The Boston Globe Spotlight Investigation: Sexual Abuse by Priests in the Catholic Church, 2002

Members of the Spotlight Team: Walter V. Robinson, Editor. Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Matt Carroll. Other investigative reporters: Stephen Kurkjian, Kevin Cullen, and Thomas Farragher. Religion reporter: Michael Paulson. The Boston Globe Spotlight Investigation: Abuse in the Catholic Church. The Boston Globe, 6 January 2002-14 December 2002. The Boston Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service “for its courageous, comprehensive coverage of sexual abuse by priests, an effort that pierced secrecy, stirred local, national and international reaction and produced changes in the Roman Catholic Church.” Between January 2002 and March 2003, The Boston Globe published more than 900 news stories about the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

Winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service.

Winner of the 2002 George Polk Award for National Reporting
for exposing the “widespread sexual abuse by priests as well as the questionable way in which Church officials handled the matter.”

Winner of the 2002 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism.

Winner of the 2003 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting.

Update: The film ‘Spotlight’ won the Oscar for best picture on 28 February 2016. A. O. Scott’s review in The New York Times was published on 5 November 2015: Review: In ‘Spotlight,’ The Boston Globe Digs Up the Catholic Church’s Dirt.

From Shining the Globe’s Spotlight on the Catholic Church by Walter V. Robinson. Nieman Reports, 15 March 2003:

By August 2001, after three decades of investigative work, The Boston Globe Spotlight Team had filled scores of file drawers, computer queues, and warehoused cartons with left-over documents, old notes and the like, chronicling misdeeds by a cast of scoundrels familiar to reporters at most any newspaper: corrupt politicians and judges, greedy developers, no-show public employees, cops on the take, even an FBI agent who protected mob bosses who had themselves been under the Globe’s scrutiny. As far as we can tell, there was nary a file folder on a priest, much less a bishop or a cardinal.

Eighteen months later, the Spotlight Team’s offices are littered with stacks of documents and crammed with boxes of the most private and incriminating files of the U.S. Catholic Church. Those documents describe criminal acts far more heinous than the wrongdoing ascribed to the newspaper’s usual investigative targets: In the Boston archdiocese alone, countless children were sexually molested in recent decades by so many priests that the number admitted or accused is now about 150. These hideous crimes were hidden, forgiven, overlooked—and, indeed, all but facilitated—by bishops and cardinals who were unquestioned moral icons in the most Catholic of America’s major archdioceses.

On January 6, 2002, we published the first of more than 900 news stories about this scandal. Since then, more than 500 people have emerged with legal claims that they were sexually molested by priests in the Boston archdiocese. America’s most influential cardinal, Bernard F. Law, has resigned in disgrace. The archdiocese he ruled imperiously from his Italianate mansion is close to fiscal ruin.

For decades, the church’s cover-up succeeded: The overwhelming majority of the crimes are well beyond the criminal statute of limitations. Only a half dozen priests have been indicted. And a secret state grand jury has been forced to use its subpoena power to extract documents and testimony from a recalcitrant church hierarchy.

In Boston, the Globe struck a match very near some very dry tinder. The fire spread quickly. Nationally, in 2002, similar accusations forced the removal—often grudgingly by bishops—of an estimated 450 priests. The U.S. Catholic Church, which claims more than one in every five Americans as members, is mired so deeply in a crisis of confidence and leadership that the story is likely to preoccupy journalists for years to come.

Yet, despite all that, and excepting Boston and a handful of other dioceses where powerful forces have compelled wide disclosures, many American bishops have made only minimal admissions. And few newspapers in other cities have pushed to the degree necessary to get at the extent of the problem. Elsewhere in the country, many people, journalists among them, seem to think there was something unique about Boston, perhaps something in the water, which made priests here more likely to molest minors. Not so. The evidence suggests that most of that iceberg has yet to be discovered.

Even in Boston, the cover-up continues….

From How the Boston Globe exposed the abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic church by Jon Henley. The Guardian, 21 April 2010:

In June 2001, Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, perhaps the most staunchly Catholic of all America’s big cities, filed a routine court submission in response to a number of allegations contained in lawsuits brought against one of his former priests, Father John Geoghan…. Buried somewhere in it was the admission that when, in 1984, he had assigned Geoghan to St Julia’s church in the Boston suburb of Weston, he had done so knowing that the priest had, in his previous parish, been accused of molesting seven boys from the same family….

[I]t is possible [the worldwide crisis facing the Catholic church] would not be happening now [2010], on such a large scale and with such potentially disastrous consequences for the church, had it not been for the work of a small group of journalists – the majority of them Catholic – from the Boston Globe newspaper, who were the first to spot Cardinal Law’s startling admission….

[The Boston Globe won] the 2003 Pulitzer prize for exposing both the full extent of sexual abuse by Boston Catholic clergy, and the shameful response to it of Cardinal Law and his bishops…. For Michael Rezendes, a member of the Globe’s Spotlight investigative team and lead writer on the first story in the paper’s prize-winning series, “There’s no question in my mind that our work was the spark. We were the forerunners. Given that Boston is the largest Catholic city in America, it was quite courageous of the editors – we could have alienated a lot of readers. But the court cases we won, the church documents we got released, became precedent; they encouraged other papers and other lawyers in other cities to follow suit.”…

[W]ithin two years of the first of the Globe’s 800 articles on the scandal appearing in January 2002, Rezendes notes, Cardinal Law had resigned, 150 priests in Boston stood accused of sexual abuse, more than 500 victims had filed abuse claims, and church-goers’ donations to the archdiocese had slumped by 50%. In Sin against the Innocents, a 2004 book on clerical sex abuse by a range of experts, Rezendes also notes that over the same period, across America as a whole, more than 450 priests and four bishops resigned, and several states, including Massachusetts, introduced new laws obliging clergy to report any knowledge of child sex abuse to the civil authorities. And yet, he adds today, “We’re still far from knowing the full story.”…

Rezendes writes, “We found, within a matter of days, that Geoghan was only one of a large number of priests who had sexually molested children and been given new assignments.”

The Globe reporters were also quietly told of many dozens of cases over the previous decade or so, in which the church had settled claims against molesting priests privately, often including a clause that barred the victims or their families from ever talking about it. Concrete evidence of those settlements, however, would be harder to find….

In fact, it emerged, some 10,000 pages of church documents concerning 84 different lawsuits against Father Geoghan alone were protected by a superior court confidentiality order; many more were mysteriously missing.

The Globe decided to contest the court confidentiality order, and battle (before a Catholic judge) was formally joined. The archdiocese argued, forcefully, that it was constitutionally entitled it to keep its records confidential, and that a newspaper had no business knowing anything about them anyway. The Globe, backed by lawyers for the victims, argued that the public interest in the Geoghan case surely outweighed the church’s desire for privacy….

In November 2001, the judge ruled that the confidentiality order imposed on the documents in the Geoghan case should be lifted, and that any records missing from the public file should be resubmitted. The archdiocese’s lawyers appealed, and threatened legal action if any material based on the confidential files was published – but in early January [2002] the paper went ahead with a two-part series on Geoghan.

The impact, [Michael] Paulson [the Boston Globe’s religious affairs correspondent in 2002] says, was “immense, and immediate. The reason our coverage caused such crisis was not that the documents we had showed priests had abused children, but that the bishops knew about it, and still failed to keep those priests away from children.”…

In late January [2002], the 10,000 pages of sealed Geoghan documents were finally released. Once more, the evidence against the church was overwhelming: the doctors who assessed the priest were unqualified; the board that approved his reassignment may have been leaned on. Then, on the last day of January 2002, the paper unleashed perhaps the most shocking of all its revelations that year.

As a result of their five exhaustive months of database-mining, interviewing and cross-referencing, the eight Globe reporters on the case had established that the Boston archdiocese had, over the previous decade, privately settled sexual abuse claims made by Catholic families against a staggering 70 of its priests.

Geoghan, in other words, was no lone offender. He was part of a massive problem. And as [editor Walter] Robinson now says: “There seemed very little chance that this was about something funny in the water in Boston. I recall saying to groups around the country, ‘The same thing has to be happening here, under your noses. It’s simply because documents are under judicial protection, and people are unwilling to confront the church, that it’s not coming out here.'”

By the end of January [2002], the documentary damage was essentially done. But by then, the first of hundreds of victims had begun contacting the paper with their stories. A further spate of civil lawsuits against the archdiocese followed, and the Globe reporters’ hard work was finally crowned when an exasperated judge ordered the archdiocese to make public every single private church file kept on every Boston priest ever accused of sexual abuse. The floodgates were well and truly opened – and, despite last-minute moves by Cardinal Law to suspend a number of accused priests, in December 2002 he had to resign.

Today, Paulson believes there were three main reasons why the Globe’s coverage resonated so strongly around the country, and the world. “First, we got to the documents,” he says. “We ended up with material relating to more than 100 priests. We had letters from parents, letters to and from priests, masses of internal church documents showing abusive priests being repeatedly moved. Also, the internet enabled our reporting to be read all over. And I think there was a kind of evolution of culture, a moment in history when people were willing to talk critically about religion. Often in the past that just hasn’t been possible.”

The first article in “The Boston Globe Spotlight Investigation: Sexual Abuse by Priests in the Catholic Church,” Church allowed abuse by priest for years, was published on 6 January 2002.