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How and why a reporter dug into allegations of abuse against Father John Fiala

News story about Father John FialaExpress-News religion writer Abe Levy wrote the most comprehensive story to date about the troubling saga of Father John Fiala, a Catholic priest who was accused of raping a 16-year-old boy in Rocksprings — and then soliciting a hit man to kill the teenager.

Abe relied on hundreds of court records to trace Fiala’s past transgressions, and the Catholic Church’s inability to deal with the priest:

The trail of complaints against Fiala began in the 1980s. In Nebraska, a businessman claimed Fiala targeted his eighth-grade son in 1988. The father, who the Express-News is not naming to protect his son’s identity, says Catholic supervisors broke promises then to ban the priest from all ministry with children and adolescents.

“I have no idea — I shudder to think — how many other children (Fiala) has harmed since 1988,” the man stated in a 2010 affidavit letter to Texas authorities after the Rocksprings teen filed suit. “My church could have prevented any further harm if they would have acted responsibly, but they chose not to.”

Abe told me he primarily relied on documents obtained through pre-trial discovery motions stemming from a lawsuit against Fiala and other defendants. The reporting process, he said, demanded “lots of careful reading, taking notes, and making a chronology.”

Many of the allegations against the priest are old. But as Abe’s story notes, the most recent allegation was made in 2008 — years after an overhaul by the Catholic Church in 2002 that was supposed to improve accountability and prevent abuse against children.

“They still did not catch this guy,” Abe said.

Some readers are sure to react to the story as an attack against the Church. Abe said there’s certainly abuse that occurs in other religions. But Catholicism is the largest faith group in the United States, with 68 million followers. It’s also the largest religion in heavily Hispanic San Antonio, with more than 700,000 parishioners.

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“I don’t think it’s an attack,” Abe said, noting how the reaction from Church officials about the allegations against Fiala has been subdued. “No one disputed the fall from grace that this guy experienced.

“I think there are really good people in the Catholic Church,” Abe added. “There’s stuff that they do that’s fantastic.”

A prime example: A day after Abe’s story about Fiala was published, Abe wrote yet another story about a Catholic priest. But this tale was about a courageous priest named Father Ted Pfeifer, who risked his life in Mexico to protect villagers from drug cartels.

The timing of the two stories was coincidental. But it illustrates what Abe says is one of the most important things in journalism:

“Be true to the story,” Abe said. “I need to follow it wherever it leads, not where I think it should lead.”