A year ago today, I sent this anonymous email to Charlie Specht – an investigative reporter I hadn’t known existed mere weeks earlier. As the clerical abuse scandal erupted in our diocese last March, I began watching Charlie’s coverage of the scandal. His sincerity and tenacity made an immediate impression on me. Increasingly frustrated by what survivors were experiencing when they called the “hotline,” I wanted Charlie to know what was going on behind the scenes. I had a hunch that he was already in touch with survivors and hoped this insider info would confirm what they were likely telling him about lengthy wait times and delayed responses.
Throughout April, May, June and early July, Charlie and I kept in sporadic contact via my anonymous email account. Those email exchanges confirmed my first impression – this guy was sincere and tenacious in equal measure. I started watching his reporting the way people watch their favorite shows: I never missed a Charlie episode. I was continuously impressed by the questions he asked during press conferences or at other opportunities. A few times, Charlie asked the specific question I was hoping would be posed to Bishop Malone. Throughout the summer months, he was the only television reporter who stayed with the story by broadcasting regular reports and providing a platform for survivors to share their stories.
“Go Charlie Go” became a chant of mine whenever a story of Charlie’s would air or an email from him would prompt appropriate action from Bishop Malone and his staff. In early July, that chant reached a crescendo when a query from Charlie about Father Bob Yetter resulted in Father finally being sent to an assessment he was supposed to have undergone 11 months prior. Bishop Malone’s canon lawyer, Review Board, Senior Staff and Executive Assistant had all pushed for Father Yetter to be removed from ministry or at least sent for an assessment. Yet the Bishop had done absolutely nothing for nearly a year! But when Charlie Specht emailed the Diocese to learn more about allegations against Fr. Yetter, the priest was sent off to Southdown with startling alacrity.
Wow! I remember thinking… Charlie just accomplished something in minutes that we were trying to achieve for months. “Go Charlie Go,” indeed.
In mid-July, Charlie wrote a memorable piece about the impact his reporting had on him as a Catholic. I was deeply moved by his words and his witness as a faithful Catholic grappling with the scandal while regularly reporting on it.
By late July, I was ready to introduce myself to him.
As it turned out, Charlie beat me to it. Three days after I gave my three weeks’ notice to Bishop Malone, Charlie followed me when I left work and introduced himself. That very afternoon, I had finalized the “reveal email” that I intended to send to Charlie. His timing (and God’s) was perfect as I couldn’t have been readier to speak with him directly.
Well do I recall the first time I heard the motto of the E. W. Scripps broadcasting company: “Give light and the people will find their own way.” Charlie and I were walking into his office at his station, WKBW-TV, which is owned by Scripps. It was late August by now and I was in full whistle blower mode. As Charlie recited their motto, I couldn’t believe how appropriate it was for the work he was doing. My reaction was immediate: “That’s exactly what you’ve been doing with all of your stories!” There couldn’t be a better motto for this man.
Since last October, I’ve fielded a variety of questions about my words, actions and motives. Some of these queries require a detailed response, but there’s one that I can answer very easily: “Why did you go to the lowest-rated TV station in town? Why didn’t you provide the documents to the highest-rated station?”
My very simple response:
I didn’t give the documents to a station. I gave them to a person.
And not for a nanosecond have I reconsidered or regretted that decision.
[For what it’s worth, I’ve come to appreciate the staff and management of WKBW/Channel 7 for their underdog resiliency, genuine friendliness, down-to-earth demeanor, and the increasingly high caliber and creativity of their broadcasts. But last summer I truly could not have cared less about stations, networks or ratings.]
Some have said that Charlie received the documents “on a silver platter” and merely regurgitated that information during his bombshell 3-part reports. Nothing could be further from the truth!! When I gave the documents to the 60 Minutes producers, the information was chronologically arranged and very well-organized. The lead producer still said it felt like “drinking from a fire hose” due to the volume of material. If that’s the case, then Charlie was drinking from a hydraulic power washer stuck on the highest possible setting!
Charlie received an album’s worth of cell phone photos, multiple manila envelopes filled with documents that had hastily scribbled post-it notes sticking out at all angles, and a bunch of random email threads. He had to sift through and review so many pages in order to create a comprehensive yet comprehensible narrative for the public. His background in newspaper journalism shone through his well-crafted reports. Charlie worked tirelessly with his stellar videographer, Jeff Wick, to turn text-heavy outlines into compelling televisual reports.
I handed Charlie the truth. He told its story.
Although I was one of his sources, Charlie actually became a source for me: of prudent counsel, compassionate concern and much-needed good humor. (Yes, he does smile! People often ask me if he’s stoic and serious all the time, but that is just his on-camera demeanor, which is appropriate given the distressing nature of his reports.) I am particularly grateful for Charlie’s wisdom, generosity and humility. That last virtue might well be his greatest attribute. He never focuses on himself, his career or what’s in it for him. He is solely focused on seeking out and shining a light on the truth – for the sake of the survivors, our diocese, our community and our Church.
Thank you, Charlie, for giving us the light by which to find our way.