Shining the Globe's Spotlight on the Catholic Church: After Publishing More Than 900 Articles about Sexual Molestation by Priests, the Boston Globe's Coverage Isn't over Yet. (Journalist's Trade)

By Robinson, Walter V. | Nieman Reports, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Shining the Globe's Spotlight on the Catholic Church: After Publishing More Than 900 Articles about Sexual Molestation by Priests, the Boston Globe's Coverage Isn't over Yet. (Journalist's Trade)


Robinson, Walter V., Nieman Reports


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.

Getting Church Documents

Like many major stories, this one began with a trek, without high expectations, down one narrow path--a well-worn one. Like other newspapers have done since the 1980's, the Globe set out to discover how the predatory sexual abuses of a local priest could have gone unchecked. In the end, we won access to documents that exposed that story in excruciating detail. But just as we started our reporting, we stumbled onto something much larger.

Here at the Globe, investigative reporting is good work if you can get it. In a typical year, the four-person Spotlight Team produces two or three investigative series, with the pace broken up now and then with a one-day special report that might be turned around relatively quickly--in perhaps two or three weeks. For reporters accustomed to the frontlines of daily newspapering, Spotlight has long offered the lure of never having to write a lead that contains the word "yesterday. …

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