ABC News Investigative Unit Wins Polk Award for Peace Corps Probe

PHOTO: Kate PuzeyPlayCourtesy Puzey Family
WATCH Home Video of Peace Corps Volunteer Before Murder

The Brian Ross Investigative Unit has won a 2011 George Polk Award for a year-long investigation of the murder of Peace Corps volunteer Kate Puzey, and of an alleged "blame the victim" culture within the Peace Corps in which whistleblowers were not protected and women were made to feel responsible for being sexually assaulted.

Brian Ross, producer Anna Schecter and the investigative team were honored for an investigation that began as a three-part "20/20" report and culminated in a new federal law protecting Peace Corps whistleblowers and assault victims. Members of Congress credited the ABC News reports with spurring the new law and forcing change within the Peace Corps.

WATCH the original ABC News report.

READ full coverage of the Peace Corps investigation.

"We're pleased that this very important story was recognized with one of the most prestigious awards in journalism," said Brian Ross. "We hope it brings attention to the Kate Puzey case, and to the treatment of female Peace Corps volunteers. I'd like to commend the members of the investigative team for their work, and I'd especially like to thank the Puzey family for all their help over these many months."

"It's an amazing honor," said Lois Puzey, mother of Kate. "It's good to know she's done as much good in her death as she did in her life. We've been able to see something good come out of such an horrific tragedy. We're thankful to ABC for believing in our story and telling it so beautifully."

Kate Puzey, a 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer from Atlanta, was murdered in Benin, West Africa in 2009 after telling superiors she believed a fellow Peace Corps employee was molesting female students. A supposedly confidential email Puzey sent to her superiors wound up in the hands of the employee's brother. Days later, Kate was dead.

In their first on-camera interviews, Kate Puzey's parents told ABC News in January 2011 about the ways in which they believed the Peace Corps had failed their daughter. Lois and Harry Puzey said they felt the agency set her up to be murdered by revealing her role in the teacher's dismissal.

The ABC News investigation that ensued uncovered internal Peace Corps reports documenting hundreds of cases rape and sexual assault among volunteers. Victims appeared on camera to describe a culture in which they said they were made to feel responsible for their own assaults and were offered little counseling to overcome the trauma.

Less than two weeks after the initial "20/20" broadcast in January 2011, Congress began to look into the Peace Corps' handling of assault victims and whistleblowers.

In June, Rep. Poe and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., introduced the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act to the House and Senate. The bill was designed to require the agency to improve the training of volunteers to reduce sexual assault risk, to protect whistleblowers, and to require the Peace Corps to hire victims' advocates for each region the agency serves. The bill passed both the House and the Senate without a single dissenting vote, and was signed into law by President Obama on Nov. 21.

The Ross Unit's Polk Award recognizes the contributions of Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross, Chief Investigative Producer Rhonda Schwartz, "20/20" Executive Producer David Sloan, Producer Anna Schecter, Field Producer Angela Hill, Digital Managing Editor Mark Schone, Cameraman Craig Matthew and editors Tom Marcyes and Jack Pyle.

Polk Winners Include Anthony Shadid, Sara Ganim

This year's other Polk winners include Sara Ganim, crime reporter for The Patriot News in Harrisburg, Pa., who broke the story of child sex abuse allegations against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, and New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid, who died on assignment last week while crossing from Turkey into Syria. Shadid, a two-time Pulitzer Price winner and a 2003 Polk winner, will receive a posthumous award for extraordinary valor. Bloomberg News, al Jazeera, the New York Times, the New Yorker, California Watch, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, "This American Life," and the Advertiser Democrat weekly newspaper of Maine also won awards.

"There was a strong field of contenders this year, especially in investigative work," said John Darnton, curator of the Polk Awards. "It was a big year for news with the Arab Spring and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and reporters from many news organizations went behind the headlines to search for underlying causes and trends."

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The Polk Awards have been conferred annually for 63 years to honor special achievement in journalism. The awards were established in 1949 by Long Island University to commemorate George Polk, a CBS correspondent murdered in 1948 while covering the Greek civil war.

The 2011 awards will be presented formally at a luncheon in Manhattan on April 5.

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