WKBW-TV (Channel 7) reporter Charlie Specht didn’t know what the reaction of viewers would be after his blockbuster report ran late last week.
The two-part series on the cover-up of alleged sexual abuse by priests led to calls for Bishop Richard J. Malone to resign.
The series was so powerful that Channel 7’s on-air competitors couldn’t ignore it and followed up on it.
It also just may have finally given more viewers a reason to stop ignoring the improving third-rated news station in town and give it a second chance.
“Most of the reaction has been positive, which really surprised me,” Specht said in a telephone interview. “I figured that people were going to sort of attack the messenger and tell us we were going after the church. I think a lot of the credibility with the higher-ups in the church really had sort of been eroded because of the previous scandals.”
Instead of criticism, someone sent Specht flowers Monday.
“People are thanking us,” Specht said.
A Catholic who attended Catholic schools until high school and then graduated from St. Bonaventure University with a degree in journalism, Specht described doing the series as “really tough” to do.
That’s partly because of his family history.
His late grandmother, Irene Gleason, was the parish secretary at St. Teresa’s for the Rev. Basil A. Ormsby, one of the 42 Buffalo area priests who were accused of sexual improprieties on a list released months ago.
One of Specht’s two brothers, Mike, left last week to go into the seminary.
“As a Catholic, it is heart-wrenching to see this sort of abuse going on and to also see the covering up,” Specht said. “In Catholic school, you are always taught to respect authority and trust in people above you. And this whole story is really about the deception coming from the higher levels in the church.”
“I never stopped going to Mass. But there are times when I am sitting there I can’t get my mind off the stories that I have heard. The lying and the deception is the worst part because you see the worst in humanity. But I will say the one thing that is sort of like the redeeming quality of all of this is the courage of the victims almost restores your faith in God.”
He considers the story as the hardest one he has done because it has a personal element.
“It’s been really disheartening to see the things that have been going on behind the scenes,” he said. “It does make you question your faith. But my parents have always told me the church is the people in the pews. It is not the men on the altar. I’ve tried to remember that.”
He remembers going to Philadelphia to see Pope Francis two years ago with his mother and his brother Mike when he ran into Buffalo News reporter Jay Tokasz.
“We were standing in front of City Hall in Philadelphia when the pope came by,” he recalled. “We got probably within 20 yards and it was just an unbelievable religious experience. I think about that now because two of the people standing there – me and Jay – have gone on to report about all these awful things happening in the church and another is going off to become a priest. And I think at that moment I never could have imagined that. But here we are.”
A Buffalo News reporter for almost three years, Specht left the business to work for the Village of Williamsville for three years before joining Channel 7 two years ago as an investigative reporter to do stories like this one.
“Almost from the minute I got out of it, I realized I missed it a lot,” Specht said of journalism. “I would be in meetings and I would want to call up my old bosses at The News and give them information and I knew I couldn’t. And I missed that ability to sort of help people in a more direct way.”
His determination to return to reporting increased after seeing “Spotlight” – the 2016 Oscar-winning movie about the cover-up of sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese – five or six times.
“I just thought to myself, ‘I wish I was back doing that,’ ” said Specht.
It wasn't long before he was.
He and Channel 7 photojournalist Jeff Wick won a first-place Associated Press state award for a report on Dr. Anthony Pignataro, “Deceitful Doctor. Accused Killer. New Identity.” They also earned a prestigious regional Edward R. Murrow Award for a series on Niagara County Community College that led to the forced resignation of its president, James. P. Klyczek.
They also worked together on this series, which Specht agrees is the most important one he has done in two years at Channel 7.
His stories about the cover-up were so loaded with correspondence that other envious reporters were trying to uncover the mystery of where he got all the documentation.
Naturally, Specht isn’t going to clear up the mystery and reveal his sources, but he was willing to give their motivation.
“We have multiple sources for all of these stories,” he said. “We have a lot of people who have come forward and saw something wrong happening and felt morally compelled to do something.”
That sounds like the mission of an investigative reporter, too.