Crying in the Dark:

The Spotlight Team on the Boston Archdiocese's Sexual Abuse Crisis

& Cover up

A Conversational Analysis of Ethical Obligations the Media Faces and the Savior Complex

By Heather Bates


“But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that you should show forth the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” 1 Peter 2:9

Boston, Massachusetts in 2001 was a bustling hub of trust and tradition led largely, by the Roman Catholic Church. At the time, Boston claimed 3.8million residents; 2 million of whom identified as Catholic. Boston has been called the “most Catholic major city in the country” by Boston Globe reporter Michael Rezendes, its towering cathedral churches touch every corner of the city and are visible from the playgrounds that sit nearby. The church takes its people from birth through death and into the afterlife, from christenings of newborn babies to baptisms; and when the thrill of love pierces the heart of its followers, they are married under its watchful eye only to repeat the cycle within its walls once more.

The church takes in those who cannot care for themselves, it offers hope to the poor and hopeless with promises of everlasting love and jewels in the crown of the faithful when they arrive in heaven. The Catholic Church is also one of the largest, independent donors to charitable foundations, operating hospitals, hospice care units and homeless outreach facilities. According to Forbes 2014 information the Alexandria, Virginia based Catholic Charities USA, handled $4.3Billion in revenue in 2013.

It ranks number 13 on Forbes top 50 US charities list and is listed as having a 98% donor dependency. So, when a Boston Globe reporter, Eileen McNamara wrote a column discussing unfettered sexual abuse by local priest John Geoghan, eyebrows lifted...but when it was discovered that this was not an isolated incident, a very uncomfortable cloud befell the Boston area and a very difficult decision befell the Boston Globe newspaper.

When presented with undeniable information that if published: will strike at the heart of a charitable organization, a legion of faithful innocent devotees, local legal professionals as well as dig up painful emotional scars in victims; how can journalistic integrity and the guiding principles of minimizing harm while still shining a light, be upheld? When many victims wish to remain anonymous and shy away from discussing and re-living their pain, how can a voice be given to the voiceless? When no one wants to talk about something no one wanted to can a news staff maintain accountability and transparency?

Here, we will explore how the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team did just that while exposing one of the most horrific cases of rampant sexual abuse the United States has ever seen.

A Bit of Background

Boston is one of the country’s oldest cities, steeped in history and its own unique communities and idiosyncrasies and its media outlets were no exception. The Boston Globe had a reputation for being “liberal” and “anti-catholic.” This came from a long history stemming back well over 130 years but the labels didn’t come until the 60’s when Tom Winship became editor in 1965. Winship’s successor, Matthew Storin

sought to redefine the paper by adding a more conservative touch and under his leadership, the paper was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize. To the shock of its staff, the family-owned paper was soon sold to its rival, the New York Times in 1993 for $1.1billion, which at the time was the highest price ever paid for a media outlet of its type. Under the deal, the Times had agreed not to meddle with the Globe for at least five years. Six years later however, change was blowing in the wind.

Enter Martin Baron.

Baron was seen by the Globe as a “Times man.” Although he had most recently been editor at the Miami Herald, he had previously worked at the Times and was seen in this light by his new staff. Baron brought something absolutely essential to the Globe, the one thing that would allow him to crack the kryptonite wall of deception that had been built around the church. Baron, was an outsider. He wasn’t a Catholic, he wasn’t from Boston. He was the son of Israeli immigrants, a Jew and was used to having to fight for court documents in Florida. Having no ties to the Catholic church, he was more or less unphased when Cardinal Bernard F. Law “welcomed” him to town with what has been described by some Globe Staffers as a “customary grooming”. Law offered Baron the same thing he had offered to the head of every large organization in Boston, the hand of cooperation. Baron refused. A man known for his journalistic integrity, Baron was a believer in the independance of the media, a staunch supporter of journalistic ethics.

Who is Spotlight?

The Boston Globe, had some financial muscle to throw around that most other newspapers at the time no longer did. As readership slumped nationwide during the late 1990’s things began to look bleak for the future of print publications and by 2001, the future was still uncertain. It is for these reasons that the existence of a specialized, untethered, balls-out investigative journalism team was somewhat of a novelty at a time when many such units had folded. Still, exist they did.

Meet the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team; a specialized unit of in-depth investigative journalists operating under the editorial leadership of Walter “Robby” Robinson. Robinson had been with the Globe since 1972, and had reported from 33 countries and 48 states. He was a calculated thinker, a man who knew his job well and dedicated his life to it. Then there was Sacha Pfeiffer, she had joined the Spotlight team five years prior. Pfeiffer specialized in covering nonprofits, wealth and philanthropy and served as a senior reporter and host of “All Things Considered” as well as many other National Public Radio shows. Matt Carroll was the team’s database reporting specialist. He was with the Globe from 1987 to 2014 whereafter he continued his journalistic service as a research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab in the university’s Center for Civic Media. Lastly, there was Michael Rezendes who has served on the Spotlight team for over a decade. Rezendes continues to work with Spotlight and most recently was honored in 2008 and 2009 with a John S. Knight journalism fellowship at Stanford University.

These were the people who had more than just a big decision to make. These were the people charged with the task of bringing to light some of their city’s darkest moments and deepest secrets. The question

The Next Move

At 10:30 a.m. on July 30th, 2001 Baron asked the question that started it all. This was his first meeting as top editor at the Globe, he had a lot to deal with that morning besides his staff’s opinions. He brought up the case of a small column that had run the day before, the very column written by Eileen McNamara. McNamara’s column discussed the retired priest, John Geoghan and his impending lawsuit. This suit, like others, had been filed by the then child victims of Geoghan’s sexual abuse.

While not much other than the filing had happened yet, Baron’s interest had piqued. As an outsider, he saw something in the little column that could.

In her column, McNamara had mentioned that the documents were “under seal” which meant they were protected from public view. Baron, having been used to fighting Florida’s court system held no qualms about filing suit to have the documents unsealed. This suggestion alone rocked the Boston reporters who had their whole lives been surrounded by the church and were almost numbingly accustomed to its presence. It wasn’t that they didn’t do their jobs well...they just hadn’t thought to challenge Law. Although the staff agreed to search further and file suit, this was a totally new idea. The Globe was about to take on the church.

Just two weeks later, after consulting with the paper’s attorneys; on August 15th, 2001; the Boston Globe filed suit in the Massachusetts Superior Court.

It is important to mention here that this was not the first time the Globe had written about priests being involved in the sexual abuse of minors. In 1993 there was a case covered where Father James Porter was convicted of 41 counts and the church paid $7million to his victims however, the Globe was unable to dig deeper on this issue. Ben Bradlee had been involved in this research and had said that the Globe “hit a wall” with the church and was unable to continue reporting beyond what was made public by the court case. So, what is remarkable about Baron is that he was willing to break the wall.

“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleans us from all sin.” 1 John 1:7

John Geoghan had retired but it didn’t protect him. Between 1993 and 2001, 84 civil cases were filed against him in the name of sexual abuse of children. As if this wasn’t bad enough, it came to light that Cardinal Law not only knew about Geoghan’s abuse but had been warned years earlier in a 1984 letter. On July 22nd of 2001, McNamara wrote further about the case but this time asking questions about Law himself in her column. The column was not widely publicized but still Law took notice. He denied any wrongdoing soon after the article was published, and stated in an article written in an archdiocesan publication called the “Pilot”; that “never was there any effort on my part to shift a problem from one place to the next”. However, the way Cardinal Bernard F. Law saw it, simply wasn’t the case. As the Globe reporters dug deeper they would soon find that Geoghan was not the only priest in Boston guilty of sexually molesting children.

First, they found a few, then a dozen. Even Bradlee, who had previously been privy to cases such as these was hesitant. A dozen seemed like a huge number to the staffers, but; could it be true?

Enter Richard Sipe.

Richard Sipe is a former priest turned Mental Health Counselor. To this day, he is considered a hero amongst survivors and is featured on the Survivor’s Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP Network’s website. Their bio describes Sipe as:

“He was trained specifically to deal with the mental health problems of Roman Catholic Priests. In the process of training and therapy, he conducted a 25-year ethnographic study of the celibate/sexual behavior of that population. His study, published in 1990, is now considered a classic.

Sipe is known internationally and has participated in 12 documentaries on celibacy and priest sexual abuse aired by HBO, BBC, and other networks in the United States, United Kingdom, and France. He has been widely interviewed by media including CNN, ABC, NBC, CNBC, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, People magazine, Newsweek and USA Today.”

So, it is clear he was highly qualified to answer the questions of the Globe staff when they came. It was the answers that he gave that were the most difficult for the ambitious journalists to process.

The Spotlight team just wanted to be sure their facts were correct. The dirty dozen they had dug up seemed like such a large number, it was time to speak with an expert on the subject. They were all reputable journalists, making sure that they were not heading down a rabbit hole of misinformation, so contacting an expert like Sipe made sense. At this point, they were looking to verify that it was possible that as many as a dozen Boston-area priests could have committed these crimes. Sipe explained that through his research, he had estimated the criminal activity was rampant among 6% of all priests. This meant that the reporters’ numbers were not high...they were low. Extremely low.

Sipe said according to his calculations, the total number of priests who have committed sexual abuse in the area was not a dozen; it wasn’t 20, or even 30...but 90.

As if that wasn’t horrifying enough; soon, evidence legally uncovered by the Spotlight team showed that not only was Cardinal Law privy to this information, but had actively worked to cover it up. The train didn’t stop there, though. As if to bear witness to more than just the truth, the Spotlight team bore witness to the shattering of faith when it was revealed through the court documents that hundreds of priests and church officials had over time created a system designed not only to cover up the crimes, but to quietly move criminal priests in and out of parishes without anyone ever knowing why.

There it black and white and tears...the Catholic Church covered up child molestations for decades and had moved these priests to safe houses which they privately owned. Secretly housing them until it was determined from inside sources that the priest or priests were “safe” to move to a different parish. In the meantime; while the rapist priests sat in wait in comfortable safe houses, child victims were shuffled into “conferences” with their families and a bishop. This face to face time was used to convince the child to keep quiet, while the bishops exchanged sums of money for signatures of silence on legally binding “confidentiality agreements” or gag orders. These agreements were sealed by the church’s lawyers and filed away forever, never to be seen again. It was all going so well for the church...for the most part, everyone kept quiet and the lawyers were given one-third of the settlement fees so they had no reason to speak up. Besides, the court documents prevented them from speaking out anyway, so there was nothing to fear, their bad decisions were upheld by the law...until Baron decided to challenge the sealed documents.

And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. Revelation 21:23

Of course, this conspiracy information sent shock waves through every journalist on the team. How could they have missed this? How could they not have known?

Every journalist knows the impact that media can have on a populace. Every good journalist holds this close to their hearts. Every good journalist knows the guiding principles. Every good journalist wants to shine a light in the darkness and expose injustices. These, were good journalists.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics Preamble states:

“Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An Ethical journalist acts with integrity.”

Now, presented with this information the Globe Spotlight team had to figure out how to deal with the knowledge they had just gained, while at the same time, maintaining their ethics. Any person, presented with such data would naturally want to run outside and shout it from the rooftops, alerting everyone to the danger surrounding their community. However, as professional journalists, the Spotlight team had to find a way to stay focused and remain committed both professionally, and ethically.

The question remains; Stakeholders

When many victims wish to remain anonymous and shy away from discussing and re-living their pain, how can a voice be given to the voiceless? When no one wants to talk about something that no one wants to hear...what is an ethical journalist to do?

First, there are the weakest stakeholders, the victims. Because of the sheer scope of the atrocities committed, some victims had grown into adulthood while some, were still just children who were visiting lawyers with their parents. For these, the wounds were fresh although they were sore for everyone involved. Many of the now adult victims refused to speak at first, some cited they had never told their families and asked for secrecy. Still some, had become involved with the SNAP network and loudly spoke out although until 2001, it seemed their cries had fallen on deafened ears.

There were the families of the victims, there were many who committed suicide and still many more whose pain drove them to drugs and alcohol. Many of the addicted had passed away from the damage done to them over time while some still struggled to maintain sobriety. These families harbored so much pain and anger it made them difficult to deal with, and still some refused to even admit that any wrongdoing had ever occurred. For some victims, it was the families themselves who couldn’t come to grips with the idea that their trusted priest could ever channel the devil; denying their loved ones the validation that they desperately needed and keeping them silent for years.