Religious Scandals

Case Study: Media Coverage of Religious Scandals in the USA & South Africa


When the media covers scandal, whether political, religious, or other, special considerations must be taken.  Media must not only consider how to report the story, but also how to give voice to victims while still being factual and fair.  Two instances, one in the United States and one in South Africa, serve as detailed case studies of what happens when media cover scandal.


UNITED STATES (2002): “I had a priest coming into my house. I was so blessed, my children were so lucky,” said Maryetta Dussourd of Boston. In the 1970s, Father John Geoghan came to the Dussourd household nearly every night for two years to help put the children to bed. Maryetta Dussourd was only later to learn that as Father Dussourd whispered prayers in her sons’ ears, he would also fondle them.

In all, her three sons and four nephews were molested by the priest. A quarter of a century later, in January 2002, The Boston Globe, a major newspaper in the northeastern United States, broke the news of Geoghan’s abuse in a series of reports.


Michael Paulson, the religion correspondent for the Boston Globe who helped lead the coverage, said, “The Globe was prepared for a flood of criticism from the Catholic faithful.” But just the opposite happened. “In fact, there was this tidal wave of reaction directed not at the Globe but at the church.”

According to The Globe’s research, Geoghan had not only sexually abused 130 victims, one as young as four years old, but church officials were aware of his misconduct. Following the Globe’s coverage of the story, the topic of sexual abuse in the church received coverage from newspapers across the United States including The Dallas Morning News, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Since those first stories, thousands of victims have spoken out. In total, the Catholic Church has paid over $1 billion to victims. Geoghan, 68, was killed on August 23, 2003 by another prisoner in the facility where he was incarcerated.


SOUTH AFRICA (2005): Kaapse Son, a tabloid newspaper in Cape Town, South Africa was not playing a joke on April Fool’s Day when it published a picture of a Dutch Reformed minister, Dominee* Laurie Gaum, playing naked in the surf. The picture was submitted by his lover, Douw Wessels, who accused him of being promiscuous. The two had lived together for four years as a gay couple before Wessels ended the relationship.son

After Kaapse Son’s front page story of Laurie Gaum, the issue of homosexuality erupted into a scandal followed closely by media. In response to the attention, the Dutch Reformed Church appointed a commission to investigate Wessels’s accusations against Rev. Gaum but found no evidence of promiscuity. Nonetheless, the St. Stephen’s Dutch Reformed Church chose to fire Laurie Gaum. The Church gave Gaum an ultimatum—he would be allowed back in the Church only if he committed to celibacy. However, because the Church allows clergy to be in practicing heterosexual relationships, the Church’s decision appeared to some to be hypocritical. Its ultimatum led to much debate in Gaum’s former congregation, within the larger Church community and in the media.

Gaum appealed the decision in order to maintain his position. He won the appeal but is no longer a minister with his former congregation.

* "Dominee" is the title for a reverend in the Dutch Reformed Church.