Skip to main content

Boston Globe reporters Walter Robinson and Mike Rezendes

Boston Globe reporters Walter Robinson and Mike Rezendes. They're part of the investigative staff that broke the story of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The staff has written a new book about the scandal called Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church. In January of 2002, the Globe published a two-part series revealing the details of a decades-long cover-up by the Boston Archdiocese. They told how a pedophile priest had been shuttled from parish to parish, and of the millions of dollars paid to victims to keep the story secret.


Other segments from the episode on February 25, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 25, 2002: Interview with Michael Rezendes and Walter Robinson; Interview with Jeri Laber; Commentary on Fela Kuti.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Michael Rezendes and Walter Robinson discuss their
investigative work for The Boston Globe into the Catholic Church
sexual abuse scandal within the Archdiocese of Boston

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guests are members of The Boston Globe's investigative team which broke the
story that Father John Geoghan sexually abused boys and that Cardinal Bernard
Law covered up the problem by moving Geoghan to new parishes, where he could
still prey on boys. The Globe reporters went on to uncover the larger scandal
within the Boston Archdiocese. Boston remains the epicenter of the pedophile
scandal, but similar problems have been subsequently uncovered in many cities
and in other countries. The Globe's investigative unit, known as the
Spotlight Team, has written a new book called "Betrayal: The Crisis in the
Catholic Church."

My guests are Michael Rezendes, one of the reporters, and Walter Robinson, the
team editor. Their investigation of the church began last summer after
Cardinal Bernard Law, the longtime Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston,
admitted in a court document that 17 years earlier, he had given Reverend John
Geoghan a plum job as a parochial vicar of an affluent suburban parish despite
having been told that Geoghan was alleged to have molested seven boys. The
Globe reporters wanted to know whether the cardinal's action was an anomaly or
part of a larger pattern.

Mr. WALTER ROBINSON (Team Editor, The Boston Globe): The way it started in
August, we had a new editor on board, Marty Baron, who came from The Miami
Herald, published in a state where, as you know, virtually every document is
public. Marty Barron arrived in Boston and began work the end of July, the
day after one of our columnists wrote about the Geoghan case. And she
mentioned in passing, Terry, that all the documents in the lawsuit against the
archdiocese involving all of these Geoghan victims, all the documents were
under a court seal. Marty Barron said, `Well, why is this the case?' And he
called the lawyers in. The lawyers quickly determined that it was in The
Globe's interest to try to intervene in the case and ask that the documents be
made public.

At the same moment, we were asked, the investigative team, to take a look at
the case to see whether it was worth investing the time of the investigative
staff of The Globe, which normally focuses in on corrupt politicians and
mobsters. We spent about three or four days in August looking at the issue,
and instead of coming back with an answer saying, `There's a lot to be written
about the Geoghan case,' we came back with preliminary indications that there
had been a large number of priests involved in similar behavior, that the
archdiocese had made secret settlements with the victims throughout the 1990s
and settlements that the lawyers involved called hush money to keep the extent
of the problem quiet. So that's where we entered the case and decided it was
worth our while because of what appeared to be an extensive problem that had
been covered over.

GROSS: Now how did The Globe challenge the judicial secrecy, challenge the
fact that the judges agreed to impound the sex abuse cases after they were

Mr. MICHAEL REZENDES (Reporter, The Boston Globe): Well, we consulted our
attorneys and we filed a motion challenging the confidentiality order and
saying that because of the public's interest in the issue, the confidentiality
order ought to be lifted. And we also noted that in most cases, discovery
materials are public. It's just part of the normal judicial process. And I
think the argument that our attorneys made is that there shouldn't be any
special consideration in this case. So it was a simple challenge on our part
to the confidentiality order. And ultimately, Superior Court Judge Constance
Sweeney ruled in our favor. favor.

GROSS: What was the church's reaction to The Globe's challenge of the
confidentiality order?

Mr. REZENDES: Well, the church fought the order in court, and the argued
that the constitutional guarantee of a separation of church and state meant
that it wasn't responsible for revealing any of the discovery materials. They
also wrote a letter to The Globe threatening legal action against the
newspaper if we printed any information that was contained in the files, and
also threatening legal action against the paper even if reporters interviewed
priests. So they fought in just about every way they could. They also
refused to answer any of our questions.

GROSS: So you won the suit. And when the documents did become public, what
were some of the greatest revelations in there?

Mr. ROBINSON: The most remarkable thing about the documents--and this made
it into the lead of our first story about them--is that they had virtually no
mention of any of the victims or what had happened to the victims. And the
correspondence involving the cardinal and Father Geoghan was extraordinarily
friendly, `Dear Jack,' `Dear Cardinal Law,' `Jack.' The references are always
euphemistically made; `I hope you're having some success dealing with your
problem.' That sort of language is included in--and as we subsequently
discovered in the cases of other priests, that coddling-type language is
fairly common in the correspondence involving other priests who had the same

GROSS: Now the documents that were released last January weren't just about
the Geoghan case. They were about other priests who had been accused of
sexual abuse as well, yes?

Mr. REZENDES: I think primarily they were about the Geoghan case,
specifically. And they were pretty wide ranging. I think one of the other
things we got from the document was medical records that led us to start
questioning some of the evaluations that had been done of John Geoghan and how
the church handled that aspect of treating priests who had been accused of
sexually abusing minors.

For instance, the records contained a lot of correspondence between the
Institute of Living, which had treated Geoghan, and some church officials.
And, for instance, there was an evaluation that found that Geoghan was a
pedophile in remission, and it had a lot of language, a lot of cautionary
language, about Father Geoghan. And then we found there was a letter from a
bishop back to the Institute for Living saying, `Hey, wait a minute. This is
not the sort of evaluation we agreed on over the telephone. I'm a little
surprised. Can't we do something about this?' And then sure enough, we found
a subsequent letter from the Institute of Living saying it would be all right
to return John Geoghan to active ministry.

But in that first data dump, if you will, those 10,000 pages were really
primarily about John Geoghan. It was after that, as the scandal mushroomed
and all these cases evolved, that we began to get thousands of pages of
additional documents about additional priests, in part through our own efforts
and in part through the many other lawsuits that were filed after we started
writing these stories.

GROSS: When you were writing this story, were you worried about what it would
mean for The Boston Globe to take on this really damning story about the
Catholic Church in a city as Catholic as Boston?

Mr. REZENDES: Terry, I don't know that we were every worried about it to the
extent that it slowed us down. But I think all of us thought long and hard
about what the reaction to the story would be in Boston, the most Catholic
major city in America. It's also a city where the relationship between The
Globe and Catholics has not always been as good as it might be. But I think
we were all pleasantly surprised, I guess, after this story came out. And
instead of being criticized by people who were loyal to the church and devout
Catholics, we found that devout Catholics were grateful for the work that we'd
done. And these were people who I think loved the church and believe that
it's a serious problem and it can only be taken care of if there's some light
shed on it.

Mr. ROBINSON: You know, it...

GROSS: Were there any campaigns against The Globe during the early stages of
your reporting?

Mr. ROBINSON: No, there weren't, Terry. And I have to say I half-expected
the day the first article was published on January 6th that there'd protesters
outside The Globe. What we did with this series, as we've done for a couple
of years, is we published a contact box. If people wanted to talk about this
series or give us information, we had confidential tip lines and e-mail
available. What became almost immediately apparent--we got two kinds of
calls. First were calls from devout Catholics, and many, many of them from
older women who had raised children in the church, who were outraged, not at
The Globe, but at the cardinal and the bishops for letting this go on, for, in
effect, putting their own children at risk.

And the other calls we started to get--and we didn't anticipate this to the
extent it happened--victims began to come forward, to call us, many of
them--most of them men in their 30s, 40s and 50s who had lived with the shame
and the guilt of this abuse for years and years who called us, in some cases,
without ever having told anyone else in their life. Certainly, never told
their parents, hadn't told their siblings and, in a few memorable cases of
people that we interviewed, hadn't even told their spouses. And because of
what was published and the extent of the problem, as the extent of the problem
became clear, more and more people felt emboldened or empowered to come
forward and talk about it.

And many of these cases led to stories, stories about other priests. One in
particular, which personally was painful for me about my alma mater, Boston
College High School, which is a Jesuit high school, involving three priests
there in the late '70s to early '80s who had taken sexual advantage of young
teen-aged boys at the school.

GROSS: Now how did you check out these stories before publishing them?
'Cause I'm sure that there was a certain amount of hysteria that was
generated, too, where people had maybe, like, fake recovered memories about
being abused, or that people were just trying to take advantage of the
scandal. I'm sure most of the calls you got may have been true, but surely
some of them were probably not.

Mr. ROBINSON: There are a couple that stick out in our memory as being
suspicious to us. But first of all, we had done a lot of research before we
published anything and had built our own database of what we would say--what
we would call suspect priests, priests who had been removed from ministry and
placed on the bureaucratic shelf: health leave, awaiting assignment,
unassigned. This was a number of priests over 100 who, in the prime of their
life, had been taken out of parishes in an archdiocese which, like many
others, has a shortage of priests. And when we started to get records and the
names of priests officially, they matched, most often, the names that we had
in our database.

And people would call and say, `Well, I'm calling--I read about Father Geoghan
or Father Shanley, and I want to know if you've ever had any information about
Father so-and-so,' and they'd give us a name. And more often than not it
would match somebody in our files. And we would get calls, often multiple
calls, from people who didn't know each other, who were in different parishes,
who described the same priests and the same modus operandi, the same way the
priests used to lure the boy or, in some cases, the girl into sexual activity.
And these people were very believable. And when we had multiple victims and
other documentation--for instance, we had a list of names of priests against
whom there had been settled cases--when we had all of those ingredients, we
wrote articles about priests.

We tried, and still try, to stay away from the priest du jour model. There
are literally dozens of priests who have not been written about and who are
not in active ministry. And, frankly, at this point, we see no reason to
write about every single priest who allegedly abused children.

GROSS: My guests are Walter Robinson and Michael Rezendes. They're members
of The Boston Globe's investigative team that broke the church pedophilia
scandal and has continued to cover the story. The team has a new book called
"Betrayal." We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Michael Rezendes and Walter
Robinson. They're both on The Boston Globe's Spotlight Team, and this is the
team that investigated the church sexual abuse stories in Boston. Now Boston,
of course, has been, like, the epicenter of this story. They have a new book
called "Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church." The book is by the
investigative staff of The Globe. Michael Rezendes is a reporter for The
Globe and a member of the Spotlight Team. Walter Robinson is the editor of
the team.

Walter Robinson, you mentioned that, I think, a couple of the priests under
suspicion were from your alma mater. Did it make it any more difficult being
a Catholic to be on this story?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, in a sense, it did. I mean, it's painful--this is a
story for which there have been, and will be--there have been no high-fives in
The Globe newsroom or in the Spotlight Team about this story. It's a tragedy.
It's a tragedy if you're a Catholic. It's a tragedy if you're non-Catholic
given the extraordinary role the church plays in secular life as a moral
voice. In some ways, I think--I'm trying to think through the numbers--almost
all of the reporters--virtually all of the reporters who have worked on this
were brought up Catholic, have the benefit of Catholic education.

GROSS: Was that intentional or coincidental?

Mr. ROBINSON: It's coincidental. I think we were a month or two into
reporting this before the four of us, the original four on the team, had a
discussion one day in which we sort of compared personal notes and realized
that all of us had been raised Catholic and, in some cases, attended Catholic
schools. I know I spent 12 years in Catholic schools. And in a way, it
helped us understand more readily the church, because we came from backgrounds
where we grew up at the same time, I would have to say, oblivious to what was
going on, but at the same time that a lot of this illicit sexual activity was

When I got a call from someone who said, `I couldn't tell my parents,' I
understood, because I grew up in a family in which all of us were expected to
attend church, to go to Catholic school. And priests were God's
representatives on Earth, and you never questioned priests. And I can't
imagine if this had ever happened to me, I can't imagine having told my
parents. How would your parents believe that anything like this could happen?
And so when victims came to us and told us how that they had kept this to
themselves, I think we understood it almost--we understood immediately the

GROSS: How popular would you say Cardinal Law was in Boston before the story
broke? What was his reputation in Boston?

Mr. REZENDES: Well, I think he's someone who was perhaps more popular when
he arrived in Boston in '84 than he was, say, a couple of years ago. But I
think there was still, before this story broke, extraordinary deference to the
cardinal, extraordinary respect. He was one of the most influential cardinals
in the country and the world. He had access to President Bush. He was a
leader of the conservative movement within the church. This is a very highly
respected man inside and outside of the Boston Archdiocese.

GROSS: And what about Reverend Geoghan, Father Geoghan? Did he have a high
profile in the city before the sex abuse story broke?

Mr. ROBINSON: No, he was a parish priest who had been in six parishes over
30-some years before he was finally removed in early 1993 from parish duty.
He was well-known within--he was well-liked, as many of these child molesters
are. They have a charismatic air about them. He was well-liked and friendly
and outgoing, as we've heard from many people in parishes where he's served.
All the better or all the easier, then, for him perhaps to lure children and
leave parents in a trusting mood. He was not well-known.

GROSS: How did he lure children? How did he get these private moments with
the kids where he was able to take advantage of them?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, I think one of the things that was most unsettling to
discover was exactly how he operated. And typically, we found that he would
target boys from broken homes or homes where the father was not around or
where there was no father, typically low-income families, typically where a
mother had several children and was struggling to make ends meet, struggling
to make a lot of children on her own and would be very grateful for the
attention of anyone, any male father figure, and even more grateful when that
attention was coming from a priest. So we found that there was actually
something extraordinarily insidious about the way he operated and found his

GROSS: Now you point out in your reporting that a lot of people are very
angry with the church for seemingly having taken better care of the abusive
priests than of the victims, for watching out for the priests more than
watching out for the victims. And one of the examples that you offer is this
letter from Bishop Law to Father Geoghan written in 1996. And it says, `Yours
has been an effective life of ministry sadly impaired by illness. On behalf
of those who you have served well and in my own name, I would like to thank
you. I understand yours is a painful situation. The passion we share can
indeed seem unbearable and unrelenting. We are our best selves when we
respond in honesty and truth. God bless you, Jack.' And again, that's from
Cardinal Law to Father Geoghan, written in 1996.

The reference there to `impaired by illness,' is that a reference, do you
think, to his sexual problem?

Mr. ROBINSON: That is one of the euphemisms used, and, yes, it is a direct
reference--or indirect reference to his molestations.

GROSS: Walter Robinson and Michael Rezendes are members of the investigative
team of The Boston Globe that broke the church abuse sex scandal in
Boston--the sex abuse church scandal in Boston, that is. The team has a new
book called "Betrayal." Rezendes and Robinson will be back in the second half
of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music; funding credits)

GROSS: Coming up, the legacy of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. Milo Miles
reviews some new CDs influenced by his sound. And we meet Jeri Laber, whose
human rights work exposed atrocities in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
He was one of the founders of the group Helsinki Watch, which became Human
Rights Watch.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with reporter Michael
Rezendes and editor Walter Robinson of The Boston Globe's investigative unit
the Spotlight Team. The team broke the story of sexual abuse and its cover-up
in the Boston church, and has continued to pursue the story. The team has
written a new book called "Betrayal."

I want to quote something else, and this is a letter written from a Catholic
psychiatric hospital in Maryland, the St. Luke Institute, after Father
Geoghan stayed there. And their diagnosis included this statement: `It is
our clinical judgment that Father Geoghan has a long-standing and continuing
problem with sexual attraction to prepubescent males. His recognition of the
problem and his insight into it is limited.' What's the significance of that
last part there, `that his recognition of the problem and his insight into it
is limited'?

Mr. REZENDES: I think one of the things that some of the therapists we've
talked to have said about these sexually abusive priests is that they don't
appreciate their own guilt. We spoke with a therapist at the very beginning
of our research who said that when he had a priest in treatment, it was always
considered a big breakthrough when the priest was able to understand the
effects his actions had on the victim.

Mr. ROBINSON: These are, in many cases, emotionally and sexually immature
men who, according to therapists--and this comes through in some of the
documents about Geoghan himself--where their development, both emotionally and
sexually, was arrested when they were 11, 12 or 13 years old when they found
their vocations. They then went through this asexual seminary experience,
where the issue of sexual behavior was never discussed, celibacy was assumed,
and then they were sent out to parishes where they immediately had contact
with a lot of young boys. And some of them began to act out sexually with
boys--they were attracted to boys their own emotional age, 10, 11, 12, 13
years old.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about how this scandal is affecting the
structure of the church. The church has, I think, already paid out a lot of
money to victims who were willing to settle out of court. And the church, I
think, still owes a lot of money to alleged victims. What kind of financial
position is this putting the church in?

Mr. ROBINSON: The Catholic Church has had a lot of trouble raising money
just to fund its own operations. It runs a deficit here every year, and
they're in the midst of a 40 percent cutback in their operating budget, much
of this caused by people not giving now because they're so upset with the
cardinal and the church for this sex abuse crisis. Here in Boston, where
there are many more victims coming forward, there are several hundred people
who have retained lawyers. Those lawyers are now in talks with the
archdiocese about reaching some sort of settlement, which we
believe--insurance would cover some of it, but the archdiocese would probably
be obligated somehow to come up with tens of millions of dollars.

The early indications are that they will not be selling properties such as the
one where the cardinal's residence and headquarters is, and St. John's
Seminary, but that there are going to be cutbacks in programs that affect the
poor which the church has funded. Inner-city, parochial, grammar and high
schools and other social service programs appear to be the most likely targets
for cutbacks.

GROSS: The Catholic Church has been very unbending on issues, including birth
control, abortion, divorce, celibacy for priests, homosexuality, women
priests, and that has been very frustrating for a lot of Catholics who
disagree with the official church stand. Now those Catholics have learned
that the church has covered up the sexual abuse of children by priests. Do
you think that that's going to increase the pressure on the church to change
their point of view on things that they've been unbending on? Because a lot
of people are questioning whether they are as morally correct as the church
has claimed to be. I mean, when you have people in the hierarchy who are
covering up pedophilia, it would be easy for some people to question whether
these people have the authority to say, `You can't use birth control.'

Mr. REZENDES: Well, I think what's happens as a result of this story is that
there are groups on the right and the left and they both have agendas and
they're both using this crisis to further their agenda. There are Catholics
on the left who would say that the scandal shows that celibacy ought to be
reconsidered, that ordaining women ought to be reconsidered. There are those
on the right who would say that the scandal shows that the church has been too
tolerant of gay-oriented people coming into the seminaries and becoming
priests. So I think there's an agenda on both the right and the left that's
being promoted because of this scandal.

At the same time, I think what people are seeing is that whether the questions
are coming from the right or from the left, the church has been pretty
intolerant about debate. It's been pretty unforgiving of people who deviate.
But when it came to priests who sexually abused minors, they were, in fact,
very forgiving. And I think, fundamentally, that's what's bothering Catholics
who are both conservative and liberal.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.

Mr. REZENDES: Sure, my pleasure.

Mr. ROBINSON: Thank you.

GROSS: Walter Robinson and Michael Rezendes of The Boston Globe. They're
part of the investigative staff that has written the new book "Betrayal: The
Crisis in the Catholic Church."

Coming up, a memoir by a human rights activist. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Jeri Laber discusses her career as a human rights
activist and her new memoir, "The Courage of Strangers"

My guest, Jeri Laber, led a reasonably conventional life until the age of 49
when she co-founded the group Helsinki Watch, which later became Human Rights
Watch, the largest human rights group in the US. Laber has written a new
memoir called "The Courage of Strangers: Coming of Age With the Human Rights

Helsinki Watch was started in 1979 to help dissidents in the Soviet Union and
Eastern Europe. Laber met frequently with dissidents and torture victims, and
helped them fight repression in the countries. But meeting with them wasn't
easy because the Soviet Union and its satellite governments didn't allow in
human rights workers.

Ms. JERI LABER (Author, "The Courage of Strangers"): I had to go incognito.
I applied for visas as a tourist. I listed my occupation as housewife. I had
a handful of names of people to look up which I had gotten through various
emigre sources in the West. I had no idea whether they would want to meet
with me or not, whether meeting with me would get them into trouble. I knew I
could not use the telephone or contact them in any way, either before going or
while I was there. And I just sought them out by going on foot without taxis,
which, of course, were bugged, being as inconspicuous as possible and going to
their homes. I would find the address, try to be sure that no one was
following me, knock on a door, hand a piece of paper to the person who
answered with my name and `Helsinki Watch' written on it and then wait to see
what their response would be.

GROSS: Are there certain tricks that you learned to protect the people you
were working with? You were bringing information, you were taking back
information. Let's start with your memory. How good was your memory? What
are the things that you could trust to memorization when you were taking in or
taking out information?

Ms. LABER: I have a good memory, but there was no way I could remember
everything I was hearing. These were new people and new names, cases, lengths
of detention. I had to take notes, and I did take notes. Because I risked
the possibility of having my papers searched when I went back and forth across
borders, I learned that I could write in a script so tiny that I couldn't even
read it myself until I got home, and either put it under a magnifying glass or
enlarged it later on a Xerox machine. So I made my writing as tiny as
possible, and I also coded people's names so that they were not immediately
understandable if someone were to read it. And that kept my notes rather
small and concise.

And I would then usually go into some sort of panic before I was about to
leave the country because `Where am I going to put my notes?' is always the
question. And I would contemplate all kinds of what seemed to me clever ways
of hiding them and usually ended up just rolling them up into a little ball
and putting them in the pocket of my raincoat where my hand was on them,
hoping that if I was searched they would search my belongings rather than my
person, which is what usually what happened.

And on at least one or two occasions when my bags were searched leaving a
country, I noticed that they went to all those clever places I had thought of
like the hollow end of a dental floss container, and so forth. That were the
first places that they looked, so obviously, my instincts were not
particularly original and I was better off taking them out the way I did.

GROSS: So did you sometimes have to hold it in your hand while your baggage
or your clothes were searched?

Ms. LABER: Well, I had that sort of reassuring touch, you know. My hand was
in my pocket, there was a bunch of papers--it was a deep pocket--within reach.
I don't know what I would have done if they had said, `Hold it. Take out your
hands' and gone into my pockets. I don't know if I would have taken them out
with me and thrown them somewhere or just given up to the inevitable. There
was nothing in my notes that would have really gotten anyone into trouble. I
was very careful not to use their names next to their statements. So it was
mainly that I would lose valuable information, which I could then take home
with me, publicize, write about and call attention to the people I was meeting

GROSS: Several of the dissidents who you worked with later became very
important in the post-Communist government. In some cases, they even became
head of state, like Vaclav Havel. You knew him first as a dissident, then he
became the head of the Czech Republic. How did you know Havel? What kind of
work did you do together?

Ms. LABER: I think one of the most memorable events we had was getting
arrested together in October of 1989, just three weeks before the Velvet
Revolution began in Czechoslovakia. I was hauled into a police station
together with a bunch of other members of the Czech Helsinki Committee. None
of us were held too long. After we were released, Havel and I had a long talk
about what would happen in Czechoslovakia, how far off the revolution really
was. None of us knew it was three weeks away. None of us knew that Havel
would be leading it. It was a very special time in history.

And the thing that was special in my recollection was that the reason I got
arrested was because I tried to photograph the police arresting my Czech
friends. And when I took out my camera, they tried to pull it away and ended
up arresting me. And afterwards that evening, some of my Czech friends said
to me, `Now you know. Now you understand how one becomes a dissident in
Czechoslovakia.' Because these people didn't abstractly decide, `I'm going to
be a dissident.' They stood up for a friend who was being arrested. And in
that short moment, I experienced what it was like to try to stand up for
somebody who was a friend and who was being arrested.

GROSS: This wasn't the life you'd planned on. It wasn't until you were in
your 40s, when your marriage was breaking up and your father had lost his
fortune, the fortune you thought you'd inherit, that you started doing human
rights work. How did one thing lead to the other? How did the total
rearranging and changing of your life lead you into human rights work?

Ms. LABER: Well actually, I had become involved in the human rights movement
at a point before my marriage ended and before my father lost his money. So
it was sort of there, but I was working at that point more as a volunteer than
as a paid person. And my major occupation, my major commitment was still to
be a good wife and a good mother and to run my home.

And when things changed and I realized I had to find work, I did actually go
out and find some work in editing and things that did not interest me very
much, but that did pay. And then through a chance encounter with a very
wonderful man named Robert Bernstein, who was actually the founder of the
first chair of Helsinki Watch and then of Human Rights Watch, we began working
to form an organization, as I say, to defend those dissidents in Moscow and in
Prague and Warsaw.

I don't think any of us ever thought it was going to be even a full-time job
for me or for anyone else. I did it because I really cared and I thought I
would try to make money on the side doing things that I found more lucrative
but didn't really care about, but then the movement began to take off. And
before I knew it, I was the executive director of a large and growing human
rights organization that was beginning to be very visible and being taken very
seriously by governments in many parts of the world.

GROSS: At about the time you were scheduled to make a 25-day trip to
Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia, your father was dying and you
were really torn. You know, on the one hand you wanted to be with your
father; on the other hand, this was a very important trip. I'm sure that this
is just a larger version of a typical decision you had to make: when to put
the cause first and when to put the needs of your family first. Among other
things, you're the mother of three children. Let's talk about the specific
decision with your father. How did you make that decision that you would go
on that 25-day trip when you weren't sure that your father would still be
alive when you returned?

Ms. LABER: Well, of all the painful decisions I had to make between family
and work--and there were many, as you say--I think the one I regret the most
was having taken that trip at the time that I did. I was new in the
professional world. I was under the impression that one didn't bring personal
matters into the workplace. I was the only woman at that time in a world of
men who seemed to keep their personal lives out of it, and I thought it would
be unseemly for me to say, `I cannot go now. My father is on his death bed.'

So instead, I spoke to his doctor. The doctor assured me that he would be OK,
that he was not declining that fast, and I decided to go. As it turned out,
he died the night I returned, and I have never really forgiven myself for
having missed being with him at a time when I think he really needed me.

GROSS: I think, you know, something that makes it particularly difficult when
you're in the human rights movement, to make those decisions between family
and the work, is that the work is about saving lives.

Ms. LABER: Absolutely.

GROSS: So, you know, your weighing, `Well, should I try to help save these
lives or do I help my three children or do I be with my father on his death
bed?' And I could see guilt and torn feelings and agony no matter which way
you turn.

Ms. LABER: Well, you're right. I mean, speak to my children. They'll tell
you. But, you know...

GROSS: Well, what do you think they would tell me?

Ms. LABER: Well, I think they would tell you that they are very proud of me,
that they really value the work that I've done, but they will also say that I
really was not there for them at some very critical moments in their lives,
you know. And I didn't always make it to the hospital when the baby was born,
I wasn't always there to lend an ear when a marriage was breaking up, or just
to be around as a good mom as I would have liked to have been and as I had

In a way, I think it was easier for me than it is for young women starting out
today because I had two lives. You know, my first life, my first marriage,
you know, I had interests, but I was basically committed to my family. And so
that when my children were young, I was there for them. The problems started
later on, and they were already in high school and college at the time that my
work began. But their needs were great at that time, too, and I think I
tended to tell myself, `Well, they're growing up. They don't need me as much.
This is time for me to do things, other things, and to try to make some sort
of contribution to the world besides to my family.'

GROSS: Have you remained close to any of the dissidents that you worked with
during the Communist years?

Ms. LABER: I have, and that's been a very gratifying thing for me. In the
year 2001, I believe it was, I received a medal from President Havel on the
Czech Republic's National Day in honor of the work I had done during the
Communist days. The Czechs and many of the other dissidents I worked with
really do remember and they remember their friends, and I've had very touching
little cards and visits from people who, to this day, are still saying,
`Thanks for what you did,' even though things had progressed tremendously in
this country since then.

GROSS: How would you compare the techniques that you used to work for human
rights when Helsinki Watch started to the techniques that the human rights
movement is using today?

Ms. LABER: To me, the techniques of the human rights movement today are very
much more sophisticated than they were at the beginning. We use pressure
through governments, through international bodies like the International
Monetary Fund or the World Bank, through international corporations. We try
to use leverage in any way we can to get governments to respond to where their
economic interests lie. It's no longer enough to just try to shame them by
pointing out what they do. They have ways of covering that up.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. LABER: Thank you.

GROSS: Jeri Laber's new memoir is called "The Courage of Strangers: Coming
of Age With the Human Rights Movement."

Coming up, music critic Milo Miles on the legacy of the late Nigerian
performer Fela Kuti. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Musical legacy of Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti found in
recent recordings

It's been five years since the death of Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti. Music
critic Milo Miles says Fela's music is finally being revived here, and even
former band members in groups that echo Fela's afrobeat are finding a place.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FELA KUTI: (Singing in foreign language)

MILO MILES reporting:

At the height of Fela Kuti's powers in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Nigerian
band leader and creator of the sound known as afrobeat was a star in Africa,
but a cult figure in America, trailing far behind activist musicians like Bob
Marley. When he died in 1997, it seemed Fela's legacy might be his tragic
denial that he had AIDS. In the past couple of years, though, Fela's sound
got famous. Now that James Brown and George Clinton are overplayed, Fela is
the current hot legacy of funk. More of his albums have been released here
than ever before. But an even more certain sign of success is that a couple
of Fela spin-offs are thriving.

One of them is a literal spin-off, and by all accounts, the co-creator of
afrobeat, drummer Tony Allen, who long ago was the first major defection from
Fela's band. Allen has made a number of solo albums over the years, but the
one that most clearly demonstrates his pure power is a collection of mixes
released under the name "The Allenko Brotherhood Ensemble." You should play it
the next time someone doubts the importance of a drummer to a group's sound.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Making merry music. Making merry music.

(Soundbite of music)

MILES: "The Allenko Brotherhood Ensemble" is simply a dozen tracks
constructed around drum patterns laid down by Allen. None of the groups who
did the constructing are big names, many of them appear to be from Europe, not
a hot bed of funk, but none of that matters. What matters is that all of them
are wise enough to stay in the background decorating Allen's ever-shifting
accents until they dart forward with a quick rap or keyboard solo to set up
more of Allen's hypnosis. The album keeps right on flowing and the impression
is that all "The Elanko Brotherhood" are talented, but there's just one big
talent pulling the strings.

For a true group effort on Fela's legacy, you have to turn to an outfit called
Antibalas, or Bulletproof. Antibalas was formed in the Bronx from a Nigerian
band who did afrobeat and several local New York musicians. The group
includes 14 members, almost big enough for one of Fela's own outfits. Until
now, a real limitation of Afro-beat seemed to be that other bands could borrow
from it for a cut or two, but never use it as a foundation without being mere
imitation. But Antibalas' second album, "Talkatif," finally takes Fela's
sound where it might have gone if he hadn't stopped adding influences about a
decade before he died.

(Soundbite of music)

MILES: One improvement is that Antibalas now understands it's better at jams
than protest rhetoric. The crucial added ingredient is New York itself:
salsa, hip-hop, newer jazz, maybe a dab of artsy rock. Instead of afrobeat,
call it Afro-diaspora beat.

The revival of all things Fela has also increased interest in Nigerian
overall, a welcomed development since prominent Nigerian modes have always
been easy on Western ears. The new "Rough Guide to the Music of Nigeria &
Ghana" presents a charming and surprising overview. Sweet and spacious, a
number of tracks on the "Guide to Nigeria and Ghana" suggest superior
ancestors of styles like trip-hop and acid jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group #1: (Singing in foreign language)

MILES: There's no Fela on the "Rough Guide to Nigeria," though Tony Allen
does appear, and the emphasis is on the venerable mode called high life, with
its swaying rhythms and lots of twinkling guitars. Nigerian high life could
follow Fela into the fashionable circle. It won't be the next funk craze, but
it's still a bushel of beauty.

GROSS: Critic Milo Miles played music from "The Allenko Brotherhood Ensemble"
and Antibalas and the "Rough Guide to the Music of Nigeria & Ghana."

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing in foreign language)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.


This Romanian film about immigration and vanishing jobs hits close to home

R.M.N. is based on an actual 2020 event in Ditrău, Romania, where 1,800 villagers voted to expel three Sri Lankans who worked at their local bakery.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue