How two Times-Picayune journalists reported ‘The Long Road’ series on sex abuse
(Jennifer Halter places her hands on the gates at the New Bethany Home For Girls property in December. Photo by Kathleen Flynn, NOLA.com l The Times-Picayune)
For decades, Jennifer Halter has lived with painful memories of her time at the New Bethany Home for Girls — a Louisiana boarding school for wayward youth.
It was there — a religious school that was supposed to help young girls — where Halter says she was raped as a child.
Halter, 39, could have kept her story hidden among all of the other unreported sex abuse cases. But she decided to be brave.
Images & Voices of Hope talked with Catalanello and Flynn about their four-part series, “The Long Road,” to find out how they reported it and what they learned.
COVERING THE JOURNEY
In December, Catalanello and Flynn drove from New Orleans to Shreveport, La., to meet Halter, who is dying of a rare condition called histiocytosis x. She was there reuniting with other women from New Bethany who wanted to help her fulfill her dying wish to report Mack Ford — the man she has accused of rape. Ford, now 82, is the founder and former pastor of New Bethany.
Flynn had already built a rapport with Teresa Frye, one of the women who attended New Bethany and told her about the reunion.
“We connected through Alexandra Zayas, who I worked with on ‘In God’s Name’” — an award-winning Tampa Bay Times series about child abuse at unlicensed religious homes, Flynn said. “Through working on the project, Alex made contacts throughout many support groups for ‘survivors’ of these religious boarding homes. Teresa messaged Alex about New Bethany, who then connected me with Teresa.”
Flynn talked with her editors about New Bethany several times and pitched different story angles. It was hard to generate interest, though, because New Bethany had been closed for years and wasn’t in the Times-Picayune’s coverage area. When her editors heard about the Shreveport reunion, though, they became more interested and encouraged her to pursue the story.
While in Shreveport, Catalanello and Flynn spent days talking with the women and building their trust. Catalanello interviewed them, while Flynn took photographs and shot video. Of all the women, Halter took the longest to open up.
“She kept disappearing; it was like herding cats,” Catalanello said by phone. Eventually, Halter came back to the hotel room, sat down, closed her eyes, and shared her story.
She talked for hours.
“It was most detailed stream of memory that I’ve ever heard,” Catalanello recalls. “I’ve never had an interview like that. [Jennifer] remembered it like it was yesterday. It was so real that every sentence that came out of her mouth was steeped in this pain, as if it had happened moments ago.”
While much of their reporting focused on Halter, Catalanello and Flynn also profiled the women who accompanied her — some of whom had also been abused at the school, which closed in 2001.
Catalanello didn’t get the sense that the women were afraid to tell their stories. Rather, she says, they were afraid that no one would believe them.
“They all seemed humbled in a way by the fact that we actually wanted to hear what they had to say. I think because of the things they have been through, they’re accustomed to being disregarded, to being told that what they have to say doesn’t matter,” Catalanello said. “It seems like they all have a little bit of fight in them because they expect that somebody’s just going to say, ‘Yeah, but…’ Certainly I did ask a fair amount of questions about details of things, and I asked some ‘Yeah, but…’ questions, but I think we made it clear from the onset that we were completely open to listening.”
The more time Flynn and Catalanello spent with the women, the more comfortable they became.
“I think that they grew to trust us just because we did stick around for so long,” Catalanello said. “We didn’t orchestrate their days together; we didn’t orchestrate their conversations; we didn’t force them to do things … we didn’t ask them to stand in the corner and smile. Mostly, we were observing.”
The parallels in the women’s stories were striking; those who had been abused remained haunted by the experience. Some, who waited years before talking about their abuse, had turned to drugs and alcohol to temporarily ease the pain. Some had tried committing suicide. Others ended up in a vicious cycle of abusive relationships.
Catalanello interviewed child sex abuse expert Jeffrey Dion, who said it’s not uncommon for children who were sexually abused to wait decades before sharing their story. Sometimes, he said, they try blocking out what happened and don’t make the connection between their destructive behaviors and their abuse until later in life.
“By the time adults work up the courage to report their abuse to authorities, if they ever do, they can find themselves besieged with mixed emotions including outrage, guilt, sadness, anger and vulnerability,” Dion told Catalenello. “That’s why false allegations of old abuse are really quite rare. … Because it’s not a pleasant thing to deal with. Oftentimes, survivors will do everything they can to get on with their lives and avoid making their report.”
MEETING MACK FORD
After some initial difficulty, Halter met with a police detective and filed her report against Ford. She then told the other women that she felt compelled to visit New Bethany.
“I need to see if I can let it go,” she said.
Flynn drove with some of the women to the school so she could capture their reactions on video. Catalanello drove solo, taking note of the barbed wire fences that lined the school property. As they turned onto Hiser Road, they spotted Ford sitting in a nearby Kubota truck.
“That’s him!” one of the women yelled. Halter looked at him from a distance, reflected on all the bad memories from the school, and said “I’m done.”
After the women left, Catalanello and Flynn knew they needed to try talking with Ford. Their hearts raced as they walked down the public road toward him. Flynn stood in front of Catalanello — to protect her in case something happened. The two journalists, who have worked together for years, are best friends.
“We had been listening to those stories of trauma for days, hours and hours, and we at that point were somewhat traumatized,” Catalanello said. “We had been living and breathing these horrific stories they were telling us, and here’s this man at the end of the road who [the women] say was responsible for much of this. We were terrified.”
Ford didn’t want to talk. “What do y’all want? What do you need? Are y’all going to Hell or are you going to Heaven?” he asked Catalanello and Flynn, who captured the interaction on audio.
“He had done some talking to the media over the years and so I thought maybe he’d be willing to do it again,” Catalanello said. “When we approached him, maybe he felt threatened by our presence. We tried to make it clear that we just wanted to sit down and talk with him — but he was very clear that he didn’t want us there, and he was concerned we were there to cause trouble.”
He gave them the name of his attorney and never did confirm his identity.
But when Flynn showed the women a photo of the man, they confirmed it was Ford. Catalanello also confirmed his identity with relatives and law enforcement officials.
“I wanted to triple check and quadruple check,” she said.
WORKING THROUGH THE TOUGH PARTS TOGETHER
Catalanello and Flynn relied on each other for support while reporting the story. Flynn had been hoping all along that Catalanello would work with her on it.
The two had reported on Hurricane Katrina together and both worked at the Tampa Bay Times together before ending up at the Times-Picayune.
“I just felt really comfortable with the idea of having Rebecca with me. It gave me more confidence going into it knowing she would be there,” Flynn said. “I knew she would take it as seriously as I would; I knew she would be sensitive.”
Flynn and Catalanello agreed that this wasn’t a story they wanted to rush through. They wanted time to report it thoroughly and fairly, and knew that rushing it would have been emotionally taxing.
“It was literally one of most intense weekends of my life,” Flynn said of the trip to Shreveport. “It was pretty traumatic. When I first got home I thought, ‘the production of this is going to be harder than the actual experience.’ Working with video can be more traumatizing because you’re sitting and listening to it for hours over and over again.”
She says it was helpful to take breaks, talk with Catalanello, and not feel pressured to meet a strict deadline.
Catalanello said one of her biggest challenges was figuring out how to turn all her pages of notes and hours of audio into a cohesive story. Flynn gave her some sound advice: Call Lane DeGregory.
Catalanello used to work with DeGregory, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who’s known for her longform narrative writing. She talked with DeGregory for an hour to figure out how to structure her story, what to include, and what to leave out. DeGregory suggested she tell the story through the eyes of one main character — Jennifer Halter — and write sidebars that included information about the other women.
“That conversation with Lane, who is the most gifted and amazing storytelling of our time, shaped my ability to tell Jennifer’s story,” said Catalanello, who was also grateful for NOLA.com | Times-Picayune editors who let her pursue the story. “It would have been easy for them to have said no in the current news environment. But the editors believed in the value of this story and they gave us the time to do it.”
SEEKING REACTIONS, IMPACT
When Flynn finished the series’ main video, she decided to show it to the women before publishing it.
“I wanted them to see it because it was such sensitive subject matter; they made themselves incredibly vulnerable by sharing their stories on video, and I wanted them to be 100% comfortable with what was going to be shown to the world,” Flynn said. “Because if they didn’t approve, and it went out everywhere, it could end up being a trauma in and of itself.” They ended up loving the video and the written story, she said.
Some of the women even took part in a live chat on NOLA.com Monday. Joined by Flynn and Catalanello, they talked about their experiences and answered readers’ questions.
Both Flynn and Catalanello hope “The Long Road” series will encourage others who have been sexually abused to step forward. They also hope it will create greater awareness about the challenges associated with reporting rape — especially reports from troubled youth and adults who don’t speak out until later in life.
“The defense that you hear or that you read in the clips about New Bethany and other schools like this over and over again is that you can’t give credibility to the statements of these children because they come from terrible homes,” Catalanello said. “Well, these ‘un-credible children’ from ages ago are now adults, and they’re less willing to be considered un-credible witnesses to their own abuse. … They need to be listened to, and their claims need to be investigated.”
Disclosure: The writer of this piece is friends with Flynn and Catalanello.