The AP was the first media outlet to conclude that review boards across the country, hailed by the Catholic Church as a key reform, were routinely failing victims of sex abuse.

In addressing its clergy sex abuse crisis, the Catholic church has touted a key reform: independent review boards with lay people. 

 But an exhaustive investigation by the AP team of Reese Dunklin, Dallas; Matt Sedensky, New York; and Mitch Weiss, Charlotte, N.C., methodically discredited that claim. 

They checked all the roughly 180 dioceses in the U.S. for information, reviewed thousands of pages of church and court records, and interviewed more than 75 abuse survivors, board members and others. The team found and documented how bishops held the reins of power at every stage, from picking board members, to screening the evidence they saw, to choosing whether to accept the boards’ recommendations. 

In one of their most important findings, the reporters unearthed dozens of cases nationwide in which review boards rejected complaints from survivors, only to have them later validated by secular authorities. They also found that bishops stacked the boards with their own aides and attorneys. In a few cases, board members were themselves clergy accused of sexual misconduct. 

The rock-solid reporting was brought alive by the storytelling, with great details down to the pink sweater one board member was knitting while listening to a survivor’s story of abuse. Dunklin, Sedensky and Weiss handled the cases with great sensitivity, given the difficult subject. 

The story received impressive play, landing on Axios’ top 10 for the day and averaging more than two minutes of reader engagement. 

One day after the story was published, SNAP, the preeminent group for clergy abuse survivors, held a news conference in Kansas City, Missouri, pushing for changes by both the Catholic church and state lawmakers. That conference was addressed in part to Kansas City’s bishop, the just-chosen head of the church’s U.S. national abuse board. 

Sedensky also heard from a survivor, Katie Bowman, who said, “Thank you and the entire team! Well done! You helped in the healing process, you and the entire team should be proud.”

For their comprehensive investigation into the Catholic church’s deeply flawed system for addressing claims of abuse, Dunklin, Sedensky and Weiss earn this week’s Best of the States award.