Crying in the Dark: The Spotlight Team on the Boston Archdiocese's Sexual Abuse Crisis

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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.

There are the future families of the victims, how will a wife of an abused man deal with the information when it finally comes spilling out of him one night at the dinner table? How will it affect their marriage? How will it affect their children, their faith?

There were the lawyers, some who made money creating a cottage industry out of the silent pay offs the church provided in exchange for legal gag orders and silence. Still, some of these lawyers were once hoping for justice but again; much like many of the victims, their angry flames blown out by the cold and calculated actions of powerful parishioners. There are the journalists who must maintain their ethics and professionalism in the face of underhanded misdeeds worsened by constant cover-ups provided by the expansive arms of the church.

Remaining is the church, its employed and its followers. While there are those who knew and maintained intimate knowledge of the crimes, still there were those who did not. Those who knew and allowed innocent children to be treated in this unthinkable way deserve to be punished. But what of the faithful followers?

The Spotlight staff was well aware of the stakeholders and took this into consideration. They decided that they must be faultless. This entire story must be handled very carefully and its victims treated with the utmost respect.

Enter Phil Saviano.

Saviano is a survivor and to this day serves as the leader of New England SNAP. It was Saviano’s willingness to comply with Spotlight reporters that began the dialogue between victims and the Globe. He presented the Globe with not only his personal story but educated them about the existence of SNAP as well as many other educated and helpful sources. Saviano served as a battering ram, explaining the desperation and necessity of coverage regarding this issue. He helped lead reporters to additional victims who were willing to talk.

The problem that the Globe faced at this point was the silence. The lawyers weren’t willing to talk, citing that confidentiality agreements had been signed and everything had been handled outside of court and therefore was private information. Spotlight had an ethical decision to make here. As reporters it is their duty to give voice to the voiceless, to seek the truth and report it however, with gag orders in place and the lawsuit still pending to unseal the remaining documents, this was a challenge.

Rezendes was able to start a conversation with lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian. Garabedian spearheaded the Geoghan case; a case which many lawyers had their doubts would ever come to fruition. But, Garabedian was determined to fight for the victims and during this time represented over 130 clients fighting the church.

Spotlight was working within a virtue or care-based ideal to shine a light. It was their duty. The repeated question asked by survivors and lawyers alike was always the same: “why did it take you so long?” and “where were you?” Sometimes the questions are part of the answer. With these questions we see how important it was for the people of Boston to be supported by their news media to tell their story at a time when even the police were silent. They saw the media as a savior in a sense. When Saviano came to the Globe for a conference, he himself asked that question of the staffers. When refugees fleeing Syria were lucky enough to start making it to the Greek islands amidst the sinking bodies of the dead surrounding them...they asked the same question. “Why did it take you so long?” This is what I am calling the Savior Complex.  When no one else will listen, only the media has the power to bring the darkness into the light. When children die and no one speaks of it, the media can help heal with cameras and headlines by giving validation to the victims. When no one else can help, an Edward Snowden can reach out for assistance and if the needy are lucky, a Poitras or a Pfeiffer will answer.

While it was right to tell the whole world of the horrific crimes these mad men had committed and how their counterparts cleverly used church power and money to cover up their abuse of innocent children, it was also right to cater to the weakest this case, the victims and their families. It would have been easy to release information as it had become available, cutting off any other media outlet from grasping the story first but this would have been self-serving and therefore violate journalistic ethics.

There is an ethical dilemma combination in play here. On one hand, you have justice versus mercy; this is an obvious choice. This damning information must be published, the world must know the truth but it must be done so carefully, as to minimize harm to those who are already wounded. The other in regards to the journalists, is short-term versus long-term in that it was essential for Spotlight staffers to remain as calm as possible under the circumstances and pull together a solid, comprehensive investigation that was faultless in order to take on the church as well as do service to the victims.

The team decided to walk the narrow path. SPJ reminds us to minimize harm and to: “show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent.” This is what they did.

Using only the names of the victims who freely volunteered their information and with Saviano and Garabedian as guides...the Spotlight staff interviewed as many victims as possible. Explaining their reasoning and how the story would likely be laid out when necessary, they maintained transparency to the victims involved in the information gathering process. This practice clearly demonstrates a care-based ethic as well as mercy in the face of the necessity of justice.
Ethicist Jack Marshall also mentioned something interesting when discussing the Spotlight team’s work on this case. In a bulleted document he brought up this: “Journalism ethics: the business of journalism’s conflict with the duty of journalists to find and publicize the truth; how ambition, personal biases and non-professional concerns can warp perspective and performance.”

This dilemma point could fall under individual versus community but I feel the team combated this issue because they waited until they had all the documents, proof and statements they needed to create a clear, concise picture of the crimes committed by the Catholic Church and the cover-ups that had become commonplace before publishing. This is how they maintained integrity in a very difficult case. This allowed them to follow the guiding principles of journalism without issue because by stuffing down their very human need to shout it from the rooftops, they were instead able to present a completed case in which the Boston populace could read, understand and begin to digest.

The lawyers involved had to make a difficult decision on truth versus loyalty. Marshall mentions them when he said in regards to this case; “the duty of lawyers to represent clients, confidentiality, and when, if ever, human ethics require the breaching of professional ethics.” In this case, they did and thankfully some information was made available for use to the Spotlight team. The actions of Garabedian made it possible for the team to get real proof that the molestations were continuing unfettered. Garabedian displayed the utmost ethical example of what John Fletcher Moulton called the “obedience to the unenforceable.” While a law tells a person what their minimum obligation is to society or, what not to do...ethics tells a person what they should do...or what their maximum potential could be.


The Boston Globe Spotlight team in 2001, faced an unbelievable Goliath. This Goliath had never been challenged before and was used to getting his way. It took a lot of time, patience, empathy and many Davids to pull the rug out from under Goliath’s boots. While they were able to accomplish this in a professional, legal and profound way; I am sad to say their Goliath did get back up.

SNAP is more active today than it was in 2001, mainly thanks to the Spotlight team breaking the code of silence that had blanketed the country. However, the activity of the network has only gone to prove that while these atrocities may have been uncovered, they remain for the most part, in place and relatively unchanged. A quick check on the SNAP Network’s website shows a very active Action Network and some rather depressing information. David Clohessy, the acting director of SNAP in 2015, has posted criticisms of the current pope, as well as many other church officials. Three bishops stepped down just this year in connection with current sex abuse cover-ups although Clohessy says this wasn’t even a drop in the bucket. When asked if it was encouraging that Pope Francis has “done more” about the abuse crisis than his predecessors, Clohessy had this to say:

“First, we should judge church officials NOT by what their terrible predecessors did but by what responsible officials would do. It's little comfort to a girl who's been raped under Francis to say "Well, under Benedict, there might have been an even smaller chance of your predator being ousted."

Neither Benedict nor Francis has exposed a single child molesting cleric or really punished a single complicit church official. They've made lots of reassuring talk but taken little meaningful action.”

There is no safe place in this world for the weak. There is no magical place behind stone and wooden doors that will open to heaven. A child’s innocence is fleeting and every single living being must stand alone. There is however, strong and noble stewards who can help shield the weak from the winds of the harsh world. In the midst of unimaginable pain, there are loving and open arms on the other side of the wooden door of a loving family’s home. Lost innocence can either be spiraled into madness or empathy and sometimes, holding someone's all they really need to shout at a bully.

So, to this day Goliath lives on. But if the 2001 Spotlight team taught us anything, let it be that many Davids coupled with ethical journalistic integrity and a lot of courage, can and will shine a light into the darkness, even when no one wants to see what is hiding there.

This paper is respectfully dedicated to the victims who lost their lives and the families who miss them.

The Globe's "courageous, comprehensive coverage of sexual abuse by priests ... pierced secrecy, stirred local, national and international reaction and produced changes in the Roman Catholic Church." Pulitzer Board - accessed 11/28/15

The main wikipedia page where I’m able to link to other information such as Pulitzer Prize links etc. I used this page to begin to understand what the Boston Globe is and how it works. I have never before read anything published by this newspaper nor was I previously aware of its existence. So, before I could understand, I had to learn more about the newspaper itself. : accessed 11/29/15 - 12/1/15

Snap network’s site offers a lot of really great information directly from the mouths of the victims, their lawyers and those involved. Here are some bios on the people involved.

Ethics Alarms :accessed 11/30/15 - 12/1/15  This ethicist brought up some intersting points and it was nice to read someone elses thoughts on this who had experience both in journalism and ethics.
Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests

: accessed 11/29/15 - 12/1/15

Snap’s in depth information into how pope francis is supporting the sex scandal cover ups still.

This information I used to show progress or lack thereof in promised policy changes brought on by the new administration and highlighted by the Pope’s recent visit to the United States.

Pulitzer Prize Public Service : accessed 11/29/15 - 12/1/15

Pulitzer organization with information on judging etc includes links under “works” to every articled included in the Betrayal Expose. This was very helpful not only to assist in keeping the articles in line but also to help understand the impact this team had on their profession.

Forbes Magazine : accessed 11/29/15 - 12/1/15

Forbes provided reliable and accurate financial data on the church and its many charities. It highlighted how much the church contributes to the public but also how much money it takes in. It shows in both article form and infographic form that the church is a multi-billion dollar operation.

New York Review of Books accessed 12/1/15

This article discusses predator priests as predators and the idea of how a few bad apples is not what is going on here. It discussed the importance of priestly pedophilia being different from all other forms because it involves religion and faith.

Columbia University Case Study Constortium case study information from Columbia University

This was helpful to help sort through the timeline of events. With so much information written and published at different times by different people, it became difficult to be sure that these were lined up in a way that made sense and this site was helpful for this.  

Boston Globe : accessed 11/29/15 - 12/1/15Excerpted from Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church, published by Little, Brown and Company. “Law was known for rigid adherence to church teachings and for traditionalism on social issues like abortion, which he called the “primordial darkness of our time.” He made national headlines when he forbade a girl with a wheat allergy from using a rice cracker during communion.”

Spotlight - Viewed 11/28/15

The film itself should be mentioned as an emotional guide and overall resource for this emotionally driven topic. It assisted me, after initially reading about Geoghan exactly how big this case was/is and helped me to begin to understand the emotional scope of the crimes.

Boston Globe - accessed 11/28/15 - 12/1/15

Boston Globe story exposing length of abuse, explained the initial issue and enters the reader into the beginning of Betrayal. accessed 11/29/15 only

TIMELINE to be included in paper as an embedded link giving the exact links to documents filed on timeline. I did not end up using this as I felt it could take away from the seriousness of the words themselves, however I opted to leave it here because its information was helpful to again, begin to comprehend the scope and the level of betrayal at work here. - accessed 11/28/15- 12/1/15

Poor children preference Psych data, explains connection of poor families with struggles and boys shame connection with keeping silent. accessed 11/29/15

Database of accused clergy. - accessed 11/28/15

article highlights the real reporters behind the movie and was helpful to read before I saw the film, I also printed this page and took it with me to the film in an attempt to understand what was happening in the storyline while keeping a handle on who the reporters actually were in real life.

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