As news of the horrendous sexual abuse suffered by deaf boys at the hands of a Wisconsin priest a half-century ago was exploding across the world last week, Terry McKiernan was navigating Boston’s notorious traffic en route to an interview when his mobile phone rang.
“It was a reporter from France,” McKiernan later told the Belfast Telegraph. “It’s great that the site is recognised. But it really is sad, because it is about the kids.”
The “kids” McKiernan cited aren’t the victims of Fr Lawrence C Murphy alone, but also the tens of thousands of others whose horrific treatment by Catholic clergy spurred him to establish BishopAccountability.org in 2003.
The website contains a staggering amount of material on clerical abuse across America, including a database of accused priests, church documents, grand jury reports, a breakdown of financial compensation paid to victims, and much more.
McKiernan, who modestly describes himself as a ‘librarian’, said that, as the abuse scandal has grown, so too has traffic to his site.
In 2004, the site had about 72,000 unique visitors. Last year that number was about 703,000. This month, propelled by events in Ireland and Germany, more than 80,000 have visited the site, making 2010 likely to be the busiest year yet.
The Bronx native’s journey to become a key chronicler of the Catholic Church’s darkest chapters began the year that America’s first clerical abuse scandal broke in his adopted city of Boston in 2002.
Although he’d already been troubled about the Church after reading The Changing Face of the Priesthood by Fr Donald Cozzens, the daily revelations regarding the breadth of abuse in Boston pushed him into action.
His first action was to help found Voices of the Faithful (VoF) — which now has chapters in Ireland — a group that seeks to support victims, honest priests, and Church reform from within.
“It went from 50 people at a meeting, to 200 people at a meeting, to 500, to a thousand. It was an extraordinary experience,” said McKiernan.
McKiernan said that, while VoF was “satisfying up to a point”, ultimately he left because the group was “focused on kind of talking it through with the [Church] authorities. And I’m sceptical about the effectiveness of that.”
During one large VoF public meeting, he was scanning the crowd when he realised that, like himself, almost everyone present had folders full of press clippings and documents concerning clerical abuse. He then set about creating a way to centralise all that information. BishopAccountablity.org was born.
McKiernan, who now oversees a staff of half a dozen part-timers, is passionate about the importance of collating abuse-related information.
“Of course, it’s a sex crisis and it’s a crisis that involves power. But, arguably, it is quintessentially a crisis that is an information crisis,” he insisted.
“These things happen because information is denied. And these things begin to be resolved when information is shared. And, of course, the internet enables this in a way that was never possible before.”
In spite of regularly having to read and collate stories of often horrendous abuse — stories that he rarely shares with his family — McKiernan remains a practising Catholic.
“I still go to Mass. I don’t take my kids, but I do go myself,” said McKiernan (56). “I still have some fondness for the ritual and that way of approaching things, so I try not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
“I’m a kind of independent person and I’ve approached my Catholicism that way,” he added. “I think if I was slavishly devoted, it would perhaps be even harder. I think it’s for those people that it all comes tumbling down when something like this happens.”
McKiernan said that he has never met any open hostility from the Catholic Church over his work.
“I think it’s obvious to anyone who’s decent in all of this that |information is not a bad thing,” |he said.
“We’re not in this out of any animus. We’re in this because we care.”