2 Dec 2010

Boston Globe reporters who exposed widespread sex crimes scandal which led to current Catholic crisis say far more yet to come

The Guardian - UK April 21, 2010

How the Boston Globe exposed the abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic church

The tenacity of Boston Globe journalists in uncovering the scandal of widespread sexual abuse by priests led to the current crisis in the Catholic church. And there's more to come, as Jon Henley reports

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.

At the time, sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic clerics was not a widespread topic of discussion, in the US or anywhere else. Cases would surface, and sometimes be quite extensively reported: in 1981, Father Donald Roemer pleaded guilty to child molestation in Los Angeles; in 1985, a Louisiana priest, Gilbert Gauthe, was convicted of similar offences against 11 boys. But they were seen, for the most part, as isolated incidents. There was no convincing evidence of any consistent pattern of clerical abuse, still less of a sustained attempt by the church to cover up such behaviour – by simply moving priests on without informing the authorities.

Cardinal Law's seemingly innocent court filing, though, was about to change that. 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.

With fresh allegations of abuse and cover-ups now surfacing almost daily, and calls in the UK for Pope Benedict to be arrested, something resembling the worldwide crisis facing the Catholic church would surely have happened sooner or later. But it is possible it would not be happening now, 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.

"I think we all had a sense, even before our first story came out, that this was an explosive subject with huge potential impact," says Michael Paulson, the paper's former religious affairs correspondent, who helped the paper to win 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. "But I think we were still all taken aback by how quickly and dramatically it exploded – first here, then across the country and around the world."

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."

Walter Robinson, then Spotlight editor, says the paper's reporting "put the match to some very, very dry tinder". That's certainly true: within 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."

Law's initial argument was that when he transferred Geoghan to his new parish, neither he, the Catholic church, nor indeed society as a whole, understood how difficult it was to change the behaviour of child sex abusers. But, 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.

"For years," says Paulson, "the church had been extremely protective of its reputation. In Massachusetts, there had been several civil cases against individual priests and the archdiocese. And in Catholic Boston, the church had managed to ensure that a whole mass of the documents relating to those cases were filed under seal – in other words, they were secret."

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.

Awaiting the result of the judge's deliberations, the reporters dug deeper into Geoghan's 30-year career, finding traces of earlier abuse. Separately, they found out all they could about those shadowy private settlements. Talking to lawyers likely to have represented victims in such cases, cross-referencing their cases with those of lawyers known to act for the archdiocese, and trawling painstakingly through public court records, they gradually compiled a list of what looked like possible clerical abuse cases. Often, they found that the actual documents relating to these cases had been sealed – at the church's request.

Finally, they spent long hours poring over the church's own publications, looking for the names of priests who had been recorded as being "on sick leave", "in between assignments", or "reassigned". Some of the 100-odd names they arrived at, writes Rezendes, matched those on the list the reporters had compiled during their trawl of public databases; others matched names the reporters had been given confidentially by interviewees.

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 the paper went ahead with a two-part series on Geoghan.

The impact, Paulson 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." The previously missing evidence against the archdiocese was devastating, Rezendes recalls: one bishop had advised Law in writing against reassigning Geoghan because of his "history of homosexual involvement with young boys".

The Globe's first story also featured a heartbreaking interview with Maryetta Dussourd, whose three sons, and the four sons of her niece Diane, had been abused by Geoghan years earlier, in the 1970s, and with whom the church had settled privately. "She'd written this incredibly painful and poignant letter to the cardinal at the time," Paulson recalls. "You could feel all her passion for the church, her deep respect for the cardinal – and her shock and pain that despite her dozens of complaints, he was still continuing to work with children. That was what really got to people, I think."

In late January, 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 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, 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 church in America did go some way to responding to the developing crisis, Rezenes says, drawing up in mid-2002 a charter for the protection of children and young people, demanding "a commitment to transparency and openness". But while some bishops have since gone a long way towards meeting that, he adds, "what I've largely seen is a failure to really come to grips with sex abuse in the church, and a failure to live up to repeated promises to be more transparent. Some bishops have cited the First Amendment in a bid to withhold records. The diocese of Bridgeport, in Connecticut, recently went all the way to the supreme court."

With first-hand experience of the lengths to which the church is prepared to go to keep its secrets, none of the Boston Globe reporters say they are particularly surprised at the turn events have taken, nor at the situation in which the church finds itself in today. "I'm about the least surprised person I know," says Robinson. "All that surprises me is that it took this long for the extensive abuse that occurred in, for example, continental Europe to come out. And I've been astonished at how tone deaf the Vatican has been in a PR sense."

There is far more yet to come, the reporters believe. All three note that the countries in which cases of Catholic clerical abuse have emerged have been relatively secular states: America, Canada, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, even Ireland. "It will eventually have to come out in Spain, Italy, Latin America, too," says Robinson. "But for the time being, the church in countries like that is far more protected by the state." Certainly, adds Paulson, "in countries where there is more deference to clergy and the church, victims are less likely to come forward."

So can the Catholic church survive this crisis, reform, and recover its moral credibility? "It's capable of it," says Rezendes. "It remains to be seen if it has the will."

Paulson agrees. "The Catholic church is an enormous institution," he says. "Certainly some bishops, and many members, understand the enormity of what has happened. But there are still plenty who believe this is all an anti-Catholic conspiracy, that the church is being persecuted. The damage is real, but the church is not of one mind as to whether it is best to apologise and reform, or resist and fight. That argument has not yet been decided."

This article was found at:



Review of sex abuse guidelines at US bishops conference will not close loopholes that continue to endanger children

Catholic clergy abuse review boards made ineffective by bishops who hide cases from them

Catholic theologian says secrecy, misogyny and resistance to reform in wake of clergy sex scandals will doom the church

Philadelphia cardinal and bishops hid problem priests from clergy abuse review board, put church law before civil law

Credibility of US bishops' reformed child protection policies challenged by Philadelphia clergy abuse scandal

Only one US bishop has resigned for neglect during decade of clergy crimes, Kansas City bishop unlikely to join him

New Vatican rules rely on Bishops to deal with clergy crimes before reporting to police, still don't protect children

New rules on clergy sex abuse shows there is still no moral awakening in the Catholic church

Boston Catholic church tries TV ads to fill pews emptied by clergy child rape and cover up

Catholic scandals grow in Latin America, senior Brazilian priest arrested for sex crimes after congressional investigation

Investigation uncovers Catholic practice of "geographic cure", shuffling pedophile priests around the globe

Vatican's top Cardinal blames sex crimes scandals on homosexuality in speech in Santiago, where Chilean priest raped girls

Current wave of global Catholic scandals just tip of iceberg says Quebec advocate who predicts many more to come

As Vatican cardinal defends pope and church, African bishop says sex crimes of priests there not yet exposed



  1. The story behind the 'Spotlight' movie

    The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in 2002 has spawned the movie “Spotlight.” Go inside previous reports from the Globe’s Spotlight team.


    Superb ‘Spotlight’ doesn’t turn journalists into heroes


    Ever since “Spotlight” made its debut at a handful of international film festivals at the beginning of September, it has been praised by many people, almost all of them journalists. And that makes sense, since the film chronicles the reporting of The Boston Globe’s investigative Spotlight team as it uncovered the Roman Catholic Church’s decades-long coverup of pedophile priests. The press has to love a movie that glorifies the press, right?

    Actually, one of the reasons that “Spotlight” is so deeply, absurdly satisfying to this newspaper writer — and to most of those I’ve spoken with, at the Globe and elsewhere — is that Tom McCarthy’s movie doesn’t turn its journalists into heroes. It just lets them do their jobs, as tedious and critical as those are, with a realism that grips an audience almost in spite of itself.

    McCarthy (“The Visitor,” “Win Win”) and his co-writer Josh Singer (“The West Wing,” “The Fifth Estate”) understand that the reporters aren’t the story in “Spotlight.” The story is the story. That, and the people whose stories the reporters want to tell: the men (and women) who were damaged unthinkably and twice — first, in childhood, by men of God and, later, by an institution that protected the abusers and enabled their abuse.

    So “Spotlight” is about process — about the inherent drama of news gathering — even more so than that benchmark newsroom classic, “All the President’s Men,” which the new movie resembles. (The office furniture seems unchanged since the 1970s, for one thing, and, trust me, that is realism.) Covering a half-year period from mid-2001 through the beginning of 2002, the movie follows the reporters and their editors with a minimum of melodramatic window dressing.

    Michael Keaton plays Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (“player-coach,” is how he refers to himself) as an inversion of last year’s Birdman, all watchfulness and taciturn Boston wit. Under his management are reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), and Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo). Above him are deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery of “Mad Men”) and the new guy in town, editor in chief Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), who puts Robinson’s crew on the clergy abuse story during his first day on the job.

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  2. If you like your true-crime dramas torqued up to high RPMs, you’re in for a letdown. Most of the movie is people talking, in chairs, in meetings, on the phone. The film’s action alternates between combing through dusty files and harrowing interviews with abuse victims who’ve given up on being heard, among them Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), a local leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Joe Crowley (Michael Cyril Creighton), and the late Patrick McSorley (Jimmy LeBlanc). The performances are terribly moving; the details remain tough sledding.

    At issue, initially, is whether the Globe can successfully petition the Massachusetts courts to release sealed documents pertaining to the case of the Rev. John Geoghan, accused of molesting dozens of boys over the years. This becomes a dark comic motif early in “Spotlight”; “You want to sue the Catholic Church,” people keep incredulously telling Baron. Behind that disbelief, the movie observes, is a vast civic wall of deference and complacency — an inculcated, generations-old bowing down before the power of spiritual and institutional authority.

    The new editor has a getting-to-know-you meeting with Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), who turns on the charm and gifts him with a catechism. Later in the movie, an affable friend of the archdiocese (Paul Guilfoyle) turns up to warn Robinson off. “This is how it happens, isn’t it?” Robinson muses. “Guy leans on a guy, and suddenly the whole town just looks the other way.” The enablers are well-intentioned, well-connected, and everywhere.

    Maybe it’s too early to decide whether “Spotlight” is among the best Boston movies ever made — the accents are fine, the filmmakers seem to have the lay of the land — but in certain awful aspects it’s the most truthful. You sense the stain spreading across our neighborhoods and into the reporters’ lives when Robinson walks across Dorchester’s Morrissey Boulevard from the Globe offices to his alma mater, B.C. High, to ask unwanted questions about a fondly remembered teacher. During the end credits, the film lets that stain keep spreading into the rest of the country and the world.

    The lighting is flat and unflattering, and the offices are dingy cinderblock veal pens. The pace is painstaking and steady. We all know how it’s going to end. Yet “Spotlight” holds you in a fugue state of suspense, the kind you replay in your head on the drive home and on into the next day, trying to retrace the chain of revelations, of how small things became enormous. The movie’s pared to the bone: There are no flashbacks, no office romances, mere glimpses of the reporters’ spouses and homes. There’s only one Big Speech, from Ruffalo’s Rezendes, and you’ve already heard it because they have to put something righteous-sounding in the trailers and awards-show clip reels. (What the clips don’t show is that the Big Speech has no effect whatsoever on Robinson’s decision to hold the story until it’s good and ready.)

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  3. A personal note: Obviously, I couldn’t be less objective about this movie. Neither could you if a film crew came in and made a drama in your office, with A-list stars playing the men and women you stand next to in the lunch line and banter with on the escalator (when it’s working). The filmmakers shot both at the Globe offices and on sets built in Toronto; to add to my critical vertigo, actual co-workers can be glimpsed out of focus in the background of some shots.

    Still, an insider’s eye has its benefits. Knowing the real reporters as I do — not closely but as colleagues — it’s fascinating to see how “Spotlight” builds character out of individuality rather than the other way around, as is standard operating procedure in Hollywood. Baron, now executive editor at The Washington Post, is a telling example. Where the movies like to portray their top editors as brash egotists braying into phones, the real Marty Baron is such a recessive, thoughtful figure that people can be drawn to him out of sheer curiosity. (They stay out of respect.) Schreiber gets the man’s anti-charisma charisma and so does the movie, and the result is a character type that feels genuinely new in commercial narrative: the minimalist leader. So it is with Keaton’s laconic Robinson — when things get bad, he just gets quieter — or with Ruffalo, who captures Rezendes’s forward-tilting tenacity with a faithfulness that gives some of us at the paper the giggles.

    There are, of course, plenty of areas in which “Spotlight” takes liberties with the actuality of events and their order and who said what when. It downplays articles written in 2001 by Kristen Lombardi at the Boston Phoenix that preceded the Globe investigation (the script name-checks the paper but not the writer), and it folds the various lawyers representing the victims into the single querulous figure of Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci, who is his usual marvelous self). It skates over the many, many other Globe reporters and editors who were part of breaking this story. As always, you are seeing a representative truth.

    But the movie’s also notable for how hard and successfully it resists the urge to amp up false drama; the filmmakers’ responsibility to the victims includes honoring how their traumas were brought to light. And “Spotlight” makes the sharp, sobering point that it took an outsider, Baron, to notice what the locals didn’t, or couldn’t, or maybe even wouldn’t, and that the Globe had more than one chance to open an investigation years earlier than it did. The movie paints this as the regrettable bureaucratic oversight of a hectic workplace. It’s also true that people are flawed and that institutions thrive by not making waves. Until something changes, and they do.

    Among its other aspects, “Spotlight” is a fine example of the newsroom genre, minus the montage of spinning front pages but including a climactic sequence of the presses churning out the bombshell that will soon land on everyone’s porch. For people in the business, those shots are loaded with enough mounting nostalgia to bring on the tears. For those on the outside, they may serve as a reminder of the larger ideals that come with having a free press — and the hard, unheroic, everyday work that goes into maintaining it over the long haul.