“They knew and they let it happen”: discovering child abuse in the Catholic Church
On his first day of work in July 2001, World Editor-in-Chief Martin Baron stopped by the desk of Eileen McNamara, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. A week earlier, McNamara had published a column about the Archdiocese of Boston’s silence on three priests accused of sexually abusing children. One line, in particular, had annoyed Baron. McNamara had wondered if the superiors of an accused priest knew about his crimes. The court documents have been sealed. “The public,” she concluded, “have no way of knowing.”
McNamara remembers Baron standing over his desk: “Why don’t we find out,” he said.
Spotlight’s investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church did not begin with a newly obtained advice or document, as so many investigations do. Instead, it started when a new World editor-in-chief pushed his editorial staff to action. After telling the World’As senior leaders he intended to continue the story, Baron asked Spotlight editor-in-chief Walter V. Robinson to make priestly sexual abuse his team’s next project.
Robinson, a three-decade newsroom veteran, was taken aback. “The editors never told the Spotlight team what to do,” says Robinson. “The Spotlight team told the publisher what they were going to do.” But it was clear that this was not a debate. Robinson returned to the Spotlight office and asked his team – Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer and Matthew Carroll – to get down to business.
The story was not new to them. The World had been covering abuse cases for a decade, and other media had been on the story for even longer. “I always remind people that we did not disclose the existence of sexual abuse by priests,” says Rezendes. Instead, Spotlight has focused on doing what it does best: revealing the systemic problem behind individual stories. “What we have done again,” Rezendes continues, “was to show the extent of the problem and the cover-up.”
The team’s first guide was Phil Saviano, a clergy sexual abuse survivor himself who founded an advocacy group for the rights of other survivors. In August, Saviano visited the Spotlight office and hosted what he calls “a college-level seminar on clergy abuse.” Over the next month, reporters did some of the project’s most grueling job: talking with the victims. Pfeiffer remembers middle-aged men sobbing at their kitchen table. Rezendes met with the victims and their families at the office of Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian. “Everyone cried and sometimes screamed,” Rezendes recalls. “It was horrible.”
But it was a Spotlight project. Heartbreaking individual stories weren’t enough. Reporters needed to know how widespread the rot was – and how far it was reaching. A valuable source was researcher Richard Sipe, a former priest himself, whose work suggested that 7-10% of Boston-area priests could be sexual predators. These figures stunned journalists. In addition, Sipe told them, the church has often quietly moved predatory priests from one parish to another, to avoid accusers. This tip inspired the team to comb through the Archdiocese’s annual directories. Carroll created a database to search for hidden reassignments.
However, more important questions still arose. Who stirred these priests? Who else knew? For Rezendes, the key to unraveling these mysteries was Garabedian, who suggested looking through documents filed in a lawsuit against Reverend John Geoghan, a notorious serial pedophile. Buried in that cache was a smoking weapon: a 1984 letter from Bishop John D’Arcy to Bernard Law, who would become cardinal the following year. D’Arcy criticized Geoghan’s latest reassignment and cited “the priest’s story of homosexual involvement with young boys.”
Holy shit they knew Rezendes thought as he read these words. They knew and they let it happen.
On the morning of the September 11 terrorist attacks, work on the church’s investigation was suspended for six weeks. At the start of the new year, however, the first installments were ready to be released. On January 6, 2002, Geoghan’s crimes were spelled out, in sickening detail, under a headline on the front page: “Church Authorized Abuse by Priest for Years.” Anticipating protests outside the building – Catholics were an important part of the World readership, and the newspaper and church had long had a strained relationship over issues such as abortion – Baron had ordered additional security.
None were needed, as it turned out. However, the clashes between World and the ecclesiastical authorities hardly stopped there. During months, World the external lawyer Jonathan Albano had fought, under the direction of Baron, to unseal the confidential files related to the Geoghan affair. Once made public by a ruling from Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney, lawyers for the victims, including Garabedian and Roderick MacLeish Jr., were free to share other prosecution-related material with Spotlight reporters. Internal church records have shown cover-ups extending far beyond Geoghan’s case. “That’s what made the difference here,” says Baron. “We were able to show in incredible detail, with incredible documentation, how the church went into a cover-up.”
January 31 World a report by Robinson (not based on internal church records) found that the archdiocese had paid compensation to the victims of at least 70 priests.
Baron and Robinson quickly expanded the team. Former Spotlight editor and reporter Stephen A. Kurkjian has joined to review the church’s finances. Thomas Farragher reported on violence and drug abuse by priests. Kevin Cullen and Michael Paulson documented the rapid erosion of the church’s position in Boston. At the end of 2002, the Spotlight team and others World journalists had published some 600 articles on the ongoing scandal.
In the history of American journalism, few surveys have had a greater impact. “Project Spotlight has opened the floodgates on clergy sexual abuse, locally, regionally, nationally and internationally,” Garabedian said today. Other media in the United States and abroad have rushed to cover the cases in their own backyards. Countless parishioners have criticized the church in the harshest terms – or have abandoned it altogether. Prosecutors have launched criminal charges against once-protected assailants. A new feature available to journalists has fueled widespread outrage: the ability to use the Internet to link supporting documents to articles and disseminate them to a global audience.
The investigation won the Pulitzer Civil Service Gold Medal, journalism’s highest honor. The judges praised the team “for their courageous and comprehensive coverage of sexual abuse by priests, an effort that has exposed secrecy, sparked local, national and international response and produced change in the Roman Catholic Church.”
“The impact of Spotlight has been so profound that it’s hard to measure in concrete terms,” says Saviano. In his view, it also “led to an account with the Boy Scouts at Penn State, even the #MeToo movement as it grew.” Without the Spotlight reporting, he believes, Pope Francis would never have called the 2019 Vatican summit on clergy abuse, in which the pontiff urged bishops to “listen to the cry of children seeking justice “.
Meanwhile, thousands of victims – men and women, young and old – have felt empowered to tell stories they once felt too traumatized to share. “The dam has broken” with this first Spotlight report, Garabedian said. Twenty years later, he still answers their calls.
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