Francis ‘light years ahead’ of other popes in tackling abuse scandal, says pioneering journalist

Jason Berry’s career has focused not just on exposing clerical abuse - his other preoccupation is jazz, the subject of a new documentary

An American journalist who was one of the first reporters in the world to expose the clerical child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church says Pope Francis “has gone far beyond his two predecessors in confronting” the issue.

Jason Berry (73), an author and documentary-maker who has a film showing at a Dublin venue on Saturday, said the current pope “has made his share of mistakes, not heeding Ireland’s survivor leader Marie Collins on genuine reform, and his failure initially to believe news reports about the scandals in Chile. But he did change, sacking a third of the Chilean hierarchy and getting to know survivors like Juan Carlos Cruz [a prominent international campaigner on the issue].”

Francis “is still on a learning curve, though he’s light years ahead of John Paul II’s scandalous denial and Benedicts’ failure to oust culpable bishops. After so much suffering caused by the church, it’s hard to say whether a true reform will bring jaded believers back”.

Based in New Orleans and himself a Catholic, Berry in 1985 exposed the abuse of children in his own diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana by Fr Gilbert Gauthe and its cover-up by local church authorities, a pattern that has been replicated thousands of times in the Catholic Church worldwide since then.


His 1992 book Lead Us Not Into Temptation about the Gauthe case led to nationwide exposure on then issue in the US in what then became known there as “the Watergate of the Catholic Church.” He went on to expose one of the church’s most powerful and notorious predators, Fr Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ and close person friend of Pope John Paul II.

Books by him that followed included the 2004 Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II and Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church in 2011.

But exposing clerical child sexual abuse has not been the main preoccupation of Berry’s life. Apart from his family, he has two great loves: his native city and the genre of music it created - jazz. Both inspired two of his books, Up from the Cradle of Jazz, a history of New Orleans’ music published in 1986, and City of a Million Dreams in 2018. The latter has been made into a 90-minute documentary of the same title which will be shown at the Sugar Club on Dublin’s Leeson Street at 6pm on Saturday evening, February 4th.

It documents the city’s wildly exuberant jazz funerals which can take up to four hours but also the history of this “most African city in America”, beginning under the French in 1718 with thousands of slaves who “had to figure out how to be happy in an insane environment”.

Berry told The Irish Times “the years I spent interviewing abuse survivors shaped my sensibility on this film about jazz funerals. The sorrows of loss and yearning or transcendence we filmed suggest that dancing for the dead achieves a closeness to God”.

In the 19th century the people in New Oreleans were joined by Germans, French, and Italians with their brass bands. The cocophany, mixed in with Creole and Spanish influences, produced a very distinctive culture as illustrated in the documentary.

Twenty-two years in the making, it “has been an epic of my life,” said Berry. “It’s very much an American story. The coming together of European and African traditions of mourning. The brass band tradition took root here in a city that was rich with public celebrations. Funerals ennobling the dead became part of the landscape.”

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times