People Issue 2016: Madeleine Baran, the reporter

This Minnesota Public Radio journalist broke one of the state's most important stories of this decade.

This Minnesota Public Radio journalist broke one of the state's most important stories of this decade.

The City Pages People Issue celebrates ordinary folks who do extraordinary things. Though their triumphs are rarely acknowledged, they make the Twin Cities a better place.

Madeleine Baran's phone rings. She wasn't expecting a call, but this one will take over her life, and the lives of many others, for the next two years.

The woman on the other end, Jennifer Haselberger, is a former high-ranking official within the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul. It takes just a few minutes for Baran, a reporter with Minnesota Public Radio, to realize that if what Haselberger says is true, the local Catholic church had been involved in a cover-up of sexual abuse by priests that lasted decades.

It was all true, and then some. Baran pursued the complicated tale, peeling back its layers, each one darker and more rotten than the next.

Baran knifed through stacks of court records detailing abuses, occasionally taking breaks from reading the most upsetting passages. She interviewed victims, then their abusers, asking how their superiors in the church let them get away with it. On a trip to Louisiana, she undid the myth of former archbishop Harry Flynn, whose lies about meeting with victims' families and reforming church practices were believed by Minnesota media.

In the end, Baran's reporting implicated three archbishops in the conspiracy. The last, John Nienstedt, resigned in June, just days after criminal and civil legal filings were brought against him. For their exhaustive efforts, Baran and MPR shared a Peabody Award, the most prestigious accolade in radio.

But it's the other, equally unexpected phone calls Baran got that mean most to her. After the investigation aired, abuse victims from across the state started calling. There were hundreds of them. Some were men who hadn't told anyone, not even their wives of 50 years. They weren't demanding justice. They just needed someone to listen.

"I'm genuinely honored that someone would tell me that — that I would be that person," Baran says as her voice catches in her throat.

The lesson to be learned, she thinks now, is about the lengths some will go to protect the culture and institutions they need to believe in. It happened at Penn State. It's happened in the military, in police forces. Through willful ignorance, and conviction, people can elevate institutions above anything — even the well-being of a child.

Says Baran, "It takes somebody working in that institution to say, 'Enough is enough. I know the difference between right and wrong.'"

They will know who to call.

Click here to read the rest of our People Issue 2016 profiles.