By Josie Logsdon
Emily Schwing sat by the radio crying moments before her story broke the air in December 2018. Her 19-month investigation on a scandal in the Catholic Church was about to become public. She questioned every bit of information in that story.
“I just hope I got it right,” she thought.
Schwing’s investigation proved the theory that the Church used Native communities as “dumping grounds” for problem priests.
Schwing worked at the NPR office in Washington DC out of college. While she enjoyed her time there, she knew she wanted to get out of the office and report on the field.
The recession hit shortly after in 2008, so Schwing decided to go to the University of Alaska Fairbanks to get her master’s degree in environmental science. She wanted to write stories on national resource management and climate change in the far north.
Around this time, stories started coming out about sexual harassment cases by priests in western Alaska.
“It was always in my peripheral vision,” Schwing said, “But I never paid too much attention to the details.”
Her degree took her around the world, from Germany to Idaho. Eventually, she took the job as a news director at KNOM in Nome, AK in 2016. It was one of the only stations in western Alaska, and she wanted to report out there.
“I had some reservations because of the station’s affiliate with the Catholic Church,” she said. KNOM was founded by James Poole, a Jesuit priest.
Schwing enjoyed her time at the station. She grew the team and initiated projects. But she always knew something was “off.”
After less than a year at KNOM, Schwing moved to Spokane, Washington. Within a few months, she discovered that Poole was living in the Cardinal Brea House on the Gonzaga campus. That suspicious finding sparked her investigation in collaboration with Reveal News.
She was pointed to the Catholic Directory, a big, red book that resided on campus. Schwing looked up Poole and traced his addresses backward by year. She did this with every other priest in the directory.
It was a tedious process; Schwing took a photo of each page in the directory, typed every name into a Word document and transferred the information to a spreadsheet for 20 years worth of information. She cross-referenced her data with the Jesuit Catalogue for accuracy, and then searched the names in the Bishop Accountability website. The website is the main source for priests with allegations of sexual misconduct.
The numbers were shocking. Schwing found that at least 20 Jesuit priests with credible sexual abuse accusations had lived on Gonzaga’s campus since 1986. Across Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, 80% of 92 accused Jesuit priests worked in indigenous communities at some point in their careers, a rate that is 3.6 times higher than anywhere in the US. More than 100 indigenous communities were impacted in the region.
This was the beginning of Schwing’s data trail. She found sources to help her navigate the Catholic Church. An ex-priest helped translate Latin documents and navigate Canon Law. Other sources led her to letters that were sent all the way to Rome regarding Poole. In each step of the investigation, Schwing uncovered scandal and misconduct in the Church.
Poole, the founder of KNOM, abused at least 20 women and girls – some as young as six years old, and many worked for the station. More explicit details about other priests arose. It was all written down – all known by the superiors of the Church.
Elsie Boudreau became the spokeswoman for many of the women in Native communities that were affected by priests’ misconduct. She worked at KNOM with Schwing. She was a victim of Poole’s abuse.
“I knew you were coming,” Boudreau told Schwing, “and when I met you, I knew it was you who had to tell the story.”
Schwing took her former coworker’s comment seriously.
“Coming from a leader of the Alaska Native community, that was really meaningful,” she said. “This story chose me.”
There was a lot that was hidden in darkness before this story. Schwing said that while Poole’s story – and others similar to his – was known, people kept quiet out of shame, embarrassment or respect for the Church.
“I know for a fact that every single person I worked with at KNOM knew this story,” Schwing said. Today, the station denies that they were even founded by the priest.
This story caused backlash on the station. Schwing said she regrets that she hurt people that she otherwise respected, but her job as a reporter was to tell the truth.
“People are always mad at reporters,” she said, “but I call it fan mail.”
A Catholic priest told Schwing that she didn’t get some things right in the story. When she asked him to clarify, he said it wasn’t worth “splitting hairs.”
“Then why bring it up?” she asked. “I’m never gonna be able to tell this story as a Catholic priest, but I did the best I could.”
Aside from the tedious investigation, deciding how to write the story about priests and Native women was one of the biggest challenges for Schwing because she would never know what it’s like to live those lives.
Schwing had reported tribal affairs over the years and respected the Alaska Natives and Native Americans. She could only report the story as a “white lady,” she said, and do her best to give the Native women a voice.
Schwing was disappointed in the public response to this story. Many blew over the fact that hundreds of Native communities were affected and paid more attention to the priests living on the Gonzaga campus. She believes this shows how discrimination toward minorities is instilled in our country – especially in the media.
Schwing has since moved back to Alaska and regularly produces stories on Arctic research, science and resource development. While this investigative story was outside her intended beat, she put forth the effort and learned how to navigate an unfamiliar organization. Schwing said any investigative story will take longer than you think it will.
“You’ll wanna give up,” she said, “but it’s at those times you get these information bombs in your email or your voicemail.” Patience and diligence are crucial in investigative journalism.