Child Abuse

  • Telling stories about the unthinkable: How three journalists shined a spotlight on child abuse

    Sarah Brasse
    Sarah Brasse

    In February 2009, an 8-year-old girl from Schertz died, alone, of acute appendicitis — a disease that could have easily been treated if caught in time.

    In the hours leading up to her death, people concerned about the girl — including officers from the Schertz Police Department — had warned the Texas Department of Child Protective Services that she was a victim of neglect.

    CPS didn’t act. And on Feb. 5, 2009, authorities found the girl’s body in a soiled bed.

    Her name was Sarah Brasse.

    It wasn’t so long ago in Texas that you would have had a tough time learning any of those tragic details.

    In fact, according to the state officials in charge of protecting children from abusive adults, you would have had no legal right to even know Brasse’s name.

    And you certainly wouldn’t be able to know the agency missed opportunities to help Brasse.

    But a decade of diligent reporting by three Express-News journalists shined a spotlight of transparency on tragedies involving Brasse and scores of other children in San Antonio, helping the public understand the unfathomable.

  • 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.

    “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.”

  • New web page: Express-News special reports

    Special Reports by the San Antonio Express-News

    Our paper’s web guru, Fernando Ortiz, designed this new web page to showcase some of the best journalism at the San Antonio Express-News. The page offers a list of links to online forums where readers can talk about the stories, and it highlights the most recent project by Todd Bensman about gunrunning in Mexico.

    At a time when the economy is souring and newspapers across the country are offering buyouts to staff or laying them off, it’s nice to show why journalism is worth saving.

    There’s no question newspapers are imperfect. But if it weren’t for newspapers, people wouldn’t be able to read stories like Four Feet Under, the articles by Nancy Martinez that examined the case of every child killed in Bexar County during a yearlong period:

    Today the San Antonio Express-News illuminates the crisis by giving it a human face. Fourteen faces, actually. That’s how many child deaths CPS classified as abuse or neglect in Bexar County in the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2006 — a per-capita fatality rate that ranks third in the state and much higher than the national average.

    We spent 10 months examining the lives and deaths of all 14 children, whose fates ranged from brutal abuse to heartbreaking lapses in judgment by otherwise loving parents, from failings of system to failings of society.

    From sources, police and autopsy records and interviews with dozens of family members, law enforcement officers and child protection officials, there emerged out of the statistics real children. David. Triston. Abigail. Jay. Jose. Ericka. Elijah. Lenny. Brian. Guadalupe. Ruben. Brianna. Braden. Treasure.

    Some of the children were smothered. Three of them drowned. Eight came from families that had a history with CPS.

    Most of the families couldn’t afford funerals or gravestones.

    Here, all in one place for the first time, are those 14 stories, representing a year’s worth of deaths, many heretofore untold. Short lives. Little histories. The big picture, pieced together in a way you’ve never seen before.

    Readers also wouldn’t be able to learn from Lisa Sandberg’s Death by the Pound series, which showed how San Antonio puts 50,000 unwanted pets and animals to death every year:

    Pawing at the rusty crate it shared with three mutts, the big husky howled.

    It must know, Rasiel Galvan mused.

    Galvan is a supervisor at the San Antonio Animal Care and Control shelter, commonly known as the pound. On this humid morning, when the gas chamber was ready for another load, the husky would join a grim processional that this year will send nearly 50,000 cats and dogs to their deaths — more per capita than any other major American city.

    Masked by euphemism and hidden from the public, the ritual of animal euthanasia proceeds unabated every day but Sunday.

    In some ways, what happens in San Antonio is no different from what happens nationwide; dealing with strays and unwanted pets is a pound’s sad mission.

    But nowhere does death cast a longer shadow than at San Antonio’s pound. Simply entering virtually assures an animal’s doom.

    These are stories that need to be told. And it takes time, skill and — yes — money to tell these stories. Without scrutiny, these complicated problems would continue to fester.