How the Boston Globe's investigative team broke
one of th emost explosive stories of our time. By Michael
The Globe’s investigation into clergy sexual abuse in Boston was sparked by a routine court filing that contained a startling admission: Bernard F. Law, the spiritual leader of the fourth largest diocese in America, the man who was arguably the pope’s closest ally in the U.S. and who every day instructed two million Massachusetts Catholics on sexual ethics and matters of morality, admitted that during his first year as archbishop of Boston he had given Rev. John J. Geoghan a new assignment, in suburban Weston, Mass., despite knowing that Geoghan had been accused of molesting seven boys.
Eileen McNamara, a Globe metro columnist, was intrigued. “Will Cardinal Bernard F. Law be allowed to continue to play duck and cover indefinitely?’’ she asked in one column. “Will no one require the head of the Archdiocese of Boston to explain how it was that the pastors, bishops, archbishops, and cardinal-archbishops who supervised Geoghan never confronted, or even suspected, his alleged exploitation of children in five different parishes across 28 years?” That column, which ran on July 22, 2001, was followed by another the next week, July 29, in which McNamara took on the confidentiality order protecting certain documents in the case. “The danger is that if the church settles before trial – projected to be at least six months away – depositions of members of the church hierarchy, including Law and his closest advisers, will never see the light of day. The result will be that men who could be responsible for the cover-up of criminal conduct will never be brought to account.’’
Those columns piqued the interest of Martin Baron, who had been carefully reading the paper in anticipation of his new job, starting July 31, as the editor of the Globe. “Why did we need to settle for competing accounts of documents that were unavailable to us?’’ Baron asked. “Why shouldn’t they be available to us? Shouldn’t we explore challenging the confidentiality order that sealed all those documents?” Within days of Baron’s arrival, the Globe called its lawyers, who began researching the prospects for getting the documents unsealed. And in August of 2001, the Globe filed a motion in court arguing that an “intense and legitimate public interest” in the sexual abuse controversy and Cardinal Law’s “indisputable status as a public figure” should be enough to grant the paper access to discovery documents.
The archdiocese fought the Globe’s motion as aggressively as it had fought every lawsuit by a plaintiff alleging clergy sex abuse. The church argued not only that the newspaper was not entitled to the documents, but also that the paper had no right to ask for them – that it had no standing in the case. The church also argued that giving the Globe access would violate the church’s rights under the First Amendment, since its relationship with Father Geoghan was governed “by canon law and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.” And, the church argued that publication of articles based on these documents would deny it the right to a fair trial – that the Globe only wanted the documents so that “it can continue to generate further articles and editorials which are potentially prejudicial to the defendants.” But in late November, after a three-month court battle, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney, a product of Catholic schools, ruled in the Globe’s favor on every issue. She concluded that the paper should have had access to these documents in the first place, and that the paper had every right to ask for them now. And she dismissed the First Amendment arguments made by the church, saying that clerical status “does not automatically free them from the legal duties imposed on the rest of society or necessarily immunize them from civil violations of such duties.” The church appealed Sweeney’s ruling, but the Globe won again, and in late January of 2002, the Geoghan documents were released.
Well before the documents became public, the Globe’s Spotlight Team had begun trying to determine whether the Geoghan case was an anomaly or an alarm bell. The team, including editor Walter V. Robinson and reporters Matt Carroll, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Michael Rezendes, uncovered an astonishing truth: more than 100 Boston priests had been accused of molesting minors over several decades. And the church’s own documents, obtained by the paper through public court files, leaks, and ultimately court-ordered disclosures of formerly secret church records, made it clear that in many of those cases, the church’s bishops had knowingly allowed abusive priests to remain in jobs with access to children.
The first Spotlight story was published on January 6, 2002, two weeks before the court documents were released, showing that the church had essentially ignored, for three decades, a mountain of evidence that Father Geoghan, a supervisor of altar boys and friend to single mothers, was a serial, recidivist pedophile. He had admitted molesting children, and the church knew that. Some of his victims had complained to church officials, and the church knew that. At least one pastor complained, and the church knew and ignored that. The so-called treatment and evaluation of Geoghan was performed by two doctors, one a family physician with no experience or expertise in pedophilia, and the other a psychiatrist who also had no expertise in pedophilia and who himself had settled a lawsuit for allegedly abusing a female patient.
Another investigative reporter, Stephen Kurkjian, two project writers, Kevin Cullen and Thomas Farragher, and I joined the Spotlight reporters shortly after the story broke. Guided by two outstanding project editors, Ben Bradlee Jr. and Mark Morrow, we have written more than 900 newspaper stories, as well as a book, Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church, (see review, p.6) about the tragedy of clergy sexual abuse in Boston, around the nation, and in the world. Our basic findings, supplemented by the good work of many other reporters around the nation, are now familiar: over the last several decades more than 1,000 American priests groped, fondled, masturbated, and raped thousands of American minors, violating the law, their promises of celibacy, and the trust that so many Catholics had placed in their clergy. Equally troubling, their bosses, bishops who, according to Catholic teaching, are the direct successors to Jesus’s apostles, repeatedly and knowingly allowed abusive priests to remain in jobs where they had access to children. My job, as religion reporter, was not to chase which priest abused which kid, or which bishop knew what when, but to explain what this all means about the past, present, and future of the world’s largest religious denomination. The clergy sexual abuse scandal opened a Pandora’s box of issues that had been percolating in the Church for decades – gender, sexuality, power, and authority – and those are issues I expect to be writing about for as long as I’m on this beat.
Over the course of the last year, hundreds of victims have come forward to tell their stories, to their families, to counselors, to the news media, and to lawyers. The resulting litigation has forced the Boston archdiocese to release thousands of pages of files, showing that over and over again, bishops chose to protect priests even after horrific allegations were made against them. One priest had seemed to defend incest and bestiality. Another was allegedly drunk when he fell asleep behind the wheel and caused a car accident, killing a 16-year-old boy he had allegedly molested a few hours earlier. One priest had been accused of terrorizing and beating his housekeeper, another of trading cocaine for sex, and a third of enticing young girls by claiming to be “the second coming of Christ.” Those priests kept their jobs for years, and in many cases, when they ultimately retired or were forced out, they were sent sympathetic or laudatory notes from Law.
These revelations have led to unprecedented criticism of the church by laypeople and clergy. A new national lay group, Voice of the Faithful, formed in Boston to press for structural change in the church. Local priests organized for the first time, forming the Boston Priests Forum, and the decision in December by 58 local priests to call for Law to quit drew attention around the world.
The results are still unfolding, but have already been dramatic. Massachusetts and other states changed their statutes to require that clergy report allegations of sexual abuse to law enforcement or social service agencies. The Vatican approved new church law for the U.S. requiring the removal from ministry of all abusive priests. The Archdiocese of Boston began training thousands of schoolchildren to resist and report inappropriate touching, and also began training church employees and volunteers to respond to suspected abuse. Numerous priests and bishops, including Law, resigned or were ousted for their roles in the scandal. At least 10 grand juries around the nation launched investigations. And a church-appointed commission, headed by former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, has begun a wide-ranging examination of the scope and causes of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests.
Haverford, I’ve often thought, made me a journalist, or at least allowed me to fumble my way toward a career in journalism in a way that would have been much more difficult at a larger university, where student newspapers seem to require a certainty of ambition that I simply didn’t possess at the age of 17, when I arrived at college, wearing braces, not really needing to shave, and thinking that I would grow up to become a scientist. I spent about half my years at Haverford preparing for a career as a research biologist, and the other half studying to be a doctor. But somewhere in the back of my head I must have known neither profession was really my calling – I had neither the talent nor the affinity for research science once it got more complicated than the color separation of high school chromatography, and the closer I got to medical school the less I wanted to go. I don’t remember getting much guidance from Haverford officialdom – I seem to recall that the career planning office had proudly purchased a fancy computer program that inexplicably advised me and several of my friends to become podiatrists. But at some point I woke up and noticed that, despite majoring in biology, I was choosing to spend much of my time and energy on the Bi-College News. It was as much of a sign as I was going to get.
I credit a few professors with helping me find my way. Hortense Spillers, a Haverford English professor who drew me into her classroom because of our shared passion for Faulkner, forced me to develop focus and speed by demanding frequent but very short argumentative papers. Bob Washington, a Bryn Mawr sociologist, infected me with his enthusiasm for observing and thinking about trends in human society. But mostly I benefited from the encouragement of the two editors who preceded me at the helm of the Bi-College News, Caroline Nason, Bryn Mawr ’84, who fostered my love for the craft of newspaper writing, and Penny Chang, Bryn Mawr ’85, whose reporting zeal and courage I am still trying to emulate. I was also fortunate to be a Haverford undergrad when Leonard Silk, a New York Times economics columnist, chose to start investing in Haverford journalists as a tribute to his son, Andy, a former Bi-College News editor who had died in 1981 at the age of 28. Leonard Silk helped in several ways, but most important was simply by introducing those of us who were at Haverford in the mid-’80s to two Philadelphia Inquirer reporters, Jane Eisner and Bill Marimow, who were mentors the likes of which I had never seen – they offered advice when we didn’t know how to handle a story and career counseling when we didn’t know how to find a job. And they modeled a level of professionalism and passion that made this career seem not only possible but also desirable.
I graduated with a bachelor of arts in biology, but immediately set about trying to find a job in newspapers. For five years, I covered local government and regional issues for the Patriot Ledger, in Quincy, Mass., starting out with the assignment of writing at least one story a day about a town with one traffic light and the world’s largest cranberry bog. Then I went to South Texas, covering presidential and local politics for the San Antonio Light for 15 months before losing my job when that newspaper closed. For seven years, I reported for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, covering city hall, state government in Olympia, and the federal government in Washington, D.C. But always I wanted to come back to Boston to work for my hometown paper, and when a friend at the paper called to say the religion job was open and to suggest it might be a good fit for me, I jumped at the opportunity.
In nearly 17 years since I graduated from Haverford, I’ve covered a lot of dramatic and important stories – a white man who set off a furor in Boston by falsely blaming a black man for the murder of his pregnant wife, a sexual harassment allegation that brought down a governor in Washington state, the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the trial of Microsoft. But I have never been involved with a story that has resonated so deeply, so immediately, and so persistently with readers. Nearly three-quarters of metropolitan Boston is at least nominally Catholic, and the church has long been one of the most influential institutions in the state. But from the moment of publication of that very first story about Father Geoghan, our readers have let loose with fury, sadness, and pain. Everywhere I go, people want to talk about this story, regardless of their religion, their age, or their newspaper-reading habits. They call, and write, and, some even show up at our offices. But mostly they e-mail. I’ve received thousands of e-mails from readers all over the world, many of them quite emotional, filled with personal stories of anger and betrayal, of hurt and hope. Some readers have become regular correspondents – often I don’t even know their names, but every few days or weeks, they send me a note to tell me they’re following my stories on the Internet, and want to share their thoughts. Some are quite vitriolic, others very kind, and many express passionately held beliefs about faith, leadership, morality, sexuality, and spirituality.
There seems to be something about the ease and impersonality of cybercommunication that facilitates a kind of reductionist, and often hostile, use of language. My e-mail address runs at the bottom of my stories, giving readers ready access to my computer, and forcing me to develop a much thicker skin. The majority of my correspondents have praised the Globe for its work, sometimes in extraordinarily generous terms. But a vocal minority frequently objects, either to individual stories, turns of phrase, or to the reportage as a whole. Some readers seem to view printed discussion of certain controversies – such as the role of women in the church – as evidence of bigotry, and the Globe’s sustained coverage of sex abuse is viewed by them as a form of ideologically driven persecution. I received e-mail messages that were filled with invective – “Go fuck yourself, bigot,’’ is a prime example – as well as some that were cleverer. One correspondent put in the subject line of his e-mail: “You’re either a Anti-Catholic bigot or an idiot...’’ and then in the text box he declared, “…and given that you work for the Globe, there’s a very good chance you’re both.”
Perhaps the most sensitive issue for readers seems to be the question of whether homosexuality played a role in this crisis. The Globe has several times reported that the preponderance of victims who have come forward are adolescent boys, and that most experts believe there is a higher percentage of gay men in the priesthood than in the general population. But we have also reported that experts agree that there is no link between homosexuality and child abuse. The e-mail on this subject can be quite tough. “Why don’t you tell the truth – that the sex scandal in the church is homosexual behavior by gay priests,’’ one reader asked me. “You are a captive of the gay rights lobby like the rest of the politically correct Globe.’’ The Catholic Church teaches that homosexuality is “objectively disordered,” and a significant fraction of the e-mail I receive seems to reflect the impact of such teaching. A California man wrote me to express concern about his own parish priest, saying, “We have an openly gay, or fruit, call them what you will. I will not let my 11-year-old son alone with him for 5 seconds…I see no reason…to take a chance. I have faith in God – the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost – but not in my parish priest.’’ On the other hand, the editor of a gay travel magazine has been writing me, questioning the basis for a portion of the crisis. “Why are “abuse” and “molestation” bandied about to describe mutually desired activity?’’ he asks. “Sex puritans have trouble admitting that adolescents can want and pursue sex – they need not be “molested” or “abused” in order to have sex.’’ I never know quite how to respond to these sentiments, but mostly I do so through my work, by trying to use a heightened awareness of the extraordinarily broad range of views of the church’s plight to remind me always to be fair and even-handed.
The last time I saw Cardinal Law was Dec. 16, three days after he stepped down as archbishop of Boston. I was seated, along with a handful of other reporters, at another grand conference table in Brighton, this one at a church library just down the hill from the mansion. The cardinal, standing beneath a crucifix in an otherwise unadorned room, stunned the gathered news media by declaring, before launching into his prepared remarks, “I take this opportunity, too, to thank you for your courtesy during these years.” The comment was so unexpected, and the roar of camera shutters so loud, that there was actually a debate over what he said, and to this day some reporters insist the cardinal said “thank you for your criticism.”
The Globe itself has been criticized, in a variety of ways, over the course of this extraordinary story. Just a few days after the first story broke, a priest who worked as an aide to Cardinal Law e-mailed me to object to the amount of space – four pages – that the Globe had devoted to reporting on a key set of documents released by the court. “This is incredibly heavy-handed and out of proportion to the coverage that this story deserves,’’ the priest wrote. We did not agree – and neither did our readers, who, when polled on the question, said they found the amount of coverage to be about right.
A year later, a small group of victims complained that we paid too little attention to women victims, and declared, in a statement I still find difficult to comprehend, that “hostility toward survivors has been the most consistent feature of (the Globe’s) coverage since the scandal broke.’’ Our coverage did focus on male victims, but not exclusively so, and our focus was guided by the reality that every scholar and lawyer we interviewed, as well as our own reporting, found that the vast majority of known victims are male.
In the world of media criticism, Peter Steinfels, a former religion reporter for the New York Times, was nearly alone in his persistent critique of the sex-abuse story in general and the Globe’s coverage in particular. He began in February 2002 with a column in the New York Times in which he seemed to defend the church, writing “By and large, Cardinal Law seems to have succeeded” in removing abusive priests from ministry after adopting a new policy in 1993. But that argument quickly crumbled – within months of Steinfels’ column, Law, under immense public pressure, had ousted 27 priests who were still serving in 2002, despite facing allegations of abuse. (Three have since been restored to duty after the church decided the accusations were not credible.)
In April, Steinfels wrote in Commonweal, a Catholic magazine, that “Horrid facts have been mixed with half-truths, half understood,’’ and then in September, he reiterated his concerns in The Tablet, a British Catholic journal, writing, “After months of media blitz most Americans, including normally well-informed Catholics, have a similarly skewed, or at least very imprecise, understanding of the clerical sex scandal which erupted in January – not of the terrible nature of the misconduct itself but of its exact scope, the time frame when it largely occurred, the legal issues involved, and the record of how different bishops handled it at different times.’’ I have no idea how Steinfels could know what most Americans think – I have not seen polling on this question – but his criticism echoed that offered by Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who declared in June, “During these last months, the image of the Catholic hierarchy in this country has been distorted to an extent which I would not have thought possible six months ago.” Our response is simple: our coverage has been fair and complete. If bishops have been damaged by the crisis, which they certainly have, that damage is self-inflicted. We have been quite clear that much of the reported abuse took place in the 1970s and 1980s, and we have discussed how bishops responded, or failed to respond, in great detail. And, we believe, the results of our reportage speaks for itself: the bishops themselves have acknowledged by their actions that until the Globe started writing about this issue, more than 400 priests who were alleged abusers were still working in parishes in the U.S.; that the church had no national policy for preventing or responding to the sexual abuse of minors; that bishops routinely declined to report alleged abusers to law enforcement; and that secrecy was often a higher priority than safety.
A few critics have gone to amazing rhetorical lengths in their desire to criticize our work. Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, who is considered a possible successor to Pope John Paul II, accused the Globe and other American papers of “persecution of the church,’’ telling an Italian monthly in June that the U.S. media had behaved with “a fury which reminds me of the times of Diocletian and Nero and, more recently, Stalin and Hitler.” And Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard Law School professor with close ties to Cardinal Law and John Paul II, delivered to several audiences around the world a speech in which she denounced the Globe for “creating a climate of hysteria.’’ In a version delivered in Rome last November, she declared, “All I can say is that if fairness and accuracy have anything to do with it, awarding the Pulitzer Prize to the Boston Globe would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.”
Comparisons to Hitler and bin Laden hardly seem to dignify a response, except for the fact that they come from a top cardinal and a Harvard law school professor. Perhaps Rodriguez and Glendon should consider the words of Rev. Andrew Greeley, who in June wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, “No one in the media donned a clerical collar and abused a child or a minor. No one in the media reassigned a habitual child abuser. In fact, if the Boston Globe had not told the story of the church’s horrific failures in Boston, the abuse would have gone right on. There would have been no crisis, no demand from the laity that the church cut out this cancer of irresponsibility, corruption and sin, and no charter for the protection of children. The Globe did the church an enormous favor.”
Some church officials seem to agree, although the sincerity of their remarks is up for debate. Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, the vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told me, “A boil has been lanced, and I do feel strongly that this is a time of grace for us, as painful and difficult as this moment is. The fact is that the pain and the hurt were there, under the surface, for those who have been carrying around this for years, and opening this up helps us to minister to that situation as best we can, and begin the process of healing and reconciliation. It’s an opportune moment for us to address the issue, and it’s a grace and an aid as we look to the future.” And Pope John Paul II made a similar point last April, declaring, “We must be confident that this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community, a purification that is urgently needed (if the Church is to preach more effectively the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its liberating force).”
My relationship with top church officials, which I had worked hard to build, has unquestionably been damaged by this story. In all sorts of ways, church officials have tried to stymie the Globe’s reporting, through direct obstruction, such as resisting the release of court documents, and through criticism, suggesting that the story is overblown. In June, just before the bishops were to meet, the bishops’ conference invited numerous religion reporters to a briefing about their draft plan, but the conference decided not to invite the Globe, claiming there wasn’t space in the room for us. After I complained, they offered to let me listen by speakerphone, but that wasn’t enough for us, so we decided to ignore the briefing, found someone who agreed to leak us a copy of the document, and ran a story in the paper the day the briefing was to be held. The bishops conference was livid and promised to punish the Globe – a spokesman declared in an e-mail to me “the Globe shows a complete lack of accommodation…which will have to be factored into our future dealings.’’ So when the bishops met in Dallas, I was barred from the room in which the bishops sat. I was able to watch on closed-circuit TV. Some of my colleagues were generous enough to help me get the documents and description I was denied, so my only real punishment was that I had to snack on pretzels, rather than the Dove bars supplied to those reporters who hadn’t incurred the bishops’ wrath.
Later that day, the Globe, along with each of the other six Boston news organizations that had sent crews to Dallas, was offered a five-minute interview with Cardinal Law – the first time he and I would exchange more than a greeting since our phone conversation just after his birthday seven months earlier. We met in an office suite at the Fairmont Hotel, and I spent my five minutes asking about his plans – he insisted he would not resign – and his thoughts about what had gone wrong. At the end of our brief conversation, as I rose to leave, the cardinal seemed to want to talk some more. He asked me to tell him what I knew about a deadly car bombing that day outside a U.S. consulate in Karachi; he had spent that day in meetings and hadn’t had time to watch the news. And, then, as I turned to go, he said to me, “Michael, I wish we were back in Israel together.’’ A kind wish for a more peaceful time, perhaps, when he and I could talk about anything other than clergy sexual abuse. But an odd wish, too. The Middle East was in the middle of its own violent crisis, not exactly a place for a peaceful retreat, even for an embattled archbishop. And stranger still is that it was a mistaken memory: Cardinal Law had been accompanied to the Holy Land by a Globe reporter years before, but it wasn’t me. In the end, for Cardinal Law and me, there would be no peaceful journey.