Buffalo native David Wright’s journalistic crusade to investigate sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church started when he was a radio reporter in Boston in the 1990s.
The issue has taken the ABC News correspondent back to his hometown to cover the scandal surrounding Bishop Richard J. Malone’s handling of the crisis in the Buffalo Diocese.
He interviewed Malone for a compelling July 26 edition of “Nightline” that included interviews with Malone, whistleblower Siobhan O’Connor and an alleged victim of sexual abuse.
Wright isn’t finished with the story. He expects to eventually do a follow-up report for “Nightline.”
“We are talking about it all the time,” Wright said by phone. “We were very close to talking to the second whistleblower (Rev. Ryszard Biernat) who came forward. We had an agreement ... but unfortunately, he kind of got cold feet in terms of going to a national audience.”
“We have not given up on this story at all,” Wright added. “In fact, we want to own it.”
The story was advanced last week when the Vatican directed Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn to investigative the Buffalo Diocese through an “apostolic visitation.”
“It seems like a first step,” Wright said. “But it’s less than what Malone’s critics have called for.”
Wright and the “Nightline” staff have reached out to individual members of the the Independent Diocesan Review Board, whose advice Malone relies on, to ask this question: “Are you completely confident with the recommendations that you have made because your names are on this as well?” Wright said.
The Buffalo story especially resonates with Wright, who went to middle school at Nichols before graduating from Williamsville East. He had his first job in radio at WBFO in 1989.
“Buffalo is the community I grew up in. … I remember Buffalo as being a very Catholic town,” Wright said. “I’d grown up in the orbit of that, but not in the immediate vicinity of that in the sense a lot of my friends in high school were Catholic and active in CYO at St. Gregory’s the Great.”
Before his “Nightline” story, he called a priest he knew here, Rev. Paul M. Nogaro, for his take on the situation.
“He had some interesting thoughts to share,” Wright said. “Unfortunately, Father Paul has since been suspended with an accusation that is now under investigation.”
Nogaro, the pastor of St. Stephen’s Church in Grand Island, was placed on administrative leave in August. He has denied molesting anyone.
Wright, who graduated from Harvard and holds a master’s degree from Oxford, credits his Buffalo public radio experience as having a big influence on his journalistic career.
“It was huge,” Wright said. “I got my start at WBFO and luckily it was a small enough operation in those days that they put you on the air right away. It was a forgiving enough place because your mom was listening.”
Undoubtedly, the WBFO experience helped Wright learn how to cover “story after story of individual priests who have done horrible things.”
However, he said the main focus of the Buffalo story he and Peter Madden of the investigative unit of “Nightline” are covering is the overall way the church polices itself.
“There always has been a question, but a question the church now finally is supposed to be addressing,” Wright said. “With new procedures designed to hold bishops accountable … not just for abuse, but for covering up.
“Our questions … are kind of geared to how these procedures are working and whether we can trust the church to police itself. The signs from Buffalo are not encouraging.”
The key for his July story was getting Bishop Malone to agree to an interview.
“I was happy he agreed to the interview,” Wright said. “I was delighted. I have not heard from them since it aired.”
“I’ve honestly wanted to hear Bishop Malone’s side of the story,” Wright said. “He is convinced he has made a good faith effort. The questions I have as a reporter are: What procedures are in place to make sure these survivors of abuse have been listened to and what safeguards are in place to protect people who are in the pews and the schools now?
“I’m not convinced that adequate safeguards have been followed here. It seems to me like the process may be stacked against the people coming forward and that’s terrible and it is the bishop’s job to make sure that is not the case.
“It is the bishop’s job to attend to the needs of his flock, especially the vulnerable people in his flock, especially the people who have been harmed by the priests that he supervises.”
Malone appeared to be most shocked in the July “Nightline” interview when Wright showed him a video of O’Connor – in a response to a question – saying she could see the bishop going to jail.
“I think Siobhan was shocked by the question, too,” Wright said.
Wright started covering the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal in 1992 when he was a young reporter at WBUR, the public radio station in Boston. He noted that was 10 years before “Spotlight,” the Boston Globe investigation of sexual abuse by priests in that city.
“That was the Father James Porter case,” Wright explained of the 1992 story. “A private eye tracked down a priest who had abused him, recorded him on the phone from Rhode Island and shared the tape recordings with us. It was kind of mind-blowing. He had 27 victims and the priest came clean in the interview with him. It was the first big story that dealt with this issue and then 10 years later you had ‘Spotlight’ when they brought down Cardinal (Bernard Francis) Law.
“So, this is not a new problem. Yet the church has made promise after promise that it would be dealing with this effectively and transparently, and they still don’t seem to get it.”
Wright, who joined ABC after the 2000 election and started working at “Nightline” a year later, was raised a Protestant who attended Westminster Presbyterian Church in Buffalo.
He became a Catholic after he met his wife from Ireland, Victoria Brannigan, a producer for Sky News, while covering a Vatican conclave.
“She is Irish and Catholic,” Wright said. “We married later that year in a Catholic service in Rome.”
“When we started having children, we agreed to raise the children Catholic. … It seemed kind of crazy to maintain the protest,” he cracked.
He called the priest who married him and his wife, a college classmate, and asked, “Is it hard to become a Catholic?”
“He said, ‘People have been doing it for 2,000 years,’ ” Wright recalled.
He took weekly lessons for a year, having spirited discussions about issues with a priest in Washington, D.C., before being allowed to convert in 2010.
His experience illustrates he is concerned about the church even as he tries to expose the abuse of its priests and any subsequent cover-ups.
“I care about the church and think it can be a force for good in the world. It's certainly been a force for good for me,” Wright said. “I literally have the church to thank for my wife and my daughters. … So, I have skin in the game. Even more so with the Malone story, because I love my hometown.”