AP reporters dug up deleted documents and worked with sources to reveal Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s deep ties to a charismatic religious group, despite their refusals to discuss whether she is a member.
When President Donald Trump nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Barrett and her supporters clearly did not want to discuss the nominee’s ties to a religious group called People of Praise, despite news reports over the years that said she was a member.
Enter Providence, Rhode Island, reporter Michelle Smith and national investigative reporter Michael Biesecker. The pair documented Barrett's deep ties to the charismatic Christian group and painted a detailed picture of the organization’s beliefs and practices from its early days to the present.
The day after the original story ran, Biesecker followed up with another exclusive detailing how the organization had systematically deleted all mentions of Barrett and her family from its website.
For the stories, Biesecker spent days combing through the People of Praise web site looking for information on Barrett's involvement, in hopes of getting a greater understanding of the potential justice’s approach to the law and what her views may be on crucial issues likely to go before the court. But her name was missing, even though a handful of news reports over the years said she was a member.
Biesecker had a breakthrough when he began examining blog entries on the group’s website and digital copies of its internal magazine. He soon noticed that selected back issues appeared to be missing. Using the Wayback Machine, a digital archive, Biesecker was able to access the missing magazines, which the group had deleted from its site two years ago when Barrett first emerged on Trump’s shortlist of potential Supreme Court nominees. The deleted materials included extensive mentions of Barrett and her family, allowing Biesecker to document that her father was a high-ranking official in the male-dominated group and her mother was a “handmaid,” the term used for the women entrusted with spiritually counseling female members.
Meanwhile, Smith focused on building a spreadsheet that included the names of more than 80 current and former members of the group culled from the group’s publications, social media accounts and other sources. Though most refused to comment or didn’t respond to messages, Biesecker and Smith were able to get five on-the-record interviews, including former members who recounted the group’s fundamentalist interpretation of scripture to enforce a culture of female subjugation, as well as the use of practices such as praying in tongues to cast out evil spirits.
Biesecker also landed an exclusive interview with Barrett's father, a longtime leader of People of Praise, while Smith had an in-depth on-the-record interview with a current female member of People of Praise, the culmination of a negotiation that lasted an entire day after the group tried several times to put unacceptable restrictions on the interview, such as quote approval. The AP refused those terms.
The interviews and the mountain of documentation put AP out front with exclusive quotes and details about People of Praise ahead of Barrett’s Senate confirmation hearings, where questions about her faith and its very traditional views on the role of women are likely to become a flash point.
On-the-record interviews and a mountain of documentation put AP out front with details of the group and Barrett’s deep ties.
AP’s tweet featuring the story of Barrett’s ties to the group was retweeted more than 10,000 times and the apnews.com link was widely shared on social media, including by other high-profile journalists who declared it a must-read.
Still, the AP pair wasn’t done. Days later they reported on an older directory for the South Bend, Indiana, branch of People of Praise, listing Barrett herself as a handmaid – a title that the group recently changed to “woman leader.”
For deep, resourceful reporting that sheds new light on the current Supreme Court nominee as confirmation hearings are set to begin, Smith and Biesecker share this week’s Best of the States award.