The Pope’s Long Con

Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, Louisville Public Media

Working off a tip from a trusted source, reporter R.G. Dunlop and his colleagues Jacob Ryan and Laura Ellis at the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered an incredible story about a local politician with a glorified past akin to Forrest Gump. Rep. Dan Johnson was a colorful character who called himself “the Pope” in the community where he also operated a church. Over seven months, the team tracked down people around the country and in Johnson’s hometown of Bastrop, Louisiana, to cunduct interviews and research his claims. A trail of lies and fabrications led them to file public record requests that revealed criminal behavior, including allegations of sexual assault by a teenaged family friend and church member. After confirming the woman’s willingness to come forward, the team launched a 10,000-word web story, a radio serial, and its first-ever podcast. Johnson refused to go on record and then began threatening reporters with a lawsuit. His credibility in question, leadership of both political parties in the state called for him to step down. The story veered into uncharted territory for any news organization when Johnson posted a suicide note on Facebook and committed suicide shortly thereafter, but the reporters still managed to close out the story thoughtfully and sensitively. As news and politics become dangerously suffused with bluster, “The Pope’s Long Con” deserves recognition for cutting through that bluster and Johnson’s extravagant claims of ministering to multiple presidents, 9/11 first-responders, and Los Angelenos during the city’s riots. For demonstrating the importance of checks and balances and proper vetting, and for tenacious local journalism, “The Pope’s Long Con” wins a Peabody Award.


Reporters/Producers:Producer: Laura Ellis. Editors: Brendan McCarthy, Erica Peterson, Stephen George. Creative Director: Sean Cannon. Scoring: Kevin Ratterman at La La Land Sound. Theme Song: “Seventh Son” by Willie Dixon; recorded by Ratterman and featuring Louisville’s own Patrick Hallahan, Alex Wrinkle, Scott Carney and Otis Jr., with backing vocals from Hannah Sexton and Savannah Ecklar.