting been when it comes to the sexual abuse of children in NC by clergy, notably, within the Dioceses of Raleigh and Charlotte? Where has the exceptional investigation of claims by victims of sexual abuse been? Where has the exceptional investigation of our two dioceses been when victims come forward after years of anguish to report their abusers? Has there been a report in The Fayetteville Observer of the list of names of local clergy who have already been named by the dioceses themselves? That is easy reporting because the dioceses are listing the names of their own accused clergy on their own websites! Exceptional investigation is when the local dioceses are challenged to answer for omitted names and details of abuse. This is an ongoing crisis locally and around the world.
What is the difference between being abused on the premises of the holy ground of a church as opposed to being abused in an RV at a NASCAR race? Does location matter? May it never be! North Carolina has new legislation as of December 1, 2019 called the SAFE Child Act, as stated by NC Attorney General Josh Stein, “wherever they are.” This legislation opens a two-year window for victims of childhood sexual abuse so that victims, regardless of when or where the abuse happened, can come forward with confidence that their claims will be heard by law enforcement, judges and juries. Citizens of NC, especially children, are protected by NC law, regardless of Canon Law or church doctrine. Thus, abuse must be reported to authorities outside of the church, naming the abuser. Because the Boston Globe did its exceptional investigative reporting of clergy abuse in January, 2002, we now know the horrific details of abuse and the cover up of abusers that traumatized generations of children. The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was like a surgical laser in 2018 which opened our eyes from the intentional blindness of clergy sexual abuse of children.
There have been thousands of victims of childhood sexual abuse from clergy in all denominations in NC, yet only a small number have made the terrifying transition from victim to survivor because of the brutal nature of these sexual crimes and the coercion of silence by their abusers. Where has the local exceptional investigative reporting been for these victims? Where has the local exceptional investigative reporting been for naming those who rape and torture children in NC, regardless of status? If you don’t know about the past and present sexual abuse of children in NC, it is not because it is not a problem in this state. It is a very big problem in this state. Rather, it is because of the lack of exceptional investigative reporting by local media.
The spotlight of truth revealed the abuse in Boston to the amazement of everyone. Likewise, the sunshine of exceptional investigative local reporting of clergy sexual abuse in North Carolina is long overdue.
CONTACT: Carol Yeager, SNAP, Fayetteville/Ft. Bragg, NC ([email protected])
(SNAP, the Survivors Network, has been providing support for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings for 30 years. We have more than 25,000 survivors and supporters in our network. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)