Michael Sweeney (second from right, pointing) expresses his opinion as he stands with fellow victims of sexual abuse during a press conference in October 2002 in Lowell, Massachusetts, after meeting with Cardinal Bernard F. Law. Photo by David Kamerman/The Boston Globe.

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.

Cardinal Bernard F. Law reads a statement of apology in November 2002 before Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Photo By Tom Herde/The Boston Globe.

Getting Church Documents

Like many major stories, this one began with a trek, without high expectations, down one narrow path—a wellworn 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.” Until Martin Baron moved from The Miami Herald into the Globe editor’s chair on July 30, 2001, it was a job you could do and still get home for dinner.

Baron was fresh from a state where just about everything is public record. So, almost immediately, Baron expressed curiosity about a fresh legal admission by the cardinal’s lawyer that was buried in a court filing. In 1984, Law had transferred the Rev. John J. Geoghan to a new parish knowing that he had molested children. The new editor wanted to know why all of the church documents turned over to a lawyer representing Geoghan’s victims were under a court-imposed confidentiality seal. The answer: The church’s lawyers had asked for the protective order.

Within days, Baron made two decisions. First, he asked the newspaper’s attorney, Jonathan M. Albano, to file a motion asking the court to lift the confidentiality seal, on grounds that the public’s right to know about the issue outweighed the Catholic Church’s privacy claim. The second decision was to ask the Spotlight Team—me and reporters Matt Carroll, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Michael Rezendes—to take a look at the Geoghan case and how one priest could have accumulated so many victims in six different parishes before being removed in 1993.

This was a tall order. The Boston archdiocese, like every arm of the Catholic Church, had long been secretive about its inner workings. In 1992, when the Globe aggressively reported on the case of James R. Porter, a pedophile priest who had more than 100 victims in the adjoining Fall River diocese, Cardinal Law denounced the news coverage. At one point, he called down the “power of God” on the media, and especially the Globe.

Baron had given us—dare I say it?—the assignment from hell: A newspaper’s investigative team pointed at the city’s—any city’s—preeminent sacred cow. How do you get at a story that no one within the church would discuss? How do you breach an institution that has neither the obligation nor the inclination to make its records public nor discuss how it operates?

Until then, the Geoghan case had received modest news coverage, often accompanied by adamant church assurances that his was an isolated instance of a single aberrant priest. Only Kristen Lombardi at the weekly Boston Phoenix had written extensively about Geoghan’s victims and their belief that the church knew more than it had admitted.

If that was so, how to prove it? We started by interviewing everyone we could think of who knew anything about the Geoghan case. We called lawyers, known victims, prosecutors, the small circle of people who had studied the issue of clergy sexual abuse. Within a week, we had learned precious little about Geoghan that was new. But we came across something unexpected. Geoghan, we were told, was the tip of a very large iceberg, anomalous mainly because his crimes had become public. During the 1990’s, we learned, the Boston archdiocese secretly settled claims by victims of a “large number” of other priests. Lawyers—on both sides—called the settlements “hush money.” How many priests? We did not know. The people we talked to would not say. Perhaps a dozen, maybe 15, we thought. It seemed incredible.

Baron and Ben Bradlee, Jr., the deputy managing editor for projects, were alerted to what we had been told. We were ordered to launch a full investigation. Albano filed his motion and then argued it on September 6, 2001 in a Springfield courtroom before Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney, a product of 16 years of Catholic education. The only reporter in the courtroom was Mike Rezendes from Spotlight.

The following day, September 7, I was given in confidence the names of more than 30 priests in the Boston archdiocese whose cases had been secretly settled by the church during the 1990’s—without the lawyers for the victims ever having to walk into a courtroom. Soon, we made contact with victims of Geoghan and other priests, most notably the Rev. Paul R. Shanley and the Rev. Ronald H. Paquin. Both men had accumulated numerous victims during their years in the Boston archdiocese. Reporter Pfeiffer learned how Shanley, a well-known street priest during the 1970’s, lured troubled teenagers into counseling sessions and then molested them. One of Paquin’s many victims, she learned, died in a car crash with Paquin behind the wheel after a night of drinking.

A press conference in the law office of Mitchell Garabedian, right, on the day Cardinal Law resigned. Several clients are with him, victims of priest sexual abuse. William Oberle is at the microphone, while Patrick McSorley collects his thoughts. Photo by George Rizer/The Boston Globe.

Following a Church Roadmap

We had faces and voices. But we struggled for ways to quantify the extent of the abuse and the church’s efforts to hide it. That is where the church, unwittingly, provided us with a roadmap: Its annual directories list every priest and his parish or administrative assignment. But they listed other categories, too, where we knew priests like Geoghan, Shanley and Paquin were placed after the church finally lost patience with their sexual misbehavior. “Sick leave” was the most common. But there were others, like “awaiting assignment,” “clergy personnel office,” and “unassigned.”

Using nearly two decades of the directories, we set out to determine how many priests were in “on the shelf” categories. We combed the directories and plucked out the name of any priest who had ever been in any of those categories. Then, going book by book, the team’s computer-assisted reporting specialist, Carroll, entered his entire assignment record into a spreadsheet.

This work was tedious and took several weeks. Here is what we discovered:

  • In the mid-1980’s, there were usually about two dozen priests in all those categories combined in any one year, out of more than 1,000 priests.
  • By the mid-1990’s, after the church had begun to pay secret settlements and quietly remove offending priests from parishes, the number shot up to more than 100 priests.

In this database, we found the names of most of the 30 priests who had been identified to us in September. When the scandal broke in January and we were inundated with calls from victims eager to identify priests who molested them, we found many of the abusers’ names in our original database.

Searching Court Records

We also combed through a state trial court database, looking for cases in which victims had filed lawsuits. That led to the identities of other accused priests. Then we assembled a list of every attorney we knew who had handled a sexual abuse complaint, the cardinal’s lawyers included. From the courts, we obtained docket numbers of all civil cases those lawyers had handled since the late 1980’s. Among the hundreds of docket numbers, we found other lawsuits that had never been reported.

In some instances, we plugged in a docket number and the computer gave us a brusque response: No information available on that case. Suspicious, we went to courthouses in Suffolk and Middlesex counties and asked for files. We were told we could not have them. The judges in those cases had ordered all the records impounded. It was as if the lawsuits had never been filed.

Early in 2002, the Globe won court victories in both counties lifting those impoundment orders. The records showed that church lawyers were eager to have the files sealed. The lawyers for the victims, just as eager to get their settlements and the one-third or greater share they took as their fee, were all too willing to go along. And so were the judges.

Some of the offending priests unwittingly identified themselves. We knew the archdiocese warehoused many of its sexual predators at a mansion the church owned in suburban Milton. More than a dozen of those priests had obligingly listed themselves on the town’s annual census. Last year, the archdiocese even had to remove the director and counselor at the facility. Both men had been accused of molesting minors.

In November 2001, Judge Sweeney ruled on the Globe motion in the Geoghan case. She lifted the seal and ordered all the documents filed with the court. The archdiocese, shocked by the decision, appealed her decision to the state Appeals Court. In December, a single justice upheld the order.

With those documents set for release in January, Spotlight shifted gears. We had voluminous evidence about other priests, but we knew the Geoghan files would be explosive when the 10,000 pages became public in late January. We prepared a two-part Geoghan series for early January. Even without the 10,000 pages, we had already discovered, in public court files, documents that contained strong evidence of the Geoghan cover-up, and Law’s involvement in it. There was even a letter from an auxiliary bishop advising Law not to make that fateful 1984 assignment.

Geoghan always loomed large. His case was public. He had scores of victims. He was facing criminal charges. And, surely, the reporting about him was a serious blow to the church. But it was the extent of the abuse, the large number of priests involved, and the church’s preoccupation with keeping it secret that shook the Catholic Church to its core.

The Archdiocese Responds

The archdiocese, sensing what we had, tried a little intimidation. On December 13, 2001, Wilson D. Rogers, Jr., Law’s lead attorney, wrote to Albano, our attorney from the law firm of Bingham Dana. “It has been brought to my attention that certain reporters of your client, The Boston Globe, have been making inquiry of a number of priests of the Archdiocese of Boston regarding these cases,” Rogers wrote. He went on to state that our questioning was based on the secret court files and that we were violating court rules by doing so. In fact, we didn’t get those particular files for another month. But some documents were already a part of the voluminous public file. “In the event that The Boston Globe in any way further disseminates these materials, either by way of inquiry or publication, I will seek appropriate sanctions against both your client and Bingham Dana,” Rogers warned.

Albano ignored the threat. So did Globe editors. And after the avalanche of news stories began in January, Rogers never asked the court for sanctions. The story quickly developed so many tentacles that the Globe doubled the corps of reporters assigned to it, adding religion reporter Michael Paulson and investigative reporters Stephen Kurkjian, Kevin Cullen, and Thomas Farragher.

On January 31, 2002, after three weeks of damning disclosures about Geoghan, the Globe reported that the archdiocese had secretly settled sexual abuse claims against “at least” 70 other priests in the previous 10 years. No one from the archdiocese took issue with that report. Small wonder: Now, after 14 months of unending disclosures on our pages, all too many with the word “yesterday” in the lead, the number of accused priests is more than double that initial number.

Lessons Journalists Learned

All of us, reporters and readers alike across the country, have learned a lot about the Catholic Church since January 2002. Now that many of the scandal’s headlines have moved off Page One, it’s time for journalists to consider what we’ve learned about what we do. Though we are still caught up in a story producing fresh disclosures, the experience has been an invigorating refresher course, a reminder of some basic journalistic principles.

Some are obvious. We afflict the comfortable from time to time, or so they believe. But we’re not so good at comforting the afflicted. There are people in pain, with grievances long ignored. They have no voice but the one we provide them. Each of the victims of priests who had the courage to step forward is a reminder to all of us.

After months of reporting, we knew something else by the time we broke the story—how little we knew. So we asked for help. Starting with the first story we published, we ran an accompanying box asking readers for information. Hundreds of victims responded, and it was their accounts—some of which had never even been shared with family members—that propelled the story forward. If we had waited for the church’s response, we would never have printed a word. Just before we published our first story, the spokeswoman for the Boston archdiocese told us that the cardinal was not even interested in knowing our questions.

If the church’s most embarrassing secrets can be exposed, there surely must be ways to retrieve information from other institutions. Even the most secretive of organizations have soft underbellies. Recent scandals involving the United Way and the American Red Cross also remind us of something else: Not nearly all of the wrongdoing we should be looking for is confined to government agencies and for-profit, parasitic companies like Enron.

In a story of this magnitude, there is no substitute for documents to prove a case. We found some on our own. But the fruits of the Globe’s decision to go to court suggest there is a powerful incentive for other news organizations to do the same when the public interest is at stake in civil lawsuits. Judge Sweeney agreed, and her ruling became the basis for her subsequent decision ordering the public disclosure of records on scores of other priests. Confidential settlements, and not just in clergy abuse cases, have kept matters of enormous public importance hidden from the public, with the risk that more people will be injured as nothlong as secrecy prevails.

For some of us at the Globe, the most important lesson is one we are still learning. It’s about the institutions that mean so much to the life of the community. Most newspaper editors, no matter the size of the city, know that the Catholic Church and other religious, charitable and cultural institutions expect to receive respectful coverage. And most often, they deserve it—whether or not the publisher sits on an institution’s board.

When we began publishing this story, we steeled ourselves for an onslaught of criticism from Catholics we thought would be upset at reports of corruption in the chancery. But no serious criticism materialized. Save for a few nicks, the messenger escaped unscathed. Despite the trauma prompted by months of revelations, Catholics directed their anger at the church. Most Catholics, including some long-time critics of the Globe, are grateful the crimes have been exposed and for the opportunity to help their church heal.

If that reaction suggests anything, it is this: Especially in our coverage of our most respected institutions we, as journalists, should not check our skepticism at the door. The institutions might chafe at the tough questions. But our readers expect us to ask them.

Walter V. Robinson is editor of The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team. The Globe’s reporting on the church scandal won a 2002 George Polk Award. In 30 years at the Globe, Robinson has covered local and national politics, the White House, and the Middle East. In the mid- 1990’s, he was city editor and then metropolitan editor.

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